Asthma's practically an epidemic -- but holistic treatments can help you catch your breath.
Take a deep breath -- if you can -- and ponder this: You might have asthma and not even realize it. "It's been estimated that about 30 percent of asthma cases go undiagnosed," says James Sublett, M.D., an allergist at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). One of the most common chronic diseases in the United States, asthma often shows up as a recurring cough, bronchitis, or severe allergies, so patients and doctors don't always connect the dots. Rates of the respiratory disorder have jumped 75 percent over where they were three decades ago, affecting 9 percent of women -- many of whom are in the dark because they haven't yet been hit by a serious attack. Those who have been diagnosed with asthma are often put on drugs such as corticosteroids and leukotriene inhibitors. They reduce airway swelling or block immune-system chemicals, respectively, but corticosteroids are associated with throat irritation and yeast infections, and neither drug does much to prevent future attacks.
The increase in cases has inspired new research, much of which indicates that asthma isn't just congenital, as was once thought. Rather, it's likely that the spike has been influenced by "environmental exposures or lifestyle differences that have occurred in the past 50 years," such as the growing use of industrial chemicals, says David Peden, M.D., director of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology. Pollution is another likely culprit. A 2008 study published by University of California-Berkeley researchers reported that children who grew up in homes exposed to traffic pollution were significantly more likely than other kids to develop asthma.
All these (plus other modern menaces, like expanding waistlines) instigate far more system-wide inflammation than our bodies can take. In the airways, inflammation tightens the surrounding muscles, reducing the amount of air that is able to pass in and out. This can trigger an attack in people who are prone to asthma but otherwise may have gone along without so much as a wheeze.
At the same time, we may be too clean for our own good. The "hygiene hypothesis" posits (somewhat controversially) that all our compulsive hand-washing with antibacterial soap and obsession with hand sanitizers fails to expose us to key bacteria in childhood that provide our bodies with what Peden calls "immunological exercise" -- in short, the immune system overreacts and attacks allergens that it normally would have left alone, resulting in asthma.
So what to do? First, if you suffer from breathing difficulties, recurring coughs, or persistent bronchitis, get an evaluation: See a respiratory specialist or be tested for free at a screening location organized by the ACAAI (acaai.org). Next, take care of yourself. Whether you have mild breathing issues or full-blown asthma, you may benefit from a holistic approach that can minimize inflammation and symptoms to the point where you may rarely, if ever, suffer an attack. (If you're already on medication, talk to your doctor before cutting back, even if you experience fewer attacks by following these steps.)
Identify and Avoid Your Triggers
Asthma is a type of allergic reaction that causes airway constriction, so the very things that cause allergy attacks -- pet dander, dust, mold -- may prime your system for an asthma episode. "The persistent exposure to something you're allergic to keeps irritation in your airways," Peden says, making them "always ready to overreact." See a board-certified allergist and get a skin or blood test to identify what can set off an attack, then try to avoid it.
Try Allergy Shots
Delivering small amounts of common asthma triggers, allergy shots help train the immune system to tolerate these irritants. Many people don't realize that shots are actually a proven way to prevent asthma attacks, says Jacqueline Eghrari-Sabet, M.D., founder and medical director of Family Allergy & Asthma Care in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Shots should be administered only by a board-certified allergist.
Keep Off Extra Weight
"There's a huge link between obesity and asthma," says Eghrari-Sabet. Fat cells secrete chemicals like leptin that can aggravate airway inflammation. Besides, "when you carry more weight, you've got to work harder at lots of things, including breathing," Peden says, and "airborne particles deposit differently in the lungs of heavier people, so you may have more asthma episodes." Eat well and work out to stay within a healthy weight range, but avoid outdoor exercise when it's cold, as temperature shock can cause exercise-induced attacks.
Take Vitamin D and Magnesium
A January 2010 study published by scientists at the University of Colorado in Denver found that asthma symptoms worsened when subjects were deficient in D, and previous research has shown that people who don't get enough magnesium -- a mineral essential for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body -- are also more likely to develop asthma. Talk to your doctor about your blood-nutrient levels.
Cut Fat Intake
Foods high in saturated fat stoke inflammation, which "contributes to the constriction of the airways," says Lisa Wood, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist at the University of Newcastle in Australia. In a study being published this year, Wood gave asthmatic subjects either a meal including 48 percent fat or one with 15 percent fat. Four hours later, the high-fat eaters had more airway inflammation and were less responsive to asthma medications than the low-fat-eating volunteers. Adding more antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies to your diet can help mop up free radicals, reducing inflammation.
In a 2009 study, Indian researchers taught a combination of asana, pranayama, and kriya yoga techniques to 29 asthmatic adults. Eight weeks of almost daily deep breathing and stretching later, the participants experienced a significant improvement in lung function and became less dependent on medication compared with asthmatics who did not do yoga.
Keep Your Home Dry and Crumb-Free
Many people use humidifiers, hoping to ease asthma-induced coughs; but dust mites and mold thrive in humid air, Peden says. Use a dehumidifier to keep room humidity below 55 percent, as recommended by the ACAAI. An air purifier containing a HEPA filter could also help, but avoid those that release ozone, which can aggravate asthma symptoms. Finally, Peden says, always keep food stashed and trash cans covered: Cockroaches, a common asthma trigger, love food scraps. Don't let them leave you breathless.
Air Under Attack
When we were closing this issue in late January 2011, 123 members of Congress had cosponsored legislation intended to scale back the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws that protect air quality. Among other things, these bills would block the EPA from reducing the limits of allowable pollution -- a likely asthma cause -- released by industrial plants and other sources. Fight to protect the air we breathe by writing a letter to President Obama through the Natural Resources Defense Council: nrdc.org/action.