What Is Asthma?
During asthmatic episodes, or attacks, the body’s airways (bronchi and bronchioles, which deliver air to the lungs) overreact to pollen, cat dander, cigarette smoke, cold air, or other stimuli. The airway wall muscles begin to spasm, narrowing the opening and allowing less air to reach the lungs. An inflammatory response results in a rapid thickening of mucus, which further narrows the airway. An asthma attack may begin with wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath; suffocation can occur in rare cases.
Ask ten different allergists about the cause of asthma and you may get twenty different explanations. A nearly mind-boggling number of causes have been proposed: dust, dust mites, cockroaches, house mice, wall-towall carpeting, central heating, gas stoves, overly sealed (insulated) buildings, candida yeast infections, pollen, and food allergies. In addition, some people blame urban air pollution. While air pollution certainly can trigger asthmatic attacks, urban air pollution has generally declined, while the number of people with asthma has increased. The same pattern is true with secondhand cigarette smoke, which can increase the risk of asthma in children—but fewer people are smoking, and the rate of asthma continues to rise. Others point the finger at the widespread use of antibacterial cleansers or antibiotics, both of which might reduce routine exposures to bacteria and interfere with the normal programming of immune systems.
All of the above factors can trigger asthmatic reactions in sensitive people. So can a host of other factors, including exercise, cold air, aspirin, sulfites (a preservative used in wines, beers, and some salad bars), and tartrazine (a yellow coloring used in some foods and drugs). In addition, emotional stress can induce asthmatic reactions in some people, and being overweight predisposes some people to asthma.
Like a fish that does not realize it is living in polluted waters, many people with asthma and many allergists don’t understand that they are essentially swimming in a polluted diet. The modern diet, which is high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 and trans fatty acids and low in antioxidants, sets the stage for asthmatic reactions. In effect, asthma is one of many diseases of modern civilization and modern eating habits.
People with asthma tend to have higher than normal levels of free radicals, which stimulate inflammatory reactions and also indicate low intakes of antioxidant nutrients. Several studies have found that both children and adults have better lung function and are less likely to wheeze when they eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, the main dietary sources of antioxidants.
Breast-feeding also may reduce the risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. J. Stewart Forsyth, M.D., of Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, Scotland, noted in the British Medical Journal that “nutritional deficiencies at critical periods of fetal and infant growth may induce permanent changes in physiological function.”
Other research points to inadequate levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fish oils in the diet. A study of almost six hundred children by Ann J. Woolcock, M.D., of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Australia, found that those who regularly ate fresh fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids had one-fourth the risk of asthma, compared with children who ate little or no fish. In a separate article, Jennifer K. Peat, Ph.D., a colleague of Woolcock’s, noted that the increase of childhood asthma corresponded with a fivefold increase in the use of vegetable oils (rich in proinflammatory omega-6 fatty acids) and a shift to using margarine instead of butter. Similar changes have occured in New Zealand, England, and the United States.
How Common Is Asthma?
Asthma is the most common obstructive airway disease. Several decades ago, it was a rare respiratory disorder. Today it affects 17 million Americans, one-third of them children. Its prevalence in the United States has doubled since the 1970s, and African Americans and Hispanics experience particularly high rates of the disease. In Britain the incidence of asthma in children doubled during the 1990s.
Nutrients That Can Help
Several studies have shown that large amounts of antioxidant nutrients can greatly reduce the frequency and severity of asthmatic reactions. Herman A. Cohen, M.D., of Rabin Medical Center, Israel, gave 2 grams of vitamin C or a placebo to twenty men and women, ages seven to twentyeight, all with exercise-induced asthma. An hour after taking the vitamin or placebo, their lung function was measured as they walked or ran on a treadmill. Half of the patients had milder asthmatic reactions after taking the vitamin C, while those taking placebos experienced a significant decline in lung function.
Similarly, researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, gave vitamin E (400 IU) and vitamin C (500 mg) daily to patients with asthma who were exposed to ozone (an air pollutant) and asked to run on a treadmill. After taking the antioxidants, the patients tolerated the ozone and exercise with considerably less breathing difficulty and, sometimes, with improvements in lung function.
Two studies have found that the antioxidants beta-carotene and lycopene, found in vegetables and fruit, can ease asthmatic reactions. Ami Ben-Amotz, Ph.D., of Israel’s National Institute of Oceanography, and his colleagues measured lung function in thirty-eight people with asthma, then asked them to run on a treadmill. The subjects had an average decrease of at least 15 percent in their lung function. Next, Ben-Amotz gave them 64 mg of natural beta-carotene (derived from Dunaliella algae) daily for seven days. After taking the supplements (equivalent to about 100,000 IU daily), they went back on the treadmill. This time, twenty (53 percent) of the subjects had significant improvements in their postexercise breathing. In particular, these twenty patients initially had an average 25 percent decrease in lung function after exercising, but only a 5 percent reduction after taking beta-carotene supplements.
In the other study, Ben-Amotz asked twenty people with exerciseinduced asthma to take either 30 mg of lycopene (the amount found in seven tomatoes) or placebos daily for one week. All of the subjects taking placebos had a 15 percent decline in lung function after exercising. But 55 percent of those taking lycopene had improvements in lung function after exercising.
Ozone, a common component of urban air pollution, is toxic to the respiratory system, and it increases the inflammatory response in people with asthma. However, in a study at the University of Washington, Seattle, supplements of vitamin E (400 IU) and vitamin C (500 mg) daily greatly improved breathing in seventeen adults with asthma after they were exposed to ozone.
In addition, research has found that omega-3 fatty acids—3 grams daily—can significantly reduce bronchial reactivity in asthmatic patients. Other studies have found similar benefits, though the results have not always been uniform. Rather than relying only on omega-3 fatty acids, people with asthma might have greater success by also taking gammalinolenic acid, vitamin E, and other nutritional supplements.
What Else Might Help?
Many other nutrients help ease asthmatic reactions, and it is worth trying them—in addition to strictly following the Anti-Inflammation Syndrome Diet Plan. People with asthma commonly have low levels of magnesium, a mineral involved in more than three hundred biochemical processes in the body. Magnesium also is a mild muscle relaxant, so it may directly reduce the frequency and severity of reactions. Zinc and selenium also might be of benefit, along with quercetin (which inhibits some types of inflammation-promoting adhesion molecules) and the herb boswellia. A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food reported that the herbal antioxidant Pycnogenol (1 mg per pound of body weight, up to 200 mg daily) improved lung function in patients with asthma. It is also important to maintain a normal weight, because overweight increases the risk of asthma.