A Treatise of Asthma was written by Moses Maimonides, Rabbi, philosopher and medico. In this text, written over 1000 years ago, Maimonides clearly describes how asthma symptoms often start as a common cold during the wet months, with the patient coughing and gasping for air. Recommended treatments included seeking a dry climate, plenty of sleep, fluids, moderation of sexual activity, and chicken soup. Oy vey, Moses must have made his mother proud.
Asthma occurs when the airways, in reaction to a trigger, become inflamed and swollen. In response, cells lining the airways release sticky mucus and inflammatory substances such as histamine, causing the airways to constrict, reducing airflow. The wheezing sound common to asthma is created by air attempting to leave the narrowed airways, and coughing occurs when the lungs try to get rid of the aforementioned mucus. Not being able to breathe is frightening, and this fear makes the muscles around the chest, throat, neck and shoulders tense and tight, restricting airflow even more. Chronic asthmatics often have tight muscles in these areas, even when their breathing is normal.
- Coughing – with or without phlegm.
- Shortness of breath – often worse with activity or exercise.
- Tightness in chest.
What causes it?
- An episode of asthma is often set off by an accumulation of several triggers. Like the straw that breaks the camel’s back, one little extra thing is enough to tip the balance. If you look after your asthma, you can probably tolerate a little of an allergic substance or trigger. However, if you are under stress or getting over a cold, that same trigger could cause an attack.
The following are some common triggers for asthma:
- Environmental triggers. Including pollen, animal dander (fur and other pet trimmings), cockroach droppings, cigarette smoke (children of smokers are more prone to asthma), household chemicals such as oven cleaners, change of season, mould, weather conditions, such as humidity, wind, cold air petrol fumes, some pets, dust mites, cockroach poo.
- Food allergies and sensitivities. Common food allergens in asthma include milk, chocolate, peanuts, wheat and citrus. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), sulphites (common in beer, wine and dried fruit), histamines (which occur in red wine, blue cheese and tuna), tartrazine (red food colouring number 102), salicylates, chocolate, yeast.
- Respiratory infections such as a cold, bronchitis or sinus.
- Sudden temperature or barometric changes.
- Back problems and poor posture may also trigger asthma. Pressure on the nerves that nourish the lungs may be affected by a stooped posture.
- As it is for so many conditions, stress is often a precursor for asthma.
- Even laughing and crying may initiate an attack.
What To Do
Asthma is potentially fatal, so don’t meddle with any prescribed medication. Cortisone, in particular, must be phased out slowly and under medical supervision. If it is stopped abruptly, asthma is very likely to rebound, with symptoms worse than ever.
The following natural therapies may be used in conjunction with conventional medical asthma treatment. Do not discontinue your medication before consulting with your practitioner, even if you show positive results from the interventions suggested below.
- Avoid known allergens and sensitivities. Foods to look out for include dairy, wheat, preservatives and colourings.
- Eat one onion a day, cooked or raw, red, white or brown. Onions are not only antibiotic, they reduce the viscosity of mucus, freeing the wheeze. Garlic shares similar properties with onions in the prevention and treatment of asthma. Eat liberally.
- Drink at least 2 litres of fluid daily, keeping that mucus from becoming too viscid and sticky, and prevent the airways from drying out.
- Fish contains the omega 3 fatty acid, EPA, which is particularly anti-inflammatory and good for asthma. Eat four to five servings of fish or seafood (canned, frozen or fresh) each week.
- Decrease salt. High levels can increase your reaction to histamine, an inflammatory substance released by the cells during asthma.
- A cup of strong black tea may stop an attack. The theophylline (one of a group of chemicals called xanthines) in tea is a bronchodilator; that is, it widens the airways, allowing more air in and out. Tea may relieve the temporary symptom of wheezing, but is not a long-term preventative treatment. A cup of strong black coffee may have a similar effect because of caffeine, another xanthine that dilates the bronchi.
- Chicken soup with the addition of plenty of garlic is just what Maimonides ordered.
- Immune herbs. Asthma is often triggered by respiratory tract infections such as head colds, coughs and sinusitis. It pays to keep your immune system in tip top shape. Herbs that improve the immune system can help with asthma, including astragalus, Siberian ginseng and echinacea. Some people fear taking echinacea if they have asthma; this is only the case if you are allergic to echinacea. An allergy to echinacea is actually quite rare, the symptoms are immediate and include a rash and wheezing. So if you are an asthmatic and have tried echinacea in the past with no reaction, you are extremely unlikely to be allergic to it and so can add it to your immune system repertoire. Herbs to take during a respiratory infection include thyme, golden seal, white horehound, elecampane, licorice and mullein. These herbs are also good to take in the longer term if your lungs have been weakened by years of asthma or previous infections such as pneumonia.
- Herbs that reduce the spasming of the airways include; grindelia, adhatoda, elecampane, elecampane and valerian. Use these if you are a chronic asthmatic.
- Vitamin A is important for the health of lung tissue. Take daily, or in the form of a cod liver oil capsule, which will also provide a little vitamin D and EPA.
- Vitamin D levels are often low in asthmatics, take a supplement of Vitamin D if so, and then maintain your Vitamin D levels with daily cod liver oil supplementation.
- Quercetin, a bioflavonoid help modulate the inflammatory nature of asthma. Take daily.
- Vitamin C has natural antihistamine powers. Take 500 mg daily and one teaspoon of vitamin C powder in some water may abort an attack if imminent. Adjust dose for children
- Magnesium supplementation is a must for anyone suffering from asthma. Magnesium relaxes the tiny breathing passages, bronchioles, reversing any tendency for them to tighten. 200 mg, 2 to 3 times a day. For children the tissue salt Mag phos may be sufficient.
- Breathe through your nose, not your mouth. This will be easier if you keep your tongue positioned on the roof of your mouth, just behind the front teeth. Nose breathing is the way we were designed to breathe.
- Buteyko breathing is a proven technique for reducing the symptoms and preventing asthma. It can be literally a life-saving course to take. Recommended for children over the age of 7. Practice the small breath holds exercise.
While researching heart disease in the 1950s, Konstantin Buteyko, a Russian doctor, developed a breathing technique that not only helped reduce high blood pressure, but also a variety of conditions including asthma, The premise of the technique is that many conditions, including asthma, are the result of over breathing or chronic hyperventilation. Completely at odds with the popular view that taking big deep breaths of air is ‘good’ breathing, the Buteyko way is to minimise intake, reducing and calming the breath. Not so different to ancient yogic pranayama breathing. Signs of over breathing include mouth breathing, frequent yawning, sighing, sniffing, heavy breathing at night, loud breathing and snoring.
A study reported in the Medical Journal of Australia showed that after 3 months people practising the Buteyko technique had decreased their requirement for asthma reliever medication by 90 percent and the use of inhaled corticosteroids by 49 percent. Buteyko believed that we need to increase carbon dioxide levels in the body. Mostly considered a ‘waste’ gas, carbon dioxide is vital to life. A slight rise in carbon dioxide opens airways and blood vessels, improving air and blood flow to the body. The way oxygen travels around the body is to ‘stick’ to haemoglobin molecules, themselves attached to red blood cells scooting through the bloodstream. It is actually an increase in carbon dioxide that ‘tells’ haemoglobin to let go of the oxygen molecules. Encouraging the precious oxygen cargo gets delivered to the organs and tissues where it is most needed. This is a basic physiological concept known as the Bohr effect. Buteyko breathing, using relaxation and minimal breathing volume, works to reset the carbon dioxide levels. By reducing the breath, carbon dioxide levels increase, switching on the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts to soothe and calm. The Buteyko technique incorporates several carbon dioxide lowering breathing exercises.
Small Breath Holds is one of the exercises taught in the Buteyko breathing technique. To do this, close your mouth. Take a small breath in, then out. With thumb and forefinger of one hand gently hold your nose closed for 5 seconds. Release and relax for 10 seconds, breathing gently through youur nose. Repeat 10 times or until you feel calmer. For those with acute breathing difficulties, such as the beginning of an asthma attack, close your nose for only a couple of seconds, and allow a longer interval of relaxed breathing in between, up to 15 breaths.
- Desensitisation. An extremely useful tool is desensitisation. The trigger allergen(s) are determined either by a blood test or skin prick test and a program of desensitising, using drops under the tongue or injections, is implemented for a number of months. Various doctors and natural practitioners specialise in this area.
- If your breathing becomes strained, try standing under a steaming, hot shower. The steam will help open the airways. Employing the same logic, if you are tight-chested during the night, place a humidifier beside your bed. They are available from most chemists. You could add a couple of drops of thyme, eucalyptus or lavender oil.
- If stress is a big trigger for you, it is imperative you learn some effective techniques for managing stress. Then use them! Whether it be meditation, yoga or embroidery, asthma is not a condition to be toyed with. Everyone who has experienced an asthma attack (including onlookers) knows how frightening it is. If you can possibly remain calm, best achieved by the breathing technique mentioned above, this will reduce the severity of the attack.
- Dust mites and moulds are a very common asthma trigger. Here are some ideas for keeping them under control. If possible, have wooden floors or tiles instead of carpet, and remove heavy curtains. Dust mites love beds; use mattress and pillow cover protectors, and wash them every week. Vacuum your mattress every month or so and then spray with weak black tea to deactivate dust mites. Let the sun shine on your mattress and as much of the room as possible. Every month get someone else to scrub mouldy bathrooms with bleach and wipe over with tea tree oil. If this task cannot be delegated, make sure you wear a mask. Wash shower curtains regularly, they are fervent collectors of mould. Let fresh, dry air and sunshine flood the house. If all else fails, move to a drier abode. If mould is a trigger, consider removing mould and yeast foods from your diet to see whether this relieves your asthma. (See also Candida.)
- Is your back out? If there is any problem with the thoracic or middle part of the back, this can affect the nerves that feed the lungs. A problem with the back can in turn cause or trigger your asthma. Go to a chiropractor, osteopath or physiotherapist for assessment.
- Activities that improve posture and strengthen the back, correcting asthmatic tendencies include yoga, pilates, the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais
- Regular massage may help with particular attention to shoulder, upper back and chest.
- In the emotional anatomy of the body, the lungs are the organs of grief. Asthma has been described by some as a ‘silent scream’ and may be an expression of feeling claustrophobic in relationships, often with family.
- 6 drops of cajeput – analgesic, febrifuge, antiseptic, expectorant antispasmodic.
- 6 drops of eucalyptus or peppermint – decongestant, expectorant, mucolytic, balsamic.
- 4 drops ov fennel sweet – antispasmodic, carminative, expectorant.
This is a gentle, calming and breathe-easy blend. Use in a balm or gel rubbed into the lung area of the body. Mixed with sweet almond oil in a massage. Use 6 drops of this blend in a vaporiser or sprinkled onto a tissue for a dry inhalation.
At a glance
- Eat onions and garlic every day. Not only are they naturally antibiotic to ward off coughs and colds, but they help keep mucus fluid, important for the asthma sufferer.
- Fish contains the omega 3 fatty acid, EPA, which is anti-inflammatory. Eat fish such as salmon, tuna, herrings and mackerel 3 to 4 times a week.
- Reduce salt as a high salt diet is associated with asthma
- Avoid any known food sensitivities that may trigger your asthma. Common foods are dairy, wheat, preservatives and colourings.
- Magnesium is a muscle relaxant, helping to keep the airways relaxed and open.
- Vitamin C and the bioflavonoid quercetin have antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Cod Liver Oil capsules (or for the brave, cod liver oil) contains vitamins A and D, both excellent for the health of the lungs.
- Take lung tonic herbs including mullein, licorice, thyme and elecampane.
- Learn Buteyko breathing. It is amazing for treating and preventing asthma.
- Go to a chiropractor, osteopath or physiotherapist to assess your back for misalignment.
- Always breath through your nose.