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Understanding Asthma

The Symptoms, Triggers and Treatment

We take our first breath when we are born, then take breathing for granted.  We do it without even thinking......unless you have problems.  Asthma, a chronic inflammatory disease, affects over 2.5 million Canadians.  Involving inflammation, swelling and narrowing of the airways, airflow in and out of the lungs can be restricted, making breathing difficult. Airway cells make more mucus than normal which leads to narrowing of the airways.  The exact cause of asthma isn't clear but it's reasonable to think that a combination of environmental exposure and genetics play integral roles.  Asthma affects people of all ages but often appears in childhood. While there is no cure for asthma, and the disease can flare up at any time, it can be managed if you recognize the symptoms and avoid triggers.

Symptoms include:
Shortness of breath
Coughing, especially early in the morning and at night
Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky noise during breathing)
Difficulty breathing
Chest tightness

You may have all of these symptoms, or only a few. Usually symptoms get more intense and/or additional symptoms occur when triggered by something in the environment.

Many things can trigger or worsen asthma symptoms such as:
Allergic triggers (dust mites, animal fur, mould, pollen, cockroaches and air pollutants)
Irritants (cigarette smoke, dust, strong perfumes, air pollution)
Changes in the weather, especially in temperature and humidity
Certain medications
Certain food additives like sulfites
Viral upper respiratory infections, such as cold
Exercise
Intense emotions such as stress and anxiety

Asthma is different for everyone. Your personal triggers can be completely different from other people suffering with asthma. It is important to try to identify those triggers to reduce the number and frequency of asthma attacks. You should use conventional medications to help control your symptoms if you have been diagnosed with asthma. The use of natural therapies, used under medical supervision, may help, but should never replace conventional treatment.

Magnesium:
Often people with asthma have low levels of magnesium, and studies have demonstrated that intravenous magnesium can work during an asthma attack. However, studies that have looked at whether taking oral magnesium was effective had varied results. As magnesium may benefit in other areas it is advisable to supplement with magnesium while they are deciding.

Quercetin:
Quercetin is a flavanoid anti-inflammatory antioxidant often taken with vitamin C and found naturally in select foods. Initial findings show that quercetin can help prevent the release of the inflammatory chemical histamine, which causes allergy symptoms such as sneezing and itching. The plus side to quercetin is the additional health benefits it brings to your body as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, both very good things.

Ephedra:
Ephedra is an evergreen shrub-like plant native to Central Asia and Mongolia. Ephedra contains a chemical called ephedrine which can powerfully stimulate the heart, lungs, and nervous system.  Ephedra has been traditionally used to treat conditions such as colds, fever, flu, headaches, asthma, wheezing, and nasal congestion although there is not a lot of clinical information to show its effectiveness. There has been a lot of debate about the safety of ephedra because of the large number of contraindications and side effects so talk to your doctor if you want to take anything with this ingredient in it.

Omega-3 fatty acids:
Found in fish, flax and other foods, these healthy oils may reduce the inflammation that leads to asthma symptoms. One small clinical study of 29 children with asthma, demonstrated that those who took fish oil supplements rich in EPA and DHA for 10 months reduced their symptoms compared to children who took a placebo. However, other studies have shown no effect. More research has to be done to resolve this conundrum.

Boswellia:
This Indian herb has become very popular for its benefits in fighting inflammation.  In one double-blind, placebo-controlled study, people who took boswellia had fewer attacks and improved lung function.

Pycnogenol (French maritime pine bark):
Some studies suggest that it may reduce symptoms and improve lung function in people with asthma. Another study found that children with asthma who took pycnogenol along with prescription asthma medications had fewer symptoms and needed fewer rescue medications.

Choline:
This B vitamin may help reduce the severity and frequency of asthma attacks. Some evidence indicates that higher doses may work better, but you should not take high doses without talking to your doctor.

Vitamin D:
A deficit of this important vitamin has been linked to several medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.  Researchers also found that vitamin D deficiency is linked to increased airway reactivity, lower lung functions, and worse asthma control.

Lifestyle modifications:
Lose weight if you are overweight.
Don't smoke.
If you have allergies, getting allergy shots may help lower the number of asthma attacks
Regular exercise will help strengthen your lungs and maintain a proper weight.
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants may also help keep your asthma under control.
Don't wait too long before you treat an asthma attack. The sooner you treat an attack the less severe it will be, the less damage it causes and the less medication you’ll need.
Reduce your stress level (lung function improves with regular practice of yoga, which also helps alleviate stress).
Avoid allergens and irritants where possible.

If you have asthma you can live a normal and active life.  Be proactive and avoid your triggers while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Since asthma is a chronic illness it requires constant monitoring, as well as close contact with your doctor to help manage this disease.

Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience. Dr. Claude Gallant holds a PhD in Microbiology.