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Can I control my asthma with diet and herbal remedies?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 - 12:15Renee Despres

Question: I was recently diagnosed with asthma, and my doctor prescribed Advair Diskus and Ventolin for when I feel short of breath. I really don't like taking medicines. Can I control my asthma with diet and nutritional supplements?

Answer: Despite claims to the contrary, there’s no evidence that a specific diet, nutritional supplements, or herbal remedies can prevent or control asthma. Asthma is a complex allergic disease that involves interactions between genes, environmental factors including diet, and a person’s overall health status. Nutrition is also a complex process that involves interactions of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients found in foods. Thus it’s not likely that taking any specific nutritional supplement or adopting a particular dietary pattern will be the “key” to controlling your asthma.

Some evidence suggests that antioxidants – “clean up” compounds found in fruits, vegetables, green and black tea, and other plant-based foods – may play an important role in controlling in lung reactivity. Vitamins C, E, and A have received most of the attention in this area. But results are contradictory. For every study that showed that antioxidant supplementation helped asthma symptoms, another study showed that they had no effect – or in some cases, negative effects.

 Likewise, the evidence is ambiguous regarding nutritional supplements such as selenium and magnesium. High salt (sodium) intake has been linked to worsening of asthma symptoms in some people, but again, results have been inconsistent. The impact of fish oils, which are high in “good” omega-3 fats, has also been examined – again, with inconclusive results.

So instead of focusing on a magic “cure” diet for asthma, eat a healthful diet that’s high in antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Limit fatty foods – especially foods containing trans-fats such as margarines -- salt, and sugar. Remember that your overall dietary pattern is more important than the specifics of what you eat at any particular meal. While a nutrient-rich diet will not allow you to stop your asthma medications, it will help your immune system to function at its best and ward off the viral infections that can lead to severe asthma attacks.

You should also track your diet and asthma symptoms to find out if you have any “trigger” foods. Some foods and eating behaviors can trigger asthma attacks in people who are sensitive to those particular foods.  For instance, sulfites are a common asthma trigger. They are found in dried fruits, wine, beer, processed potatoes, and shrimp. Overeating may also trigger an attack.

So what can you do to reduce your use of medications?

  • Take your medications as your doctor prescribed and check with her about any reactions or uncomfortable side effects. Continue with your long-term asthma control medication (the Advair Diskus) even if you feel well and are not experiencing symptoms. This medication, like other long-term asthma medications, helps to control the inflammation that can lead to an asthma attack. In turn, reduced inflammation can decrease your reliance on your short-acting inhaler (Ventolin). 
  • Consult with your doctor about developing an overall asthma action plan that includes diet, medications, and any alternative treatments you’re interested in trying. You can download a free asthma action plan template from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/lung/asthma/asthma_actplan.pdf
  • Increase fruits and vegetables in your diet. Whether this will impact your asthma remains to be seen. But a diet high in fruits and vegetables contributes to overall health, reduces inflammation, and strengthens your immune system.
  • Increase the proportion of “good” fats in your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in flaxseed, evening primrose oil, and fish including tuna, salmon, and sardines. The impact of omega-3s on asthma symptoms is unclear, but there’s abundant evidence of their positive effects on overall health.
  • Avoid omega-6 fatty acids and trans-fats. These two dietary culprits are found in many margarines, mass-produced baked goods, and other processed foods. Some research suggests they may worsen asthma symptoms.
  • Avoid weight gain by controlling your caloric intake. People who are overweight and obese are more likely to develop asthma and more likely to experience severe asthma. Although researchers aren’t sure why obesity is linked with asthma, some have suggested that inflammation caused by obesity may worsen asthma symptoms.
  • Keep a daily journal. Note any daytime symptoms, nighttime symptoms, inhaler use, and exercise you performed each day. Track food intake, as well, to see if there’s a pattern between eating certain foods and worsening or improvement of symptoms.
  • Avoid any special supplements or megadoses of vitamins. Instead, take a high-quality multivitamin supplement each day.

Looking for more information about asthma in children and adults? Check out these ehealthMD Asthma Library Articles:

Asthma

Asthma in Children

Sources:

American Lung Association. Asthma medicines chart. http://www.lungusa.org/assets/documents/ASTHMAMEDICINECHART.pdf

Arvaniti F, Priftis KN, Panagiotakos DB. Dietary habits and asthma: a review. Allergy Asthma Proc. 2010 Mar;31(2):e1-10. Review.

Kim JH, Ellwood PE, Asher MI. Diet and asthma: looking back, moving forward. Respir Res. 2009 Jun 12;10:49.