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What should I know about Asthma?

Asthma is a common lung condition in the industrialized world, one that impacts the lives of adults and children alike. Asthma threatens one’s essential ability to breathe, to take in oxygen, our most basic and urgent survival need. We cannot live without air for more than a few minutes. Choke off our air supply, and we quickly become frightened and desperate, to the point of panic. It is easy to understand why asthma is one of the most taxing, debilitating health problems a human being can face, both physically and mentally.

The most significant characteristic of asthma is a narrowing of the trachea (the "windpipe") and bronchial passages in response to some stimulus. In asthma, the airways are over-responsive. Certain things that may not cause breathing problems for most of us can provoke the airways to constrict in asthmatics. These may be external stimuli like pollen, dust, and even cold air. Or, the stimulus may be something internal, like a nutritional deficiency or emotional stress. Whatever the trigger, all asthma attacks have the same scenario in common: the airways become extremely irritated and overreact by going into spasm. (1)

When the airways are constricted by an asthma attack, their delicate membrane linings become swollen and inflamed. Almost two-thirds of all people with asthma, about 65 percent, experience their first symptoms—wheezing, shortness of breath, and rapid heartbeat-- by age five. Although asthma is a chronic lung disease that persists for years and even for a lifetime, the bronchial constriction itself is reversible; the attack can be stopped and normal breathing restored.

Asthma is divided into two major types: "intrinsic" asthma and "extrinsic" asthma. Intrinsic asthma usually develops in adulthood and may begin with risk factors such as cold air, exercise, or emotional trauma. In extrinsic asthma, also called allergic or "atopic" asthma, the immune system reacts to an allergy-provoking substance such as pollen or dust by releasing histamine and other chemicals in the lungs. These potent chemicals cause smooth muscle in the air passages to secrete mucous, swell up, and narrow. The specific triggers of an asthma attack may be allergic or non-allergic.

Some causes of asthma attacks include: (2)


    Grass/Tree/Plant pollens Animal dander Cat hair, saliva, urine Dog hair, saliva Cockroaches Dust mites Mold Foods (peanuts, corn, citrus, milk, wheat, yeasts) Food additives (sulfites, MSG, dyes, other preservatives) Pharmaceutical drugs (ASA, beta-blockers, estrogen, NSAIDs, PCN)


    Additives Air pollution (ozone, smog) Chemical odors (cleaners, nail polish, paint) Coal smoke Cold air Cold drink Cooking fuel (kerosene, natural gas, propane) Emotional stress Exercise Foods (wine) Gastroesophageal reflux (heart burn) Heating units (coal, gas, kerosene, wood) Infection (upper respiratory) Nutritional deficiencies (magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, vitamins B6 and C) Paint fumes Scents (air fresheners, colognes, perfumes) Tobacco smoke Weather changes Wood smoke


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, 2005.

    20.3 million American report having asthma. More than 70% of people with asthma also suffer from allergies. The prevalence of asthma increased 75% from 1980-1994. From 1982-1996, the prevalence of asthma increased by 97 percent among women, compared with 22 percent among men. 9 million children under 18 report having asthma. Asthma rates in children under the age of five have increased more than 160% from 1980-1994. There were 1.9 million asthma-related visits to emergency departments in 2002. There are more than 5,000 deaths from asthma annually. More than 14 million school days are missed annually due to asthma. Asthma accounts for approximately 24.5 million missed work days for adults annually.

Signs and Symptoms

The following list does not insure the presence of this health condition. Please see the text and your healthcare professional for more information.

Wheezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing are the major symptoms associated with asthma. (3) The length and severity of asthma attacks can vary. (4) These symptoms are frequently triggered by upper respiratory tract infections (viral and bacterial), exercise, exposure to irritants (allergic, chemical, and physical), psychological problems, or climate. (5) , (6) Airway narrowing can sometimes occur before the symptoms of a full-blown attack. (7) People with wheezing, coughing, and trouble breathing at the same time should seek medical attention to rule out asthma, especially children who have had an upper respiratory infection.


  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing

Treatment Options


Long-term Preventative Medications:

Anti-inflammatory agents:

    Corticosteroids Sodium cromoglycate Nedocromil


    Long acting beta 2- agonists Sustained release theophylline

Anti-allergenic agents:


Quick Acting Medications:


    Short acting beta 2-agonists Anticholinergics Short acting theophylline Epinephrine

Nutritional Suplementation

Vitamin B6

When you take vitamin B6, an enzyme converts it into pyridoxal 5’ phosphate, which is the active form of the vitamin in the body. Theophylline drugs, which are commonly used by individuals with asthma, are reported to inhibit the enzyme that catalyzes this conversion. Therefore, people who regularly take theophylline-containing medications are at a greater risk of developing a vitamin B6 deficiency. (8) In fact, several studies have documented that patients taking theophylline medications do have depressed levels of vitamin B6. (9) , (10) Thus, people taking theophylline medications should take additional vitamin B6.

Vitamin B12

In one study, 20 subjects with asthma were given 1000 micrograms of vitamin B12 by injection once a week for four weeks. 18 of the 20 patients experienced substantial improvement, which included reduced wheezing, improved breathing upon exertion, better sleep, and improved general condition. (11) Several other older studies also report substantial improvements in asthma sufferers receiving vitamin B12, but unfortunately, more recent studies have not been performed. (12) , (13) Vitamin B12 is also effective in reducing the incidence of bronchial asthma attacks in people who are sensitive to sulfite. (14)


As discussed earlier, the major events in an asthma attack are increased contraction of smooth muscle in the bronchial passages and hyper-reactivity of the airway lining. Magnesium helps to regulate smooth muscle contraction and relaxation. This makes magnesium an important nutrient for allowing the bronchial passages to contract and relax normally. The results of one study show a strong connection between bronchial reactivity and the amount of magnesium in the bronchial tissues. (15) In general, asthma suffers have been found to have significantly lower than normal magnesium levels. Additionally, an association has been found between low cellular magnesium levels and hyper-reactivity of the airways in people with asthma. (16)

Magnesium is also used intravenously in the treatment of children with moderate to severe asthma, resulting in significant improvement in short-term lung function. (17) Other studies report that inhaled magnesium provides a mild protective effect for asthmatic patients. (18)

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is the omega-3 fatty acid derived from alpha linolenic acid, the essential fatty acid found in fish oils and flaxseed oil. EPA helps regulate the production of prostaglandins and leukotrienes, chemicals in the body that provide anti-inflammatory effects. In one study, asthma suffers taking an 1,800 mg daily dose of of EPA had significant reductions in asthma symptoms and gains in lung capacity. (19)

Lactobacillus, Bifidobacteria

The use of probiotics, supplements containing friendly intestinal bacteria such as acidophilus and bifidus, supports immune function. For many people with asthma, food intolerance can lead to inflammation. Probiotic supplements can help asthma sufferers by strengthening the gut so that less toxins are absorbed into the bloodstream. This reduces the body’s load of substances that set off an attack.


Glutamine is an amino acid known to help heal and strengthen the gastrointestinal tract. Glutamine shuts down inflammation in the gut wall, making it less leaky and vulnerable to toxins and allegens. (20)

Vitamin C

The authors of a 1994 review reported that a number of studies support the use of vitamin C in asthma and allergy. Significant results included better scores on lung function tests, reduced reactivity of the lungs when challenged by allergens and histamine, improvement in the function and mobility of white blood cells, and a decrease in respiratory infections. However, there were also negative studies, which prompted the authors to conclude that more remains to be learned about the role of vitamin C in asthma. (21) Differences in dosage levels are one big variable that could cause conflicting results.

Exercise-induced asthma is a common form of non-allergic asthma that can be beneficially affected by antioxidant nutrients. In one study, vitamin C provided a protective effect against exercise-induced asthma. (22)

Smog and other forms of air pollution can trigger asthma attacks in susceptible individuals. One study revealed that supplementation with both vitamin C and vitamin E can benefit adults with asthma who are exposed to air pollutants. (23)

Herbal Suplementation


Cordyceps is a unique black mushroom that extracts nutrients from and grows only on a caterpillar found in the high altitudes of Tibet and China. One of the most interesting herbs in traditional Chinese medicine, Cordyceps is used for lung and kidney problems, and as a general tonic for promoting longevity, vitality, and endurance. (24) Cordyceps is beneficial in helping individuals with decreased energy restore their capacity to function at a greater level of activity.

Cordyceps has been used in humans for centuries as a tonic for improving performance and vitality. It is believed to work by maintaining a steady supply of oxygen in tissues, thus helping the heart and lungs utilize oxygen more effectively under stress. Cordyceps may also support the immune and endocrine systems, increasing physical strength and endurance. (25) , (26)

Cordyceps has traditionally been used for its improvement in respiration and in individuals with decreased lung function, such as in asthma and bronchitis, by increasing oxygenation. (27) Cordyceps is an antioxidant that increases blood levels of the free-radical scavenging enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD). (28) Laboratory studies point to a possible anti-blood clotting property. (29) Cordyceps may also help retard atherosclerosis (clogging of arteries by plaque) through its reported positive effect on blood fat levels. (30)


Tylophora has been used traditionally in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years for problems with the lungs and breathing. Tylophora is used in the nutritional support of bronchial asthma and symptoms of allergies. Numerous studies report the beneficial effects of tylophora in the treatment and management of bronchial asthma. (31) , (32) , (33) Tylophora has been reported to have short acting bronchodilator activity, but anti-asthmatic effects are believed to be more accurately explained by tylophora’s reported ability to regulate the immune system. (34)

Tylophora has also been reported to have beneficial effects on the immune system, possibly stimulating immune cells that destroy allergy-causing substances while controlling antibody activity that contributes to asthmatic attacks. (35)


Coleus is a relatively new medicinal herb in the United States, although it has been extensively researched in India over the last twenty years. There have been studies to support its hypotensive (blood pressure lowering), anti-asthmatic, and anti-spasmotic (muscle-relaxing) effects. (36) , (37) Most studies have been done with the isolated active ingredient, forskolin, but current research supports that the whole plant and all its constituents may actually be more effective.

Grape Seed Extract

Grape seeds contain beneficial bioflavonoid-like ingredients called "proanthocyanidins" (PCOs or OPCs). Like many bioflavonoids found throughout the plant kingdom, PCOs are powerful antioxidants that gobble up free radicals. (Normal byproducts of metabolism, free radicals are highly unstable molecules that can damage tissues if not kept in check.) PCOs enhance absorption of vitamin C and work in partnership with vitamin C to reduce the body’s free-radical load. (38)

Proanthocyanidins are believed to protect cell membranes by neutralizing particularly harmful free radicals called "lipid peroxides". (39) , (40) PCOs may strengthen the capillary walls and skin. PCOs have been reported to inhibit the release of inflammatory chemicals, such as histamine and prostaglandins. (41) , (42) Proanthocyanidins are claimed to neutralize many types of free radicals found in the body. (43) , (44) , (45) They may also inhibit the enzyme xanthine oxidase, an enzyme that generates free-radicals, as reported in a laboratory study. (46) PCOs have been used in allergies and asthma because of their reported ability to slow histamine release from "mast cells." (Key players in asthma and allergies, mast cells serve as sentinels in the lungs, sinuses, skin, and GI tract, which together make up our first line of defense against the outside world. In asthma and allergies the immune-related process that releases histamine stored inside mast cells is overreactive.)The PCOs of grape seed have also been reported to have PAF inhibiting ability in laboratory studies. (47)

Diet & Lifestyle

    Drink plenty of quality water. Avoid food additives, coloring, and preservatives (aspartame, dyes, MSG) Avoid refined, pre-packaged, and boxed foods when possible. Be cautious of excess salt intake. Avoid alcohol, soft drinks, and chronic use of caffeine and sugar-containing beverages. Reduce dietary arachidonic acid, which can be converted into inflammation-causing chemicals (leukotrienes) and precipitate asthmatic attack; diet should be low in meat, eggs, shellfish, vegetable oils (omega-6), and dietary fat. Reduce excess carbohydrate load, especially refined carbohydrates (may increase insulin secretion and inflammation). May want to begin a "vegan" diet; elimination of all animal products including dairy. Proper diet and exercise program. Address allergy issues. Make sure that the home is free of any mold or mildew problems. Limit the use of carpet whenever possible. Take steps to purify whole house air. Use hypoallergenic bedding and wash bedding frequently.


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