Can asthma be controlled with a special diet?

— Breathe easy

Dear Breathe easy,

Some evidence suggests that eating foods rich in nutrients and anti-oxidants may help some individuals to control asthma, but conclusive research on the matter is still up in the (hopefully breathable) air. Additionally, since certain foods or dietary behaviors have been known to trigger asthma attacks in sensitive individuals, eliminating the foods or behaviors may be a sensible choice.

Scientists do not know the exact cause of asthma, only that it involves a basic defect in the lungs that leaves them highly irritable. However, there are well known aggravating factors that can bring on an asthma attack. Allergies are a common trigger of asthma, including allergies to pollen, mold, house dust, animal dander, and occasionally medicine or foods. Allergies alone will not cause asthma however — not all allergic people have asthma and many asthmatics are not allergic. Respiratory infections are likely to aggravate asthma, as are changes in the weather (seasonal, temperature, or humidity level). Exercise is another common asthma trigger, as well as environmental irritants such as cigarette smoke, gasoline fumes, hair sprays, perfumes, and cleaning solutions. Emotional stress can lead to an asthma attack. Hormones, aspirin, cold dry air, very cold or spicy foods or beverages, and "intrinsic factors" can all stimulate an asthma attack. No two people with asthma are exactly alike; each has his/her own pattern of sensitivity.

Food-trigged asthma occurs in only six to eight percent of children with asthma and less than two percent of asthmatic adults. However, as asthma can be triggered by very cold food or drink, and on occasion, by overeating, it would be wise to avoid these situations. In addition, reactions to food preservatives known as sulfites and bisulfites (found in dried fruits, prepared potatoes, wine, bottled lemon and lime juice, and shrimp) have triggered asthmatic reactions in sensitive individuals.

On the other hand, some foods may actually help to control asthma. Although the findings are not conclusive, there have been a variety of studies that indicate certain nutrients may guard against asthma attacks. Antioxidants, a group of nutrients that protect the body from free radicals and reduce inflammation in the body, show the most promise for asthma relief. Helpful antioxidants may include vitamins C and E which are found in many fruits and vegetables. Those with severe allergies may suffer from low levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D can be found in milk, eggs and some fish, but your body can also produce vitamin D by exposure to sunshine! Adding omega-3 non-saturated fatty acids (found in fish oil and other seafood) to your diet may also be helpful. Before rushing to the pharmacy to stock up on vitamin supplements, it's worth knowing that the protective effect of these nutrients on asthma control is far from proven. Groups of nutrients found naturally in foods seem to have the most impact. The take-home message is one you've no doubt heard before: eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of fresh fruits and veggies and occasional servings of fish for those omega-3s and some vitamin D.

If you decide to modify your diet, a food journal may help you identify links to any changes in your asthma — for better or worse. For example, anytime you have something to eat or drink, jot it down, and also make a note of times when your asthma flares up. After you've collected a few weeks’ worth of observations, you can look for patterns in your asthma and diet.

There are holistic approaches to health and healing that promote dietary changes to control asthma. Other recommended methods of care include acupuncture treatments and meditation.

Medication, especially steroid inhalers, remains one of the most common treatments for asthma. Unfortunately there's no miracle diet to control asthma, but you may find that eating more fruits and veggies helps you breathe a bit easier.


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