Asthma and special diet?


Can asthma be controlled with a special diet?

— Breathe easy

Dear Breathe easy,

Some evidence suggests that there are certain foods that may prevent inflammation and the associated airflow obstruction that causes asthma attacks. However, conclusive research on the matter is still up in the (hopefully breathable) air. Every person with asthma has different triggers and reactions, making it difficult to establish one special diet for all. Before making changes to your diet, consulting a health professional, such as a registered dietitian, can help to get customized care and advice.

There is an association between certain foods and dietary behaviors and asthma attacks in sensitive individuals. Six to eight percent of children and two percent of adults with asthma are triggered by food, whether it be from consuming very cold foods and beverages, overeating, or physical activity after eating allergy-sensitive foods. It’s also possible for food preservatives known as sulfites and bisulfites (found in dried fruits, prepared potatoes, bottled lemon or lime juices, alcohol, pickles, and shrimp among others) to trigger asthmatic reactions in sensitive individuals. In alcohol, for example, sulfur dioxide is inhaled while swallowing and may cause airways to contract. Although more rare, salicylates found in tea, coffee, and herbs may also trigger similar reactions. If sulfates or salicylates invoke an immune response for you, it would be wise to avoid these foods and beverages. Similarly, avoiding gaseous foods (such as beans, carbonated drinks, onions, and garlic) may help to prevent bloating that has the potential to cause chest tightness and make it difficult to breathe. In addition to these common triggers, individual allergic food reactions may worsen asthma symptoms. Therefore, it might be good to work with a medical professional to identify allergens and eliminate them from your diet.

On the other hand, some foods may actually help to control asthma. Although the findings aren't 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 the reduction of lung swelling and asthma relief. Other nutrients that may help to improve asthma include:

  • Vitamin E (tocopherol): May decrease the risk of coughing or wheezing. Found in almonds, raw seeds, kale, broccoli, and hazelnuts.
  • Vitamin D: Low levels are associated with more-severe asthma. Found in milk, eggs, salmon, orange juice, and from time in the sun!
  • Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 PUFA): Has the potential to block the production of inflammatory substances that cause asthma attacks. Found in fish oils, plant oils, nuts, and seeds such as flaxseed and chia seeds.
  • Other antioxidants (beta-carotene and vitamin C): Work to reduce reactive oxygen species (ROS) that could potentially cause cell stress and inflammation. Found in many fruits and vegetables.

Before rushing to the pharmacy to stock up on vitamin supplements, it's worth noting that the protective effect of these nutrients on asthma control is still being studied. Whether or not they help with asthma, having a diet full of these nutrients can still help support critical functioning in the body. Unfortunately, there’s no miracle diet to cure asthma, but you may find that eating more fruits and veggies, maintaining a weight that meets your body's needs, and using medications as prescribed by a medical professional helps you to breathe easier.

Last updated Apr 01, 2022
Originally published Jan 06, 1995

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