Ask The Doctor: Asthma

I have asthma and use an inhaler regularly. Are there any long-term effects, and is there anything I can do to use it less?
By Rob Ayoup

Natural medicine has a lot to offer when it comes to managing asthma long term, but don’t ditch your corticosteroid inhaler just yet. During a severe attack, it’s often the only thing that can help you. Natural remedies can reduce the overall severity of asthma, however, and decrease or eventually eliminate your dependence on meds like corticosteroids and bronchodilators. As you try my suggestions, you should start noticing that you’re using your inhaler less and less.

And that’s important because inhalers produce some unwelcome side effects, including headaches, throat irritation, frequent infections, tremors, or heart palpitations. With long-term inhaler use, the high doses of medication they contain could reduce your ability to absorb calcium and cause osteoporosis as the body draws the calcium it needs from your bones.

The first step you should take to cut back on your inhaler? Recognize and avoid known attack triggers. Reduce your dust exposure by eliminating carpets and rugs, if possible, and frequently washing bed sheets and pillowcases. You should also install a HEPA air filter to remove airborne allergy triggers like pollen.

Next, you need to overhaul your diet. Challenge yourself to eat a mostly vegetarian diet, reducing or eliminating meat completely, and adding plenty of oily fish. Here’s why: By maximizing antioxidant sources from fruits and vegetables of various colors, you obtain a wide spectrum of beneficial nutrients that reduce inflammation and prevent airway constriction. Omega-3 oils in salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines, as well as fish oil supplements (take 4,000 mg daily), provide the fats you need to form natural anti-inflammatory biochemicals. Chicken and beef, on the other hand, contain arachidonic acid, a substance that produces pro-inflammatory chemicals. In addition, milk and cheese from dairy and soy sources stimulate mucus formation in the lungs and airways. Replace them with calcium-enriched, rice-based milk and cheese products, which do not have that effect.

Certain nutrients provide key antioxidants called flavonoids that help prevent bronchial spasms and reduce the likelihood of an asthma attack. You should start taking grape-seed extract (300 mg), pycnogenol (200 mg), and quercetin (1,000 mg) each day. Asthmatics typically produce less-than-normal levels of glutathione—a naturally occurring antioxidant—but recent research shows that magnesium increases glutathione, improves lung function, and reduces bronchodilator use. I recommend 600 mg of magnesium daily. You should also consider taking 300 mg of the ayurvedic herb boswellia three times a day; research shows it can reduce the severity of asthma symptoms, the frequency of attacks, and the level of respiratory tract inflammation. And try licorice root, an expectorant herb that helps the lungs bring up and release excess mucus. Licorice root also has anti-inflammatory properties that enhance the effectiveness of corticosteroids, allowing you to reduce your need for an inhaler. Work closely with a naturopathic physician when using licorice root (or any herbs and supplements) to treat asthma because there are some rare but serious side effects.

Finally, acupuncture can reduce inflammation and improve your ability to clear mucus by enhancing lung qi—the part of the body’s energy network that flows through the lungs and allows them to function optimally. Asthmatics often feel improvement within the first few treatments, but lasting results require at least eight to 10 sessions.

Simple Steps to Breathe Easier
* Eat at least four different-colored fruits, veggies, and beans daily to get a full spectrum of antioxidants.
* Cut out dairy and soy products, and replace with milk and cheese made from rice.
* Eat more salmon and oily fish but less meat.
* Each day, supplement with 4,000 mg fish oil, 1,000 mg calcium, 1,000 mg quercetin, 600 mg magnesium, 300 mg grape-seed extract, and 200 mg pycnogenol.
* Coffee has been shown to work as a potent bronchodilator. Drink a cup or two of strong, unsweetened black coffee when you feel an attack coming on

Rob Ayoup, ND, runs a general practice and teaches at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.