Asthma is a chronic lung disease characterized by spasm of the bronchi and bronchioles of the lungs. Also called our large and small airways, these two main branches of the trachea carry air in and out of lungs. Individuals with asthma have particularly sensitive airways that constrict in response to an external or internal trigger. The danger with an acute asthma attack is that the inflammation from a given attack may restrict an individual’s ability to breathe. Due to this, severe asthma attacks often become a medical emergency. However, with today’s advances in medicinal applications, asthma attacks are reversible and rarely fatal.
Asthma is divided into two different categories: extrinsic asthma and intrinsic asthma.
- Extrinsic or atopic asthma is considered an allergic condition, where the immune system abnormally responds to allergens or antigens. Some extrinsic triggers include; pollens, animal dander, hair and saliva, dust mites, mold, foods (nuts, dairy, corn, citrus, wheat, yeast), food additives (dyes, preservatives, sulfites, MSG), or drugs (NSAIDs, aspirin).
- Intrinsic asthma is non-allergenic and due to triggers such as toxic chemicals, climate (cold air, poor air quality), exercise, infection, nutritional deficiencies, infection (upper respiratory colds or flu), fumes (cigarette smoke, perfume, air pollutants, car fumes) or emotional stress. In both extrinsic and intrinsic asthma, the immune system reacts to an asthma-provoking trigger by releasing histamine and other chemicals that produce constriction, inflammation, and spasm in the respiratory tract.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (1):
- 20.3 million Americans suffer from asthma.
- 10 million Americans have allergic asthma.
- 9 million American children under 18 have been diagnosed with asthma.
- The prevalence of asthma increased by 97 percent among women, compared with 22 percent among men, from 1982-1996.
- The prevalence of asthma increased by 75% from 1980-1994.
- The rate of asthma increased more than 160% among children under the age of five, from 1980-1994.
The severity of asthma symptoms may vary according to the individual. Many asthma sufferers experience symptoms if they come into contact with their asthma trigger. Others may experience symptoms at different times of the day, if they get a cold, or after exercise. The major symptoms associated with asthma are:
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- A tight feeling in the chest
- Coughing up phlegm
With proper treatment and a self-management plan, asthma attacks can be prevented and kept under control. To help prevent an asthma attack, specific triggers should be identified and avoided whenever possible.
For relief of acute symptoms and prevention of exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB), quick-acting bronchodilators (short-acting beta-2 agonists, anticholinergics, short-acting theophylline, and epinephrine) are prescribed. For long-term control of asthma, corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory agents) and long-acting bronchodilators (sustained-release theophyline and long-acting beta 2-agonists) are prescribed. Long-term corticosteroid treatment can have negative side effects, including depleting the body of vital minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
A calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc deficiency may cause osteoporosis and should be supplemented during long-term corticosteroid treatment. Certain supplements can interact with asthma medications, so a health care professional should be consulted when combining the two.
Vitamin B6 Studies show that asthmatic patients have lowered blood levels of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). Asthma sufferers may find supplementary benefit with the addition of pyridoxine into the diet, as well as other B-complex vitamins (2, 3). Numerous studies report that theophylline-containing drugs, which are commonly used by asthmatic patients, may contribute to vitamin B6 deficiency (4-7). One study in particular demonstrated that vitamin B6 supplementation can also reduce the side effects of theophylline (8).
Multiminerals (Magnesium, Zinc, Calcium, Potassium, Selenium) As previously mentioned, corticosteroids are often taken by asthmatic patients and may deplete the body of certain essential minerals. Supplementation with minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc may be beneficial for asthmatic patients (9). Numerous studies show that magnesium helps relax bronchial smooth muscle. Its supplementation may also result in an improvement in lung function and a decrease in adverse symptoms experienced by asthmatic patients (10-15). Studies have also shown that zinc and selenium supplementation may have some therapeutic effect on these persons (16, 17). One study found that the intake of selenium has been declining in European countries and may be leading to increased rates of asthma (18).
Essential Fatty Acids (Fish Oil, Flaxseed Oil) Numerous studies show that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oil and flaxseed oil provide certain anti-inflammatory effects, reduce asthma symptoms, and improve lung function (19-21).
Antioxidants (Beta_Carotene, Vitamin E, Vitamin C) Antioxidants help protect the lungs against free-radical damage and inflammation (22). Again, many asthma patients exhibit lower blood levels of vitamin C and, therefore, may have a greater need for vitamin C. Several studies show that supplementation with vitamin C improves asthma symptoms (23, 24). One study found that vitamin C, when combined with vitamin E, may help control asthma symptoms in patients who are exposed to air pollutants (25).
Flavonoids (Quercetin and Grapeseed Extract) Numerous studies have shown that flavonoids such as quercetin (a bioflavonoid) and grapeseed extract have potent antihistamine effects. Antihistamines prevent the release of histamines and other allergy-related chemicals, including leukotrienes and prostaglandins (26-30). Quercetin, or grapeseed extract, taken in combination with vitamin C has all been found to work synergistically to assist in the treatment of specific asthma symptoms (31).
Vitamin B12 Intramuscular injections of Vitamin B12 may help improve asthma symptoms (32). In particular, clinical study has found that vitamin B12 may be effective in treating sulfite-sensitive asthma patients (33).
Tylophora Asthmatica The botanical, Tylophora asthmatica, has been traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine for millennia in the treatment of asthma and other lung problems. Studies have shown that supplementation with both tylophora leaves and extract are effective agents in relieving asthma symptoms. Tylophora bronchodilator effects are, however, only short-acting (34, 35).
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