Anyone who lives with asthma or who has a loved one with asthma knows how scary it can be when the simple act of breathing is disrupted. Asthma is caused by inflammation in the airways and attacks can be triggered by allergens such as pollen, dust or pet dander. Even changes in the weather or stress can be a trigger. Because asthma is an inflammatory condition, adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle that reduces inflammation in the body may help reduce the severity of the disease.
According to a study conducted by the CDC, being overweight can increase the risk of asthma by 66%. Some studies suggest that some of these cases are not true asthma, but breathing difficulties caused by other factors and not airway obstruction. According to the Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology there is growing evidence that there is an association between child obesity and asthma in children. One study found that obese children don’t respond as well to their inhaled medication used to treat asthma. Obesity also appears to affect the way adults respond to their medication, with leaner adults responding better to inhalers and obese adults doing better with an oral medication. (European Respiratory Journal, 2006,Vol. 27, No. 3)
If obesity is a risk factor, then losing weight should improve asthma symptoms. According a 2012 review of research published in the Journal of Asthma and Allergy, obese individuals who lost weight experienced a 48%-100% remission of asthma symptoms, decreased use of medication, and fewer exacerbations and hospitalizations.
Eating more fruits and vegetables can help with weight loss and may also help improve lung function. Vitamins and antioxidant phytochemicals found in fruits, vegetables and other plant based foods may help protect airways from damage caused by increased inflammation. Some studies have found a connection between increased fruit consumption in children and reduce asthma symptoms. A study conducted in the UK at London’s Kings College found adults who ate at least 2 apples a week were 22-32% less likely to develop asthma. In an animal study, lycopene supplementation was found to reduce allergic inflammation and reduced the amount of inflammatory compounds in the lungs. Lycopene can be found in tomatoes (especially cooked tomato products), watermelon, and pink grapefruit. While not a fruit or vegetable, Pycnogenol ® is an antioxidant plant compound obtained from the bark of the French maritime pine tree and it was found to be effective at reducing the signs and symptoms of allergic asthma and also reduced the need for medication.( Panminerva Med. 2011 Sep;53(3 Suppl 1):57-64)
Many people with asthma also have food allergies and vice versa. Food allergies and sensitivities can increase inflammation in the body and may trigger or worsen asthma symptoms. A skin prick or RAST blood test can uncover IgE/type 1 food allergies and a food elimination diet or MRT test (mediator release testing) can uncover delayed hypersensitivity food reactions (non-IgE). Sulfites are a group of food preservatives that appear to affect as many as 5% of those with asthma. Foods that can contain sulfites include wine, some beers, many packaged foods, some fish and seafood, canned fruits and vegetables, and many personal care products such as shampoo. Fresh produce can also be sprayed with sulfites; for a more complete list go to www.sulfites.org .
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in the gut and have been shown to influence the immune system and reduce the risk of allergies and eczema, an itchy skin condition. Research has found a supplement containing pre and probiotics may help reduce the risk of asthma in children with atopic dermatitis which is a type of eczema. In the study the infants receiving the probiotic Bifidobacterium brevis and the prebiotics (carbohydrates the bacteria like to eat) were less likely to develop asthma like symptoms and even had a reduce risk of allergy to cats. (Allergy 2011;66:170–7). A study published in 2012 examined the effect of a combination of probiotics (Lactobacillus salivarius), a fruit and vegetable concentrate containing a variety of produce including berries, beets, cruciferous vegetables, spinach and tomatoes, and a fish oil supplement (EPA and DHA) in children with asthma. The children receiving these supplements were able to reduce their use of asthma medicine and showed significant improvement in lung function tests. (Br J Nutr. 2012 Dec 5:1-11).
In addition to diet, getting a little sunshine now and then may be good for lung health. Low vitamin D levels have been associated with a variety of autoimmune diseases and increased inflammation. A study published in the September 2010 issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that low vitamin D levels may lead to more severe asthma. Improving vitamin D levels through supplementation and/or sunshine may positively influence the immune system to reduce the severity of asthma symptoms. Ask your physician to check your vitamin D levels with a 25 (OH) D test. In general 1000-2000 IU/day should be safe for most people. Low vitamin D levels may indicate the need for higher doses under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Megan Witt, RD
Obesity and Asthma http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2504765/
Asthma and obesity: does weight loss improve asthma control? a systematic review http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3392696/
Pycnogenol® improvements in asthma management. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22108478
The Environmental Illness Resource http://www.ei-resource.org/articles/allergy-articles/sulfites:-safe-for-most,-dangerous-for-some/
Reduced medication use and improved pulmonary function with supplements containing vegetable and fruit concentrate, fish oil and probiotics in asthmatic school children: a randomised controlled trial. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23211647
Vitamin D and corticosteroids in asthma: synergy, interaction and potential therapeutic effects http://www.expert-reviews.com/doi/full/10.1586/ers.12.85