In recent decades asthma has become both more common and deadly. Over 300 million people now suffer from the condition, and every year 250,000 die, with eighty percent of these deaths in the Third World.
In Western countries the mortality rate remains relatively low, but in other respects we are also experiencing a virtual epidemic. Three million Canadians have been diagnosed as asthmatic, a number projected to double over the next decade.
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition characterized by shortness of breath, a wheezy cough and expectoration of viscous mucous. Blood work often reveals an increase in a particular type of white blood cells, as well as raised immunoglobulin – both typical in allergic reactions. Asthma affects people of all ages, but is most common in young children. Boys are twice as susceptible as girls, but by age 30 the discrepancy disappears.
The increase in the number of asthma cases is not surprising given that one of the main triggers is chemical pollution in the air and water. Asthma attacks can also be brought on by second-hand cigarette smoke, dust mites, household mold, pollen, animal dander and a host of other environmental factors.
Many foods can produce asthma symptoms, including eggs, shellfish, dairy, gluten grains (for example, wheat), nuts and peanuts. Food additives and genetic modification also play a role. It seems that formula-fed babies, as well as the early introduction of solid foods in the infant diet, are also contributing factors.
In addition, asthma has a strong genetic component. Hormonal imbalances, stress and obesity are other factors which any good treatment program will address.
Conventional medical treatment focuses on minimizing symptoms and pre-empting attacks, primarily through the use of inhalers. There are, however, many other treatment options. An elimination diet can help identify those foods which cause either an immediate or a delayed allergic reaction. Reducing the intake of red meat, pork, peanuts and dairy reduces inflammation, as does eating lots of fish, fruit, vegetables, non-glutenous whole grains, seeds, nuts and legumes.
In the first two years of life, breast feeding and eliminating common allergens have both been shown to reduce the incidence of asthma among children with a strong genetic predisposition.
Various supplements including omega 3 fish oil, vitamins A, C and E, selenium and magnesium can also help limit inflammation, lower histamine levels and strengthen respiratory tissue. Herbs such as licorice root, lobelia, gingko and grindelia have anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic and expectorant properties.
Exercise is key both to reduce stress and strengthen the lungs. Many patients also derive benefit from Chinese medicine, acupuncture, meditation, massage or yoga.
Airborne allergens are difficult to avoid entirely, but steps can be taken to minimize exposure. Frequent dusting, use of allergy-protective mattress covers and an air purifier are all useful. Dogs and cats, carpets and upholstered furniture, if present in the home at all, should at least be kept out of sleeping areas.
The severity of asthma varies enormously, but with proper treatment and lifestyle changes most patients can lead a full and active life.
©Dr. Gordon, 2011.