Any parent who has been to the E.R. with their child during an acute asthma attack can tell you first-hand how scary this medical condition is. Asthma affects nearly 1 in 11 children in the U.S. It is usually diagnosed before age 5, and many times the initial diagnosis follows an upper respiratory infection, such as the common cold. Most alarming, is the fact that asthma rates and deaths due to asthma have increased significantly over the past few decades–a statistic not to be taken lightly. As frustrating and scary as the disease itself can be, more and more parents and affected children are just as frustrated with the limited treatment options available. While it is true that some children “outgrow” their asthma, that is not true for all children. Those who live with moderate to severe asthma may find themselves choosing between daily medications that slowly destroy their liver or a lifestyle hampered greatly by the threat of their next asthma attack. Fortunately, there are some Natural Treatments that can be quite effective and help those with asthma decrease the severity and progression of their disease while minimizing the need for potentially harmful drugs. Here, in no particular order, are some Natural Treatments to consider (and discuss with a qualified healthcare professional):
1) Diet–many people who suffer from allergy induced asthma, may benefit from an allergy elimination diet. Unlike allergy testing done on the skin or blood, which can be unreliable when it comes to identifying food “sensitivities”, the elimination diet can help give patients relief from symptoms. There are many health conditions that can improve when eliminating problem foods from the diet, and in many cases, I recommend doing food challenges after a period of elimination. For patients who suffer from asthma; however, doing food challenges can be potentially life threatening, if a food triggers an acute asthma attack. For this reason, I recommend that asthmatics wishing to challenge suspected foods do so in a medical setting in collaboration with an appropriate healthcare provider (more and more conventional Allergy specialists are beginning to do this).
2) Breathing exercises– There are some specific breathing exercises and techniques that can be used to reduce the need for chronic medications as well as cut down the use of emergency inhalors prescribed for asthmatics. An example of a technique used by many respiratory therapists is the Buteyko method, which can be self-taught through a video course or taught by a respiratory therapist who is familiar with this method. The breathing techniques work by altering the pH of the blood and can, in some cases, stop an asthma attack altogether. The few studies that have been done on the Buteyko method look very promising, and surprisingly, not many primary care providers (including pediatricians) are aware of it. Obviously, breathing techniques are not effective for infants and young children unable to learn and practice the specific breathing patterns.
3) Probiotics–daily supplementation with probiotics has been shown to reduce allergies and asthma in children. While the research done supports the use of probiotics more as a preventive measure, there is no reason not to supplement with probiotics if your child has already been diagnosed with asthma, as they may help decrease the progression and severity of disease. You should talk to a Naturopathic Doctor about specific product recommendations, since the only probiotics guaranteed to have a benefit are the ones that were studied (quality and efficacy of these supplements vary greatly from brand to brand). I generally recommend a product free of dairy that contains 2-4 specific strains of bacteria. While most children can benefit from daily probiotic supplementation, for asthmatics, I recommend a dose 2-3 times the manufacturer’s recommendation. (e-mail or comment to me privately if you want specific brand info.)
4) Omega-3 Fatty Acids–These are the “good” fats found primarily in fish oil. EPA is one specific Omega-3 fatty acid known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Since asthma is an inflammatory process, anything that can help reduce inflammation can potentially help reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. I generally recommend a product high in EPA and DHA (not all fish oils are equal) and dose depends largely on the quality of the product and concentration of those “good” fats. You should talk to a Naturopathic Doctor for specific product recommendations.
5) Detoxification–there is an overwhelming amount of epidemiologic data pointing to environmental pollutants as the reason for the increase in asthma over the past few decades. I would say that beyond the pollution in the air we breathe is the impact of pesticides and toxins getting into our food and water. For this reason, I recommend that children (not just those with asthma) be given organic foods whenever possible, and when organic is not available, to limit intake of the most toxic foods (here’s a link to a searchable database that gives toxicology info for a variety of foods: www.whatsonmyfood.org). Some asthmatics may benefit from seeing an Environmental Medicine specialist or a Naturopathic Doctor versed in environmental detoxification. Detoxification protocols in children are complex and must be medically supervised to ensure both safety and efficacy. In some cases, asthmatics can be cured completely after eliminating toxins that have built up in the body.
6) Herbs–I won’t go into specifics, since there are a variety of herbs that can be used in conjunction with (or in some cases, in lieu of) conventional therapies. Since asthma is a potentially life-threatening condition, it is important to seek and expert’s advice before taking an herbal supplement or altering the dose of prescribed medications. Licensed Naturopathic Doctors are trained in both conventional pharmaceutical drugs and in herbal and botanical therapies and have the necessary expertise to help patients who wish to transition away from some of the more toxic pharmaceutical medications. Although it is not always possible to eliminate the need for pharmaceuticals, herbs may also be used to support the liver and kidneys, preventing/delaying the toxic side effects of the prescribed drugs.
While the treatments above may be helpful at adressing the cause and limiting the severity of asthma for many sufferers, there is still no guarantee that your child will be cured. In some cases, seeing a doctor, such as an allergist or pulmonologist, who specializes in asthma can be helpful if you feel that your child’s condition is worsening or not being addressed appropriately by their primary care provider. There are newer drugs available (some with fewer side effects), so even if the Natural Treatments are not an option for your child, there could be a better option out there. As a parent, it is important to be well educated about your child’s health, so that you can ask the right questions and act as their advocate. Being told that this is “something you just have to live with” is not always an adequate answer!