You may have been told that you are stuck with asthma and that symptom control is the only thing you can do. Functional medicine provides a road map for how you can heal asthma naturally.
Asthma accounts for 1.7 million emergency department visits yearly, making it one of the top 20 reasons people go to the emergency room. About 15.4 million people in the U.S. had treatments for asthma each year. The total annual cost of asthma in the U.S., including medical care, prescriptions, absenteeism, and mortality, was $81.9 billion. Wow!
Besides the tremendous cost in healthcare and in lost productivity, it is a frightening and debilitating chronic disease.
What is Asthma?
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the respiratory system. Inflammation affects the bronchioles of the lungs and produces swelling, increased mucous, and tightened muscles.Histamine, released from mast cells through allergic reactions, causes airway obstruction via smooth muscle contraction, bronchial secretion, and swelling of the airway (Source).
Root Causes of Asthma
There are several causes of asthma. Asthma is inflammation and inflammation is an immune response. Asthma very often occurs hand-in-hand with other immune-mediated diseases in the body. These “triggers” include:
- environmental allergies (toxicity, mold)
- food sensitivities intolerances and allergies
- acid reflux
- chronic sinusitis
- stress (yes stress can contribute to asthma!)
- vitamin and mineral deficiencies and insufficiencies
- low stomach acid
- an overly clean household? (maybe!)
Interestingly, there is a higher prevalence of asthma in “Westernized” nations. A 2019 study found that a child’s risk of developing asthma is lower the more the microbiota of the child’s home resembles that of a farmhouse. (Yes, this means to get in the dirt and stop sanitizing!) This study found that the microbiota in homes that contained bacteria typical of the outdoor environment (soil) was protective against asthma.
So diversity in your microbiota is critical. What are the other triggers of asthma?
Food Triggers of Asthma
In my experience, 100% of chronic asthma patients have immune reactivity to dairy foods.Histamine-filled foods also need to be lowered. This includes reduction (or removal) of fermented foods. Yes, they are great for the gut but they have a lot of histamines – which can be a bother to some.
Until the histamine intolerance can be explored and reversed, I recommend removing these foods. For more reasons than just asthma, it is important to eliminate all refined seed oils, which are hidden in all processed foods.
I have had quite a few clients who eat according to a Keto or Paleo template, which can be very helpful in reducing inflammation. However, high intake of animal fats cause high histamine release. This is from the arachidonic acid present in animal-based foods. Arachidonic acid is especially high in chicken eggs.
We get histamine naturally (our bodies produce it) as well as from the intake of food. Our bodies naturally break down histamine through a process called methylation by producing an enzyme called diamine oxidase or DAO for short. When intake and break down is balanced, histamine is not typically a concern.
DAO is produced in the gut. However, if there is gut dysbiosis, toxicity, or a recent round of antibiotics, DAO production is impaired. This creates histamine overload, which creates inflammation which then triggers asthma.
(Truly) Resolving Asthma
Current medications are simply attempting to resolve the symptoms of asthma and locally reduce inflammation. There is a significant difference between localized reduction in inflammation and systemic reduction in inflammation by removing the source of inflammation.
Rapid relief from symptoms and resolving the underlying causes of asthma are equally as important. This is a Functional Medicine approach.
The philosophy of Functional Medicine is to look at root causes, rather than simply symptomatic relief that doesn’t truly resolve asthma.
There are a few underlying root causes of asthma.
Gastric Reflux Disease
There is a very common association between chronic asthma and gastric reflux disease (GERD). Allergies can promote insufficient stomach acid and insufficient stomach acid can cause acid reflux. On top of that frequent use of steroid inhalers can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter which also promotes GERD. (Yes a vicious cycle!)
Low Stomach Acid
Low stomach acid promotes more immune system exposure to allergenic proteins. These proteins can then worsen allergic hypersensitivity, creating a vicious cycle. In my practice, I found that every single client with chronic asthma also had low stomach acid.
Resolving low stomach acid improves nutrient absorption and reduces downstream allergenic responses in the gut. Improving nutrient absorption helps overall health and can prevent future chronic health concerns.
Vitamin and Mineral Status
Magnesium deficiency causes muscle tightness and spasms and can be one of the causes of asthma.
Environment Irritants and Toxicities
There are irritants in the environment that contribute to asthma. These include the sleeping environment, air quality, pets (yes we love them but they can make asthma worse), curtains, carpets, mold, and personal care products.
The gold standard of identifying food sensitivities is elimination and structured reintroduction. Food sensitivity testing can be a powerful tool to help pinpoint those foods, spices, and additives which cause inflammation and leaky gut. I recommend that you work with a certified functional medicine practitioner to help you identify food sensitivities. (Keep in mind that any use of steroids will compromise the results of food sensitivity testing.)
Chronic use of conventional medications for asthma can promote an imbalance in the immune system. Ongoing use of steroid inhalers commonly creates yeast overgrowth, like thrush, in the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tract. Over time, this dynamic can create an allergy or sensitivity to yeast.
When this occurs, dietary changes to eliminate all yeast and fungus-containing or cultured foods should be temporarily eliminated. This includes (but is not limited to) beer, wine, vinegar, cured meats, kombucha, miso, and tempeh.
Rapid Relief v. Long Term Healing
There are many interventions that provide rapid relief but often these do not support long-term healing. Long-term healing remains the most important work. This requires some digging to get to the root cause of asthma. Once the root cause or causes are discovered, you’ll know exactly which lifestyle changes to make.
Mother Earth steps in and provides us with plants that heal! Botanicals such as Boswellia and Quercetin may also offer powerful relief and support to reduce inflammation – and are natural alternatives to non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS like ibuprofen). Boswellia has been clinically shown to reduce asthma symptoms. Quercetin impairs mast cell degranulation. (Degranulation is a cellular process that releases antimicrobial cytotoxic material.)
There are certain probiotics which help break down histamines. These probiotics also offer beneficial bacteria to your gut and microbiome.
A Lifestyle and Nutrient Approach
Imagine a life without trips to the emergency room, having a breathing crisis while on vacation. Imagine a life where you can say “yes!”
If you have not been able to experience what life without asthma is like, and are tired of the side effects from conventional medications, perhaps it is time for you to explore working together and getting to the root cause of your asthma.