More than 300 million people worldwide and over 500,000 New Zealanders are affected by asthma, which causes more than 400,000 deaths worldwide annually. Most of those deaths occur during asthma “attacks” – where asthma symptoms suddenly worsen because of triggers closing the airways.
Asthma attacks can be common for asthma sufferers. If an attack is bad enough, the sufferer may need to have a steroid injection or visit the emergency room. Regularly taking preventative medicine can help reduce the risk of getting an attack.
Research is starting to show that diet, exercise and other healthy lifestyle choices can also improve asthma symptoms and decrease the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. In this article, let’s take a look at what some of the studies say about living a healthy lifestyle.
You are what you eat
Is there such a thing as an asthma-reducing diet?
Not exactly, although a recent study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine showed that when asthma sufferers switched from a diet of whole foods (fresh fruits, vegetables, pulses and meats) to a diet rich in processed foods, their asthma symptoms grew worse.
The early studies suggest that there’s no single “superfood” that will magically improve asthma symptoms, but that a well-balanced diet of fresh foods will help improve your symptoms. Of course, steering clear of foods that give you allergies will also keep your asthma at bay.
Eating large meals or foods that make you gassy put undue pressure on your diaphragm, which can lead to shortness of breath. Avoiding foods containing sulfites (wine, pickles, shrimp, bottled lemon juice) and chemical preservatives or flavourings (found in almost all processed foods) can also trigger asthma in some people.
See a doctor or health professional before undertaking dietary changes.
Diet and exercise work in unison
Researchers in Italy compared the symptoms of asthma sufferers living their normal lives with those who were given specially formulated diet and exercise regimes. They discovered that participants who exercised three times a week and ate a low-glycemic diet stated their asthma symptoms were 50% improved from the control group, who did not change their habits.
Participants who altered either their diet OR exercise routine reported a 30% improvement over the control group.
Unfortunately, participating in an exercise program can be easier said than done when you’re an asthma sufferer. Exercise can be a trigger for some people, as can external factors to certain exercise, such as pollen encountered while running.
Speak with your doctor and an exercise professional to find an exercise program that will work with your asthma. There are so many different sports and fitness classes to choose from, you’ll be able to find something that appeals.
Let the sunshine vitamin in
A new study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (UK), tested the use of vitamin D supplements in asthma suffers. The test studied 955 subjects in seven randomised control trials. The researchers discovered that giving subjects (who were largely adults with mild to moderate asthma) vitamin D supplements resulted in a 30% reduction in the rate of asthma attacks that had to be treated with steroids, and a 50% reduction in attacks that needed a visit to the emergency room.
"These results add to the ever growing body of evidence that vitamin D can support immune function as well as bone health,” said Lead researcher Professor Adrian Martineau. “Vitamin D is safe to take and relatively inexpensive so supplementation represents a potentially cost-effective strategy to reduce this problem."
When taken with standard asthma medication, vitamin D helps to boost immune responses to the respiratory viruses that cause the inflammation in the airways that bring on asthma attacks.
Getting that vitamin A
Another study, from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, showed that women who suffered from asthma and consumed foods rich in beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A) had fewer asthma symptoms. You can find beta-carotene in carrots, melons, broccoli, kumara, spinach and other leafy greens. You can also take it as a supplement.
You should always talk to your doctor before taking any supplement to make sure it’s safe for you, given your own medical history and medication plan.
A healthy diet and exercise routine could help you better manage your asthma symptoms, as well as having numerous other positive health benefits. Talk to your health, fitness and nutrition professionals to help you figure out the right plan for you.