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Asthma is on the rise in Australia. Over 11% of the population has asthma, but many struggle to manage the symptoms, particularly over winter. Let’s take a closer look at asthma, causes and triggers that make symptoms worse, why medications are only alleviating symptoms, and how natural treatment options can address the underlying causes.
Watch the video or keep reading below to learn more about asthma causes, triggers and natural treatment options.
All About Asthma: Causes, Triggers And Natural Treatment Options
What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition of the lungs. It is immune-mediated, which means it is triggered by a dysregulated immune response. Put simply, the immune system is confused about how to respond.
The bronchioles, or large branches of the respiratory tract, become obstructed with asthma. There are a few different ways that these become obstructed, including excess mucus production, constriction of the muscles around the airways, and inflammation of the linings of the airway. Over time, structural changes can occur with asthma, which can further shrink and obstruct the airways.
Asthma is very much a Western disease – there is not a lot of it in developing countries compared to Western countries. Given that major asthma causes include a typical Western diet and lifestyle, it’s not a big surprise that asthma is on the rise in Australia.
Asthma causes and triggers
There is definitely a genetic component to asthma. Many kids have a predisposition to asthma because other family members have had it. But your kids aren’t guaranteed to have asthma just because there’s a family history.
Many asthma causes and triggers are factors that you can either minimise or prevent. Genes are a loaded gun, but diet and lifestyle are what will pull the trigger when it comes to chronic conditions.
Cold, dry air is a common trigger for asthma. Most people with asthma will experience a flare over winter. Because there is a weakness in the lungs, they will be more prone to respiratory infections. When they do get a cold, it’s more likely to become a serious or secondary infection for the same reason.
Asthma will often coexist with food allergies and intolerances. As we’ll see later, these conditions all have the same driving forces underneath. Food intolerances can also trigger or exacerbate an asthma episode.
Asthma nearly always involves a sensitivity to environmental allergens. Allergens such as pollen, dust and dust mites are common triggers. Asthmatics will often have a problem with triggers such as animal hair and dander and fumes as well.
Exercise is another common trigger for asthma symptoms. Because the respiratory system is under pressure, asthma is easily triggered by intense exercise. Some will shy away from exercise. However, exercise and general fitness are important and even beneficial for asthma – just don’t overdo it!
Air pollutants can also trigger asthma. There are more pollutants than ever before, which might be part of why asthma is still on the rise. Common air pollutants that might trigger asthma symptoms include tobacco smoke, perfume, aerosols, cleaning products and diesel.
Asthma and gut health
One of the major underlying causes of asthma is gut health. To understand why, we need to look at how the immune system works.
I like to think of the immune system as a see-saw. One side is the defensive immune system that protects us against microbes and infection. The other side is responsible for regulation, and know what to react to and what is safe. A child’s immune system is still figuring out the right balance on this see-saw, which is why they are more likely to have asthma.
A big part of the see-saw’s pillar is gut health, so it needs to be addressed when treating asthma. The microbiome, or colony of microbes in the gut, plays an essential role in regulating the immune system.
Immune regulation and gut health
So why are so many kids having immune regulation issues? One reason for its prevalence is explained by the hygiene hypothesis.
The hygiene hypothesis states that children are getting “insufficient exposure in early life to the diverse microbes necessary to ensure a diverse microbiome”. Nowadays, we live in a sanitised world. Kids are not playing outside as much, given more antibiotics and vaccinations, and are exposed to antibacterial products such as cleaning products and hand sanitisers.
All of these factors mean that kids are less exposed to the bugs that teach the body how to respond to microbes.
Dysbiosis, or imbalance in the good and bad bacteria in the gut, also plays a role. Many of us have an overgrowth of bad bacteria, and not enough good bacteria to balance it out. A high intake of sugar and processed foods feeds the bad, while a lack of microbe exposure and lack of fibre reduces the good.
Studies show that dysbiosis can lead to chronic inflammatory conditions such as asthma. Another study has also found that many kids with asthma have low good bacteria levels and high bad bacteria levels.
The state of the gut will affect levels of inflammation – a healthy gut will minimise inflammation. If you or your child have asthma, keeping inflammation low is essential for relieving smptoms. This is why working on gut health is key.
The good news is that it’s never too late to build up gut health. Even if your child has been diagnosed with asthma, addressing gut health can have a powerful effect on their symptoms.
The medications used for asthma are all about controlling the symptoms. You have dilators to open the airways when symptoms flare, such as Ventolin. Then there are corticosteroid preventers such as Pulmicort, Seretide, Symbicort and Flixotide that keep the inflammation levels down.
But with these medications, there is a trade-off. Steroids have a detrimental effect on the immune system. This is part of why asthmatics are more vulnerable to infections. A 2004 study found that an ingredient in Ventolin reduced the benefits of inhaled steroids, which suggests that it could actually exacerbate symptoms for some.
This doesn’t mean that asthma medications aren’t warranted for your child. But it’s important to minimise the side effects whenever possible. As a naturopath, I focus on the root cause – the immune dysregulation – and work on bringing the immune system back into balance.
Natural treatment options for asthma
Build up the allergic tolerance
Figuring out what might be triggering asthma can be a difficult task. Even if you can identify the problem, the most common triggers like pollen and dust are almost unavoidable.
Instead, I prefer to focus on making their system less sensitive to allergens. In my clinic, I do this by using herbs, nutrients and building up the health of the gut.
When it comes to the immunity see-saw, another part of the pillar in the middle is vitamin D. If your child has asthma, I would recommend testing to see what their levels are. Most kids with asthma will benefit from a vitamin D supplement, but the best dose depends on their levels, age and weight. If you’d like some guidance on vitamin D supplementation, my express consult can help with this.
Herbs can be incredibly powerful when it comes to balancing the immune system. The right combination of herbs can build the defenses against pathogens while calming and regulating the immune response.
It’s best to seek professional advice around herbs and your child. But some of my favourites for managing asthma include Albizia and medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and shiitake.
Support gut health and address leaky gut
Kids with asthma often have issues with leaky gut, which goes hand in hand with food intolerances. To address leaky gut, you want to heal and seal the gut with beneficial nutrients such as zinc, glutamine and probiotics. You can learn more about leaky gut here.
When it comes to probiotics, not all strains are equal. Different strains have different uses. When it comes to asthma, there are two main strains I like to use. L. rhamnosus or LGG is used for balancing the immune system and supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria strains in the gut. L. paracasei has been found to have immune benefits for children with asthma.
To support overall gut health, you also want to increase your child’s exposure to environmental microbes and minimise sanitisers that kill them off. Switch to soap and water instead of using antibacterial handwash. Encourage your kids to play outside in the dirt. This will help to build up their gut health and their immune system.
Consider whether some foods need to be removed
Eliminating foods is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to food intolerances and asthma. But it can be worth removing potentially problematic foods for a few weeks and see what happens.
In my experience, kids with asthma will often have issues with dairy – even moreso than gluten. Dairy is mucus-producing, and can add to the inflammatory and gut health load if a child is sensitive. If your child is intolerant to dairy, there are other ways to get in vital nutrients such as calcium.
Instead, you want to encourage your kids to consume a nutrient-dense anti-inflammatory diet. That means eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and seafood, while reducing processed, refined, high-sugar and wheat-based foods.
Include nutrients that are beneficial in asthma
Every child is different, but there are two main nutrients I like to focus on when it comes to asthma.
Magnesium is a mineral that relaxes the muscles surrounding the airways. This can relieve the spasms experienced in an asthma attack. Therapeutic levels of magnesium can be difficult to get through diet alone, but some of your best options are nuts, green leafy vegetables and wholegrains such as quinoa, buckwheat and spelt.
Omega-3s will reduce overall inflammation levels. For omega-3s, you want to encourage your kids to eat fish and seafood regularly. If your kids can’t or won’t eat seafood, see this article for alternative options for omega-3s.
Minimise exposure to allergens
Finally, you want to reduce the exposure to common allergens and pollutants. Two big ones to focus on are mould and dust, which are all too common here in Australia. For some great resources on managing mould and dust exposure, see the Building Biology website.
Keep your kids healthy this winter!
Get your Free copy of our Foods To Boost Immunity Cheat Sheet here.