Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
Asthma and Nutritious Foods
Asthma is a disease in which the airways in the lungs periodically become inflamed and swollen and the muscles around the airways tighten. These changes can make breathing very difficult. Doctors prescribe medications to asthmatics to help them control their disease. Although more research is needed, a growing body of evidence is showing that in combination with the medications, eating a diet containing certain nutrients and eliminating foods that are harmful may help asthmatics to control their disorder. I find that the combination is helpful for my asthma.
Any attempts to improve asthma with diet must be accompanied by the use of medicines prescribed by a doctor as well as the attempt to avoid triggers for the condition. The drugs are helpful for most people and have proven benefits. The effects of nutrition on asthma aren't as well known as the effects of medications. Following a healthy diet helps to prevent many health problems and is beneficial for everyone, however, whether or not they have asthma. If they eat nutritious foods, asthmatics will be able to experience the known benefits of the foods as well as any potential benefits for asthma.
What Happens During an Asthma Attack?
In people with asthma, the lungs are over-sensitive to a trigger that can cause irritated airways. The trigger causes the airways to become inflamed and swollen. Excess mucus is produced and blocks the passageways. In addition, the muscles around the airways tighten, making it hard to expand the passageways to obtain air.
People with asthma, or asthmatics, don't have a continual breathing problem. The difficulty appears after exposure to a trigger, which produces an asthma attack. There are a variety of possible triggers, including allergens, airborne irritants, chest infections, exercise, temperature changes in the air, food additives, certain medicines, and stress. At the moment, asthma is controllable but not curable.
Many asthmatics can restore their breathing during an asthma attack by using a rescue inhaler, which is also called a reliever inhaler. The medication in the inhaler is traditionally delivered in a blue canister.
Asthmatics frequently take a daily corticosteroid medicine, which reduces inflammation in their airways and often prevents asthma attacks. As the doctor in the video above says, when asthma is under control, an asthmatic should be able to do everything that a non-asthmatic can do, including exercise.
Unfortunately, sometimes an asthma attack is so severe that prescribed medications don't help. This is a medical emergency. In addition, some people don't get as much help from prescribed asthma medications as others do.
Of course, asthmatics appreciate medications that restore their ability to breathe and prevent asthma attacks. I certainly do. All medications have potential side effects, though. In addition, some asthmatics go through periods when their asthma is not under control and they have more or worse attacks than usual. It would be very nice to have an additional way to protect the airways. Diet might be one of these ways.
Insoluble and Soluble Fiber
Some exciting research suggests that eating soluble fiber may help asthma. There are two main types of fiber in foods—insoluble and soluble. Each has its own health benefits. Most foods contain a mixture of insoluble and soluble fiber, but some have more of one type than the other.
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Insoluble fiber doesn't dissolve in the water inside the digestive tract. It stays mainly intact as it moves towards the rectum, the chamber at the end of the intestine where the feces is stored. The fiber binds to water molecules and speeds up the movement of food through the digestive tract. It also makes the feces bulkier and softer. This prevents constipation. Insoluble fiber may decrease the risk of colon cancer, although the evidence for this is mixed. Some research shows benefits while other research shows none.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel in the digestive tract. It slows digestion and can reduce spikes in blood sugar after eating. People who eat lots of soluble fiber tend to have lower blood cholesterol levels than other people.
Grains, legumes (or pulses), fruits, vegetables, and nuts contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. Some foods in these categories are known for their high soluble fiber content, however. Barley and oatmeal are two of these foods. Others are lentils, peas, beans, carrots, and pears.
Soluble Fiber and Short Chain Fatty Acids
Interesting research from the University of Lausanne has shown that a diet high in soluble fiber reduces both sensitivity to irritants and inflammation in the lungs of mice. These problems occur at the beginning of an asthma attack in humans. The researchers suspect that soluble fiber also reduces irritation and inflammation in human lungs, decreasing the chance of an asthma attack.
The mice in the Swiss experiment were divided into two groups. The animals in one group were given a diet that was high in soluble fiber while those in the other group were given foods that were low in the material.
Bacteria in the digestive tract of the mice fermented the soluble fiber that they ate, changing it into SCFAs, or short chain fatty acids. These fatty acids then entered the bloodstream. The mice that were fed more soluble fiber produced more SCFAs.
The researchers say that the SCFAs influenced the immune system of the mice, making their lungs more resistant to irritation and reducing inflammation due to allergies. The mice with fewer SCFAs from soluble fiber developed more allergic airway disease.
Observations from experiments with mice aren't necessarily true for humans too, but they often are. Interestingly, the researchers found that mice who ate a lot of soluble fiber had a change in the composition of the bacterial community living in their gut. Research in humans is revealing many beneficial effects of gut bacteria on our lives.
Vitamins and Asthma Risk
Including adequate amounts of vitamins C and D in the diet may benefit asthmatics, although the research results aren't conclusive. I think it's definitely worth paying attention to the investigations, however.
In one research project (referenced below), scientists found variable benefits of vitamin C for children who had asthma. "Benefit" was determined by measuring the forced expiratory volume per one second (FEV1).
Younger children (aged 7.0 to 8.2 years) who had not been exposed to molds or dampness recently showed the greatest benefit from vitamin C supplementation. Their FEV1 increased by 37%. Older children (aged 8.3 to 10 years) were also tested. Those who had been exposed to molds or dampness in their bedroom for more than one year before the study experienced the smallest benefit from the vitamin supplementation. Their FEV1 increased by 21%.
Other experiments have also found that vitamin C has benefits for asthmatics. However, some experiments have shown no benefits. Large clinical trials are needed to get a clearer picture of the vitamin's effects.
In 2013, some British researchers published some interesting discoveries regarding the effect of vitamin D on asthma. The inflammation that develops in asthmatics in response to a normally harmless stimulus is thought to be caused by a malfunctioning immune system. The researchers studied the effect of vitamin D on the production of an inflammatory molecule called IL-17A by white blood cells. This molecule is thought to be associated with the malfunctioning immune system. In lab equipment, the researchers observed that vitamin D reduced the amount of IL-17A produced by white blood cells that came from asthmatics, including those with severe, hard to control asthma.
Unfortunately, the fact that vitamin D has an effect on isolated cells doesn't mean that it will have the same effect inside our body. The vitamin might be helpful, though. Clinical trials are needed to prove that vitamin D can be useful for asthmatics. A 2019 analysis of the scientific literature related to the topic reached the conclusion shown below.
Our meta-analysis suggested that serum vitamin D levels may be positively correlated with lung function in asthma patients. Future comprehensive studies are required to confirm these relations and to elucidate potential mechanisms.
— Jian Lou et al, via BioMed Central, Springer Nature
Other Nutrients That May Affect the Disorder
Other nutrients may improve asthma, but the evidence is very mixed. Nutrients in this category include beta-carotene, vitamin B6, and magnesium. Omega 3 fatty acids that come from oily fish such as salmon and sardines may also be useful.
If someone decides to take supplements to see if they help asthma, it's very important to be careful about the dose. The dose needs to be high enough to be beneficial but not so high that it's dangerous.
Nutritionists generally recommend that we get our nutrients from our diet rather than from supplements whenever possible. Eating a wide variety of whole foods might be more helpful than taking supplements because a potentially useful vitamin or mineral may need to work in conjunction with another nutrient (or nutrients).
Food Allergies or Reactions
Some foods can trigger allergic reactions, which may sometimes include asthma as a symptom. Common food allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, dairy foods, soy, eggs, wheat, fish, and shellfish. Food additives such as sulphites and benzoic acid can also trigger asthma in sensitive people.
It's important that anyone who thinks that they might have a food allergy visits a doctor for confirmation. Eliminating a healthy food from the diet unnecessarily would be very unfortunate.
What Is GERD?
People with asthma quite often have GERD, which may be a cause or a contributor to asthma. GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a disorder in which the acidic contents of the stomach move upwards into the esophagus, irritating the esophageal wall and causing a burning sensation known as heartburn. The condition is similar to acid reflux disease. If someone has acid reflux more than twice a week. they may be diagnosed with GERD.
GERD arises due to the misbehavior of a ring-shaped muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter, or the LES. This muscle is located at the junction between the esophagus and the stomach. Normally, once food has entered the stomach, the LES closes the junction. If the LES doesn't completely close the junction or if it opens the junction when the stomach is full, the stomach contents can enter the esophagus.
GERD is often triggered by certain foods and drinks. Some of these include tomatoes, citrus fruits, fatty or spicy foods, chocolate, mint, onion, garlic, carbonated beverages, coffee, tea, and alcohol. Food sensitivities are quite individualized in GERD, however. A food or drink that causes acid reflux in one person may have no effect on another person. Trial and error may be required to identify the triggers.
How May GERD Cause Asthma?
It's not known for certain how GERD causes an asthma attack. One possibility is that the acid that enters the esophagus during reflux gets into the throat and then irritates the breathing passages. This may cause an asthma attack or make the body more susceptible to another asthma stimulus.
It's also possible that acid in the esophagus triggers a nerve reflex that narrows the airways to help prevent acid from entering them. This may cause difficulty in breathing and make asthma worse.
The Relationship Between GERD and Asthma
Obesity and Asthma
A diet, lifestyle, or medical problem that leads to obesity can also cause asthma. There are many reports of obesity increasing the incidence of asthma, severe obesity increasing the risk of severe asthma, and weight loss in obese people improving asthma.
Why does obesity trigger or worsen asthma? There are several possible reasons. It's known that obesity increases overall inflammation in the body, which may include the airways. Obese people also have a smaller lung capacity than people of normal weight. In addition, obesity increases the risk of GERD.
Components of a Healthy Diet
According to most nutritionists, a healthy diet should emphasize whole foods from plants and be low in saturated fat, trans fats, salt, and added sugar. Recommended components of the diet generally include:
- whole grains
- legumes (pulses)
- low-fat dairy products
- fish (especially those that contain omega-3 fatty acids)
- lean meat
- nuts and seeds
- extra virgin olive oil and other healthy oils
- herbs and spices
If someone has been diagnosed as allergic or intolerant to a food, or if someone has an ethical objection to eating a certain type of food, that food would have to be eliminated from the diet and, if possible, replaced by a similar substitute.
Potential Benefits of a Healthy Diet
A healthy diet that is rich in whole, unprocessed plant foods reduces the chance of serious health problems, such as heart attacks, strokes, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. It's an excellent diet for everyone.
Even if the nutrients in food don't reduce asthma attacks directly, they may well prevent them indirectly. It's known that a healthy diet boosts the activity of the immune system. A strong immune system stands a better chance of fighting and preventing infections that cause respiratory problems. Illnesses such as the flu and the common cold can lead to asthma attacks in susceptible people. In addition, preventing unhealthy weight gain and obesity with a suitable diet can help to reduce asthma.
Most asthmatics are well aware of their personal asthma triggers. For example, mine are dust mites, the inhalation of cold air, and the presence of respiratory infections. An asthmatic should avoid their triggers, even if they're following a healthy diet, and continue to take any prescribed medications to reduce lung inflammation. A healthy diet might provide extra protection against asthma attacks, however, and might even enable less medication to be taken. Prescribed asthma medications should never be reduced or stopped without a doctor's advice, however, since asthma can sometimes be deadly.
My Experience With Food and Asthma
I control my asthma with the daily use of an inhaler containing both a corticosteroid (budesonide) to prevent inflammation in my lungs and a bronchodilator (formoterol) to keep my airways open. This medication generally works well for me.
I try to follow a healthy diet with lots of whole foods. I do notice that if I go through a period when my diet is less healthy than normal, my asthma gets worse and I have to use my controller inhaler more often, as my doctor told me that I could do if necessary. I sometimes have to use my rescue inhaler as well.
I don't know why a healthy diet helps me. It may be due to the increased level of soluble fiber in my diet, as the Swiss researchers suggest, an increased intake of certain vitamins, or a completely different factor (or factors). The improvement in my asthma may even be due to a non-dietary factor. My diet tends to deteriorate when I'm very busy and when I don't get enough sleep. The stress or lack of sleep may be responsible for my worsening asthma under these conditions. I pay attention to worsening symptoms because I have experienced one frightening asthma attack.
Benefits of Nutritious Foods
A healthy, nutrient-rich, and high fiber diet is very worthwhile due to its many benefits, even if it has no effect on asthma risk. If it does reduce the number or severity of asthma attacks, that's an additional advantage.
Asthmatics should always follow their doctor's suggestions for controlling their disorder. Following a whole food diet that includes soluble fiber and a wide range of nutrients is an extra step that is worth taking, however. It can improve the functioning of the immune system, help to maintain health, and perhaps even improve asthma.
- Asthma and diet information from the Mayo Clinic (including a mention of vitamin D)
- Vitamin C may be beneficial for asthmatic children from the EurekAlert news service
- Vitamin D may help severe asthma from the British Medical Journal, or BMJ
- Meta-analysis of vitamin D and lung function in patients with asthma from BioMed Central, Springer Nature
- Soluble fiber and airway inflammation in mice from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2014 Linda Crampton
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 06, 2015:
Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Thelma. An asthma attack can certainly be scary. I'm glad that you no longer have asthma.
Thelma Alberts from Germany on December 06, 2015:
What a great hub with loads of informations. I had an asthma when I was a small child and it was very scary to be out of oxygen. Thanks God it´s gone. From time to time I cough especially when eating food which is getting spoiled without my knowledge which is before eating it. Thanks for sharing.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 17, 2014:
Thank you very much, ologsinquito. Yes, diet is very important in maintaining health and keeping the immune system strong!
ologsinquito from USA on March 17, 2014:
This is a great article, and I totally believe in the connection between diet and health. If your body is stronger, your immune system works much better.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 17, 2014:
Hi, VioletteRose. Inhaling cold air is a common trigger for asthma. It's one of my triggers! Eating or drinking something cold doesn't give me asthma, though. I'm glad that your father has found a way to control his attacks. Thank you for the comment.
VioletteRose from Atlanta on February 17, 2014:
This is very informative hub, thank you for writing this! My father has asthma problem, he controls his diet very much and practice yoga. Now his asthma is very much under control. One thing we have noticed is that he gets asthma if he is exposed to cold weather or if he takes something cool. I do not know if that is just his case.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 13, 2014:
Congratulations on your wonderful anniversary, Linda! I hope you have a great celebration on St. Patrick's Day. Thank you very much for the visit and the kind comment.
Linda Rogers from Minnesota on February 13, 2014:
Wow Alicia-you did an excellent job on this thorough article. I don't have asthma but do have breathing issues from time to time from my allergies and after effects of lung cancer. I am a huge believer in alternative practices. I used a combination of medical and alternative when I was diagnosed with the lung cancer. I guess it worked as I'll be ten years cancer free this St. Patrick's Day. Woo Hoo! Thanks for an incredible article.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 12, 2014:
Hi, VVanNess. Yes, although they may not be the cause of health problems, I strongly suspect that food additives contribute to some disorders. Thank you very much for the comment.
Victoria Van Ness from Fountain, CO on February 12, 2014:
I am a firm believer than all of the chemicals and preservatives in our regular diets, especially as Americans, seriously contribute to all of the illnesses, diseases and conditions so prevalent (and ever increasing).
I love that you are offering healthy alternatives to assist people in straightening out their illnesses naturally. Very nice job! Great article!
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 27, 2014:
I'm glad that you got over your childhood respiratory problems, Deb! Thank you very much for the comment.
Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on January 27, 2014:
When I was young, living in a metropolis in NJ, I developed bronchitis, which other doctors thought was asthma. Was I one sick child. When we moved to Maine near the ocean, I was cleared up in two years. My mother smoked, but I was able to get out more in Maine, which no doubt helped with the second-hand smoke. Great article!
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 23, 2014:
Thanks for the comment, Audrey. Yes, dietary choices can affect our health in many different ways!
Audrey Howitt from California on January 23, 2014:
So very useful! I didn't know that asthma and GERD were often seen together--and since diet can affect so many things, it makes sense that it can also affect asthma!
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 21, 2014:
Thank you very much for the comment, ignugent17. Asthma runs in my family, too. There often seems to be a genetic component to the disorder.
ignugent17 on January 21, 2014:
Asthma is very commom in our family. This topic is really interesting and very informative. Thanks for sharing. :-)
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 20, 2014:
Thank you for the visit and the comment, vespawoolf. I agree - a nutritious diet is very beneficial even if it has no effect on asthma! I hope you are able to avoid your asthma attacks.
Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on January 20, 2014:
This information on healthy diet's influence on asthma is very interesting. It makes sense, and I know insoluble fiber is helpful for many other health issues. And it certainly can't hurt to take in better quality food that's full of vitamins and minerals! I have a couple of family members who have asthma and even though I don't have a chronic problem, duck feathers can trigger asthma attacks. So I'll have to see if I notice a connection between my diet and asthma attacks. Thank you for sharing!
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 19, 2014:
Hi, Martie. Thank you very much for the comment and for sending the link to this hub to your cousin. I didn't know that Christiaan Barnard died of an asthma attack. That's so sad.
Best wishes to you, Martie.
Martie Coetser from South Africa on January 19, 2014:
How Diet May Help to Control Asthma is an article loaded with delightful information. I once thought I was having an asthma attack, but it turned out to be an anxiety attack. Nevertheless, it was an awful experience that has given me an idea of what it must be like to have an asthma attack. This is the lot of one of my cousins, and I am going to send her the link.
The first transplanter of a human heart, Dr. Chris Barnard, had died from an asthma attack. Although all notifications of death have the power to upset me forever and a day, his has an extra sting.
Take good care of yourself, Alicia :)
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 15, 2014:
Hi, Writer Fox. Yes, one theory for the prevalence of asthma today is the presence of air pollution. Another is that our reliance on processed foods instead of whole foods is contributing to the disorder. A healthy diet is important for many reasons! Thanks for the comment and the vote.
Writer Fox from the wadi near the little river on January 15, 2014:
I think so many medical conditions are caused by diet in this modern age. I don't think asthma existed in ancient times and part of the reason, I think, is air pollution which didn't exist before the industrial age. I think the advice you give will help many people suffering from asthma. Enjoyed and voted up!
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 15, 2014:
Thank you very much for the comment, Dianna. Your sister must have been wheezing very loudly if she kept other family members awake! That's a difficult experience for everyone, but especially for a child or young teenager.
Dianna Mendez on January 15, 2014:
My sister would horrible asthma attacks when she was in her early teens. I remember the nights we would not sleep due to her wheezing. I am so glad that today we are more educated on it and can help others to lead a better lifestyle. Excellent advice and information, Alicia!
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 15, 2014:
Thank you for the visit and the comment, DDE. Yes, a good diet can help to improve many health conditions!
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on January 15, 2014:
An excellent diet can control many health problems including asthma you have created a helpful and most useful hub on this topic in detail and with thorough research.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 14, 2014:
Hi, Nell. I developed asthma as an adult, but my sister has had it since childhood. Having asthma since birth sounds horrible! Thank you very much for the share. I appreciate the vote, too.
Nell Rose from England on January 14, 2014:
This is great Alicia, I am an asthmatic, been one since birth, and ever since last week I have been eating most of your healthy list above. fascinating to read about vitamin D and look forward to seeing if it does help the whole body as I am taking supplements because of the winter, great hub, and voted up and shared! nell