Many people find this site with search terms like “asthma cure,” but to date I’ve only written one post about asthma. About two years ago I wrote about my personal experience with asthma, my multiple attempts to relieve my symptoms (most of them unsuccessful), and my eventual success at curing my own asthma (or at least resolving 99% of my symptoms) with a mostly paleolithic diet.
Recently I’ve been thinking about what I wish one of the doctors I consulted about my breathing problems had told me. In hindsight, what’s an ideal set of recommendations for somebody suffering from asthma symptoms?
I’m not a doctor, but I know that the standard advice doctors give for people with asthma symptoms is usually less than ideal, and doesn’t address the underlying causes of the disease (overactive immune response leading to chronic lung inflammation).
To be clear, I’m not against Western medicine or the allopathic approach in general. It’s a science-driven approach to healing, and as the research piles up, M.D.’s will generally, gradually change their recommendations so that their advice lines up with the clinical evidence. For example, doctors at Kaiser now recommend that most adults should get 1000-2000IU of vitamin D per day from supplements and/or sun exposure. This is significantly more than the 400IU/day that was generally considered sufficient until just a few years ago. The U.S. low-vitamin D epidemic has been recognized and officially addressed in the recommendation policies of at least one U.S. HMO.
Still, I don’t think many M.D.’s are giving good advice about how to quickly and effectively resolve asthma symptoms without dangerous side effects. As far as I know, the standard advice you get is still albuterol for short-term relief, and inhaled corticosteroids for long-term relief (I think the Mayo Clinic asthma page provides a pretty good overview of standard allopathic treatment recommendations).
For me, albuterol did absolutely nothing, and inhaled corticosteroids resulted in immediate and severe mood problems. I had to find a better way to treat my own asthma, and eventually I did.
If I were an M.D., here’s the advice I would give to patients suffering from asthma.
1. Make sure vitamin D levels are adequate.
Low vitamin D levels are associated with increased asthma symptoms. Here are a few articles discussing some of the research:
Vitamin D for the Management of Asthma (Cochrane Library)
article discussing research published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
article discussing research published in Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology
There are few risks associated with supplementing with vitamin D. Very high doses (10,000IU/day for extended periods) increases the risk of kidney stones. For moderately high doses (5000IU/day) considering increasing vitamin A and vitamin K2 intake as well, as these fat-soluble vitamins have synergistic effects. Additional magnesium may also be needed with higher vitamin D intake (use a chelated form of magnesium as opposed to magnesium oxide — the latter is a strong laxative).
Low vitamin D is associated with high IgE (a marker of allergic response). Vitamin D may help modulate the immune system towards being “less twitchy.” Skin prick tests show that I’m highly allergic to dust mites and many types of tree pollen, but I’m no longer as sensitive to these environmental allergens. I’ll still sneeze if I bury my face in a dusty couch, but I no longer feel that constant chest tightness and heaviness in my lungs (from inflammation).
How much is enough? There is no consensus regarding the “optimal” vitamin D range, and “optimal” may vary based on factors like ethnicity and disease risk. For those people suffering from asthma — well, you know at least one of your disease risks is asthma. And now you know that low vitamin D levels are associated with asthma. So why not err on the side of “slightly higher than normal” vitamin D levels, at least until you can determine if it has any positive effect on your breathing? I wish that one of my M.D.’s had suggested to me, early on, to get my vitamin D levels to at least 45ng/mL.
Vitamin D would be my first recommendation because taking vitamin D a few times a week is fairly easy to do. I think vitamin D capsules are the closest thing we have today for “pill cure” for asthma.
2. Increase omega-3 fatty acid intake, and reduce omega-6 fatty acid intake.
Fish oil capsules were the first supplement that I noticed having a strong positive effect on my breathing. At the time, I was eating a mostly vegetarian diet, and my omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid balance was probably way out of whack. I didn’t have any good source of omega-3 fatty acids in my diet, but I was getting lots of omega-6 from almonds, soy milk, and various vegetable oils.
When the omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acid (EFA) ratio tilts too much towards the omega-6’s, people are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Eating fresh wild-caught salmon is probably the most delicious way to quickly increase your omega-3 EFA intake (without also increasing your mercury intake). However, fresh fish is expensive and not available in many parts of the world. If you can’t afford fresh wild-caught salmon a few times a week, you’re better off with canned wild-caught salmon than you are eating farmed (grain-fed) fish. Just make sure the can is BPA-free.
Sardines also have decent amounts of omega-3, and whole sardines are also a great source of calcium. Just don’t eat canned fish that’s packed in canola oil (which is high in omega-6). Sardines, like most other small fish, tend to be low mercury. Predator fish like tuna and mackerel are generally higher in mercury.
While not everyone is a fan of fish-oil capsules (the authors of The Perfect Health diet for one), I think taking moderate amounts of high quality fish oil is a fast, safe, effective way to quickly get EFA levels in balance and fight inflammation. Personally I noticed a quick (within several days) improvement of my breathing and mood when I first started taking fish oil, and I’ve been taking 2-3 grams a day ever since (in addition to eating fish a few times a week).
If you’re worried about rancidity, bite a fish oil capsule and taste the stuff. Here’s Dr. Eades on fish oil rancidity.
Keeping fish oil refrigerated not only protects against oxidation/rancidity, it also protects against fish burps.
Just as important as increasing omega-3 intake is reducing omega-6 intake. Here’s how to do that:
- Use coconut oil, butter, or olive oil for cooking.
- Never use canola oil, corn oil, soy oil, sunflower oil, or safflower oil for cooking, baking, or anything else — just throw that crap out.
- Nuts and seeds are great sources of vitamins and minerals, and some even contain some omega-3’s (like pumpkin seeds). However most are high in omega-6 EFA’s (including almonds, pecans, filberts, and sunflower seeds) so keep serving sizes small.
- Choose grass-fed/pastured animal products (butter, meat, eggs, poultry) whenever possible. In some cases the quality of pastured animal products is dramatically higher (as is the price, but it’s worth it). Eggs from pastured hens have harder shells, darker yolks, less-runny whites, and taste way better. Nutritionally, these eggs are higher in beta-carotene and omega-3’s. When we were living in Costa Rica, all the eggs were from pastured chickens who ran around free and ate insects instead of grain. While not organic, these eggs were the best we’d ever tasted.
3. Try a gluten-free or paleolithic diet.
I really said good-bye to asthma when I cut most grains, sugar, soy, and vegetable oil out of my diet, as well as cutting back on beans, starchy vegetables, dried fruit, and dairy products.
A strict paleolithic diet includes only meat, poultry, eggs, fish and seafood, fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. The idea (which I’ve discussed at length here) is to only eat foods that our ancestors co-evolved with for tens of thousands of years (even eliminating the foods we have co-evolved with for “only” thousands of years, like grains and dairy products).
A slightly less strict version, like Mark Sisson’s Primal Diet, allows reasonable amounts of salt, wine, dark chocolate, and even dairy products for the lactose-tolerant.
A gluten-free diet would allow all foods listed above, as well as gluten-free grains like rice, buckwheat, and corn.
Personally, I discovered that a mostly paleolithic diet, combined with vitamin D supplementation, completely resolved my asthma symptoms. Additional benefits included fat loss, strength gains, improved sleep patterns, more energy, the ability to go long periods without food without any discomfort, sharper eyesight, better mood (more stable, more patient, less irritable), and reduced allergies.
I have to stick to the dietary rules to keep the benefits. If I eat bread, I’ll generally wake up sneezing from allergies the next morning. Same thing with milk or too much cheese or yogurt. Too much starch or sugar (including gluten-free starches like rice or yams), and I have trouble fitting into my skinny hipster pants. If I throw out all the rules for more than a few days I can feel my chest tightness returning. So … I tend to not cheat too much, because I really enjoy breathing easily.
4. Use supplement wisely, and carefully observe positive and negative effects.
I’ve already covered vitamin D and fish oil, but there are a few other supplements worth mentioning.
- Multivitamins — BEWARE! I’ve noticed that every brand of multi-vitamin I’ve tried, including expensive kinds that are free from additives, dyes, and fillers, and use only the highest quality methylated versions of vitamins, aggravate my asthma symptoms. I can’t explain this, and I may be an anomaly, but it’s worth observing if multivitamins or any supplement you take makes your asthma worse.
- Bromelain — bromelain, a substance extracted from pineapple stems, contains several protein-digesting enzymes, and generally has an anti-inflammatory effect when taken internally (you can also use it as a meat tenderizer). About a year ago I felt some chest tightness after someone brought over a huge bouquet of flowers to our house. I crushed a half tablet of bromelain under my tongue (sublingual absorbtion is faster), and was breathing normally within half an hour. I wouldn’t want to rely on bromelain on a daily basis — it’s a blood thinner, and I’ve noticed than it increases my heart rate, but it’s good stuff to have on hand as a fast-acting anti-inflammatory.
- Evening primrose oil — there isn’t much research to support the use of evening primrose oil for asthma, but it is a traditional folk remedy, and I’ve noticed a positive effect. It may be that evening primrose oil, which is high in the fatty acid GLA, is only effective when taken with adequate omega-3’s (thus encouraging your body to convert GLA into the anti-inflammatory DGLA instead of the pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid. It’s complicated.
- I’ve found that vitamin C and magnesium are also helpful supplements when taken regularly.
We’re all genetically different, we all live in different environments, and our bodies are all colonized with different species of bacteria and viruses that are constantly interacting with our immune systems. No single treatment protocol will work the same for everyone.
Still, clinical research supports that consistent dietary changes, combined in some cases with the use of helpful supplements, may provide better relief for asthma than the standard treatments recommended by most M.D.’s.
WARNING — if you are are already taking inhaled corticosteroids or other effective to control your asthma, do not go off those medications cold turkey. Taper off gradually, under the supervision of your doctor, if and only if you experience significant positive changes from raising your vitamin D levels and/or modifying your diet.
For what it’s worth, here’s what’s worked for me for long-term asthma relief (and overall improved health):
- a somewhat paleolithic diet (mostly fresh vegetables and fruit, pastured eggs, grass-fed meat, free-range poultry, wild-caught fish, lesser amounts of olive oil, coconut oil, butter, cream, aged and/or fermented cheeses, plain yogurt/kefir, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, beans, very dark chocolate, wine, coffee, tea, fresh herbs and spices, very small amounts of raw honey)
- some cheats a few times a week (sourdough bread, rice, beer, whiskey, ice-cream, etc.)
- almost always avoid MSG (a substance of many aliases, including “natural flavors”), soft drinks, processed/packaged foods, cow’s milk, soy milk, vegetable oils
SUPPLEMENTS (3-5 days/week)
- vitamin D: 2000-4000IU
Carlson’sNordic Naturals cod liver oil: 1-2 x 400mg caps (providing additional vitamin D and non-synthetic vitamin A)
- evening primrose oil: 1000mg
- vitamin C with rose hips:
500mg100-200mg (reduced so that I don’t overabsorb iron)
- chelated magnesium: 150mg
As you can see, no mega-doses of anything. For about a year I took 5000IU of vitamin D almost daily, then backed off on the dose when my levels were tested at 63 ng/mL — well within the “normal” range but higher than some health professionals recommend. Most days I get very little direct sun exposure, so supplemental vitamin D is my main source.
I have experimented with stricter diets (no beans, no dairy, no sugar, no alcohol, no coffee, etc.), but I haven’t noticed any benefits to being much stricter than what I have described above. As long as I keep my vitamin D and omega-3 levels reasonably high, and keep grain, sugar, and milk consumption to a minimum, then I breathe easy, stay lean, and sleep well.
I don’t think I’ve added much new information since the last time I wrote about this subject, but hopefully it’s helpful to read the same material presented slightly differently. I’ve been breathing easy for about six years using the same methods. The same dietary changes and supplements may not work for you, but something will work if you keep experimenting. Notice which foods you are sensitive to.
You may also discover that there is a powerful emotional component to asthma, and that you breathe more easily when you express your own power, maturely process and share your emotions, and take control of your life.
Please feel free to share what has worked for you in the comments section. Many people find this blog seeking health solutions, so you may really help someone by sharing your story.
Good health to you.