Natural, Alternative and Complementary Therapies for Asthma

  • Chances are you've looked at the possibility of treating your asthma with some kind of natural, alternative or complementary therapy at some point. After all, who wouldn't want to be able to manage their asthma without using medicine or puffing from an inhaler every day? Always speak to your physician before beginning new asthma treatment options.


    A few years ago, I posted here with a rundown on the various so-called natural approaches to treating asthma. The current official terminology is "complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM for short) and there is even a government agency that studies CAM: the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine.

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    Since it's been a few years, I thought it might be helpful to update the original post. Statistics show that more than 70 percent of people in the U.S. have tried CAM and are spending 34 billion dollars annually on it. This includes people who have asthma. In fact, a study in 2002 showed that asthma was 13th among all health conditions in the use of CAM in adults. A follow-up survey in 2007 showed that CAM was eighth most used in children who had asthma.


    Most of the therapies aim to treat the four main symptoms of asthma, not to cure it. That's an important distinction and the National Center for CAM emphasizes that CAM is not considered to be a stand-alone approach to treating asthma. Remember, asthma is a chronic health condition and no known cure exists at this time, despite the many claims on the Internet to the contrary. The symptoms of asthma are:

    • Cough
    • Shortness of breath
    • Chest tightness
    • Wheezing

    A Word of Caution


    Remember, also, that not all natural or alternative treatments are safe or effective. They can have side effects, just as medication can. And given the seriousness of untreated or poorly controlled asthma, natural remedies should not be used in place of medication. Always use them in addition to your prescribed asthma controller medication. And always discuss what you want to add to your asthma action plan with your doctor first.


    Herbal Medicine


    There is definitely evidence that there may be some value in using herbal medicine to treat asthma in addition to your prescribed medication regimen. Some herbs appear to have a positive effect on lung function and in reducing asthma symptoms.


    Unfortunately, there is just not enough evidence-based research to absolutely prove the effectiveness of herbal approaches. And because they are not regulated by the FDA, they may not always be as pure as you would think and may actually contain ingredients that can have unwanted side effects.


    But here are a few herbs & supplements that show some promise, in terms of anti-inflammatory or broncodilating effects:

    • Gingko biloba
    • Butterbur
    • Boswellia serrata
    • Borage oil
    • Vitamin E
    • Antioxidants
    • Fish oil

    Although using one or more of these substances may prove helpful, you also need to keep in mind that they often interact in a negative way with medication. That and the risk of side effects can limit their effectiveness. Be sure to talk with your doctor before initiating any herbal approach to asthma.


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    Mind-Body Interventions


    There are also claims that yoga, mindfulness meditation and acupuncture may be helpful in the treatment of asthma. But research studies show mixed results. The real issue is that there has not been enough large-scale scientific study to prove the effectiveness of these therapies. However, the Center for CAM is looking at a number of these approaches, so hopefully we will have more information in the near future.


    It's important to recognize that activities such as yoga and mindfulness meditation can have real health benefits. They offer stress-reduction and breathing control for sure. And disciplines like yoga also offer generalized muscle strengthening, toning and flexibility, as well as improvements in mood and mental well-being. But these are general health benefits and not specific to asthma or asthma symptoms. There are no known side effects. However, use them only in conjunction with your standard asthma treatment plan.


    Nutritional Approaches


    Like yoga and meditation, healthy eating is a tactic you can use to improve your overall health. Drinking eight glasses of water a day, including seven servings of fruits and vegetables in your daily diet, eating foods containing omega fatty acids, such as salmon, and limiting sugar and fat intake are all things you can do to build stronger bones and muscles, keep your weight in a healthy range (or lose if you need to) and help your heart and lungs work efficiently.


    Other nutritional approaches said to help with asthma include:

    • Caffeine
    • Onions
    • Chili peppers

    While there may be some broncodilating effects from these substances, there is no hard proof that they are the answer to treating and controlling asthma. And obviously overuse, particularly with caffeine, can have negative effects!


    Traditional Chinese Medicine


    Traditional Chinese medicine has been practiced for thousands of years and combines a few of the approaches described above: herbal therapy, acupuncture, mind-body therapy, nutrition and also massage. In the U.S., the number of health care providers that are licensed in the use of traditional Chinese medicine is growing.


    It's important to note that while these products may be well-accepted for use in China, they are still considered only an additional (complementary) treatment for asthma here in the United States. There is just not enough evidence at present that they can be used as a stand-alone therapy.


    In Summary


    Unfortunately, there still is a real lack of science-based evidence that alternative or complementary therapies can be used to manage asthma safely. There is hope and promise, yes, but not enough proof. Still, many of the therapies can be used in conjunction with your traditional medicine-based treatment plan. Work with your doctor to incorporate the ones you are most intersted in.


    Here are a few more suggestions from the National Center for CAM:

    • Do not use any complementary approaches to put off seeing your health care provider about asthma-like symptoms or any other health problem.
    • Keep in mind that dietary supplements can act in the same way as the drugs you may be trying to replace them with. They can cause health problems if not used correctly or in too large amounts. And they are often not safe for children.
    • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you do use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
Published On: September 24, 2014