Can Herbs Play a Role In Asthma Therapy?

Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

A study published in Nov. 2016 in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine examined the effect of Cordyceps sinensis (Corbin) on patients with moderate to severe asthma.

Cordyceps species live as parasites on insects and other arthropods. This species has a history of use in traditional Chinese medicine and although there have been anecdotal reports of benefits, there have been no clinical controlled studies to test the efficacy of this herb (herb, here referring to a general term that may be either a plant, root, mold, and in this case, a parasite.)

Within the study, 120 asthmatics were divided into two groups: one group took Corbin, noted in the study as a general or public name for Cordyceps, and the other received a placebo. Both groups also received traditional therapies, including corticosteroids and beta 2 adrenergic agonists.

The end point for comparison was a test called HR-QOL or Juniper’s Asthma Quality of Life questionnaire (AQLQ). Objective measures including pulmonary function testing and blood levels of inflammatory markers were also applied.

After three months the researchers found a significant improvement in the AQLQ scores and lung function in the group that used Corbin plus standard treatments.

More important, there was a decrease in the expression of inflammatory cells known as immunoglobulins (IgE and IgG) and interleukins (IL-4) in the Corbin group. What was even more surprising is that there was also a reduction in the expression of substances called matrix metalloproteinases (MMP9), viewed by the researchers as an improvement. These substances are inflammatory agents typically seen in COPD.

In short, the findings suggest that certain herbals can have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Note that in traditional medical treatment of asthma, most of the prescription drugs are not anti-inflammatory in nature. These drugs typically act by relaxing the muscles in the airways (bronchodilators).  When anti-inflammatory drugs like steroids are used, they have significant side effects, and Leukotriene modifiers (brand names: Singulair, Zyflo) are usually recommended as add-on therapy, not as first-line treatment.

This suggests that taking an herbal agent that has anti-inflammatory properties can be a helpful adjunct to the existing prescription medicines.

Corbin is not the only anti-inflammatory herb. Other natural remedies cited for possible anti-inflammatory benefits include:

Garlic: Used mostly as a remedy in cardiovascular disease and hypertension but has also been recommended for asthma.

Ginger: Some claim it has an anti-inflammatory effect and there are some anecdotal, subjective reports of improvement in asthma, but it has not been shown to improve pulmonary function.

Echinacea and Licorice root: These have been known mostly for their anti-oxidant effect and for this reason have been suggested as helpful in preventing respiratory infections.

Turmeric: Has been the subject of a number of studies and preliminary results suggest it may help as an anti-allergic since it seems to work on histamines which cause inflammation.

Honey: An ingredient in many cough and cold remedies and is used to help soothe irritated, sore throats.

Omega 3: Is known mostly for its anti-inflammatory benefits in cardiovascular disease, though it has also been recommended as helpful in decreasing airway inflammation.

Remember: There are no verified controlled studies that take into account the absorption, distribution, and elimination rates of these or other similar agents. Clinical research is needed to determine “ideal dose for therapeutic effect.” These types of studies are costly and no one currently seems willing to undertake this investment for items that really can’t be patented (in order to recoup financial investment in the research).

In addition, although these herbs and foods occur “naturally,” there are still many questions to be asked among the consumer such as: How do they work? Are they safe? How much is too much and how much is too little when using any of these as a therapeutic option?  These questions highlight the eternal problem with non-traditional remedies, and further propel the need for more investement in research into these alternative medicines.

Other alternative measures that can help to manage and limit asthma are not medicinal and therefore pose no real danger of undesired side effects. These include efforts to avoid foods that induce inflammation such as trans fatty acids; minimizing contact with respiratory irritants; and taking measures to avoid gastric acid reflux.

Regular exercise can also help by reducing stress.

The cornerstone of natural treatment of asthma rests on the principles of reducing inflammatory stress, reducing allergic exposure and correcting nutritional imbalances.

Probiotics improve digestion and may reduce allergic reactions as proteins and other allergens pass through the digestive tract.

We do know that some food preservatives and food colorings like tartazine and MSG can worsen asthma. Avoid animal-based foods that have been treated with hormones and antibiotics. Some patients with asthma may have attacks that are triggered by aspirin because of its pro-leukotriene inflammatory mediator effect, so patients with asthma should be cautious with use of over-the-counter agents that contain aspirin, or with other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen and Naproxen.

The best way to handle your asthma may be to commit to lifestyle changes that help minimize exposures to irritants; optimize your health; use traditional therapies; and try to find safe alternative options like those mentioned above that seem to also help limit attacks and symptoms.  Partner with your health care professionals and let them know if you want to try alternative options.

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