Natural Alternatives to Traditional Asthma Treatment

by Kathi MacNaughton Health Professional

People who have chronic illnesses often search for what they see as more natural alternatives to asthma medication treatment. It's not that asthma medications are super hard to take, though inhaling a mist or powder is obviously different than just swallowing a pill and does require some skill to get the most out of it. And it's not that most asthma medications are all that harmful or likely to cause bothersome side effects, especially when you weigh them against the very real benefits to your health.

It's more that we just wish we didn't HAVE to put a foreign chemical into our bodies every day. Or remember to do it once or twice a day when we live such busy lives. Or spend so much money on medicine.

There just has to be an alternative, right? Unfortunately, I can't tell you that it is possible to control asthma ONLY through natural treatments. But, let's step back for a moment and define some of the terms I'm throwing around.

When most people think "natural", they think of substances that normally occur in our bodies or our environment, that are not manmade. So most medicines are out, because they are chemical preparations produced by a pharmaceutical company. But then, so are many of the so-called natural herbs and supplements, which are actually artificial preparations made by often unregulated, profit-seeking companies.

Another term you'll hear is "alternative medicine." This is what it sounds like... an alternative approach to traditional, or Western, medicine. Many of the eastern, or Chinese, treatment approaches such as qi gong or acupuncture, are referred to as alternative medicine, even though in other parts of the world they are considered quite traditional.

A newer, more accurate term exists today and that is "integrative medicine". Integrative medicine acknowledges that traditional and alternative approaches can be used together -- or integrated -- for optimal effect.

So, getting back to asthma, the so-called natural or alternative treatments often advertised for asthma such as special breathing techniques, yoga, acupuncture, etc. are NOT going to cure or control asthma on their own. But some of them MAY have some value, so an integrative approach, where you combine them with your asthma medicine, may have value.

Let's look at a few of the alternative asthma treatments that show some promise.

Omega Fatty Acids

A German study found that a fatty acid known as arachidonic acid that is found in egg yolks, shellfish and meat may increase the risk for asthma and asthma symptoms. So, changing your diet to exclude those types of food could help. So, can taking "good" fatty acids, known as omega fatty acids, that counteract the arachidonic acid. Fish oil capsules, borage, and evening primrose oil all contain omega fatty acids. So, taking them might help your symptoms stay under control.

Eating Healthy - Fruits & Veggies

There are many benefits to adopting healthier eating habits, particularly to eating 5 to 7 servings a day of fruits and vegetables, such as a healthier heart, healthy weight, and strong bones. Some studies suggest that eating the following fruits and vegetables on a regular basis could be especially beneficial for people with asthma:

  • apples

  • carrots

  • tomatoes

  • leafy vegetables

Nutritional Supplements Many supplements and herbs may claim to cure or treat asthma, but very few have actually been proven to help. A few do show promise, however.

  • Butterbur. A chemical from this perennial shrub found in Europe, Asia and North America is believed to relieve smooth muscle spasms, such as bronchospasm, as well as having an anti-inflammatory effect. Unfortunately, butterbur is related to one of the most potent allergens around, ragweed. So, if you're allergic to ragweed, you'll want to avoide butterbur.

  • Bromelain. This is a chemical found in pineapples and is also believed to have an anti-inflammatory effect.

  • Boswellia. This herb is thought to interfere with leukotrienes, substances that help to cause the inflammation common to asthma.

Special Breathing Techniques

There are a couple different breathing techniques that have shown promise in treating asthma:

  • Buteyko Method

  • Papworth Breathing

Buteyko breathing involves taking shallow breaths and accumulating carbon dioxide in the airways, which is thought to relax the smooth muscle in the airways, similar to a bronchodilator medicine's effect. Some studies have shown that Buteyko breathing may reduce the need for asthma medicine, but the studies thus far have been small, so more research is needed to validate the usefulness of this therapy.

Papworth breathing is a treatment that's been in use since the 1960s, mostly by physical therapists, but had never been proven beneficial scientifically. A recent small study in London suggested that this integrated breathing and relaxation technique resulted in a lessening of asthma symptoms by one-third and improvement in mood. It is basically a diaphragmatic breathing method. More research is needed to validate this method too, but using it can't hurt.

Yoga & Other Eastern Disciplines Like Qi Gong

Yoga, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi all emphasize slow, controlled breathing along with certain body movements designed to relax and tone the muscles and to reduce stress. These effects can certainly be beneficial for people with asthma, especially in calming down after taking your rescue inhaler for an asthma attack.

Sublingual Immunotherapy

You're probably familiar with allergy shots, also known by the medical term of immunotherapy. The idea behind allergy shots is to introduce tiny amounts of your allergens into your body, so that you slowly build up a resistance to them. Allergy shots are highly effective for many people in eventually curing -- or at least greatly lessening -- asthma and allergy symptoms.

Unfortunately, allergy shots can be somewhat painful, expensive, and take a long time. In Europe, they've been using an alternative to allergy shots for decades that is just recently starting to take root in the US. It's called sublingual immunotherapy, or allergy drops, or SLIT for short. Sublingual means under the tongue and allergy drops are placed under your tongue. They consist of tiny amounts of your allergens, just as with the shots. But, obviously having a small amount of liquid placed under your tongue is much more pleasant than getting stuck with a needle every week for a year or two. It seems more "natural", doesn't it?

How to Evaluate Alternative Therapy Claims

Any time that you consider using an alternative treatment, whether for asthma or any other condition, you must carefully weigh the benefits against the risks. Never stop taking your asthma medicine in favor of an alternative treatment without first discussing it with your doctor. And be cautious in adding supplements or herbs. Some of them can interact in unexpected ways with medicine. Check with your doctor or pharmacist first.

Something else you can do to get the facts about alternative treatments is visit a site called Rvita claims they'll "separate the science from the snake oil" when it comes to integrative therapies. They provide an easy-to-read chart for each therapy reputed to help a condition, with indications of its effectiveness.

In Summary

Integrative asthma therapies DO have a place. But they CAN'T replace asthma medicine, so use them cautiously, and in addition to your current therapy for the best results.

Kathi  MacNaughton
Meet Our Writer
Kathi MacNaughton

Kathi is an experienced consumer health education writer, with a prior career in nursing that spanned more than 30 years — much of it in the field of home health care. Over the past 15 years, she's been an avid contributor for a number of consumer health websites, specializing in asthma, allergy, and COPD. She writes not only as a healthcare professional, but also as a lifelong sufferer of severe allergies and mild asthma, and as a caregiver for her mother with COPD.