Asthma is a respiratory disorder in which breathing difficulty is caused by temporary narrowing of the bronchi, the airways branching from the trachea to the lungs. In many asthma patients, inflammation of the lining of the airways leads to increased sensitivity to a variety of environmental triggers that can cause narrowing of the airways, resulting in obstruction of airflow and breathing difficulty. In some patients, the mucus glands in the airways produce excessive thick mucus, further obstructing airflow. Attacks usually are brought on by allergic reaction to antigens such as grass and tree pollens, mold spores, fungi, animal dander, dust mites, and certain foods; attacks may also be caused by chemical irritants in the atmosphere, including cigarette smoke, or by infections of the respiratory tract. In addition, exercise provokes attacks in some asthma sufferers. Likewise, emotions do not cause asthma but can, in some, prompt symptoms.
Conventional medical treatment of adult asthma can include prednisone, oral bronchodilators, and a variety of inhalers, which usually contain either bronchodilators or synthetic corticosteroids. While these treatments can be very effective in relieving symptoms, they rarely improve the health of either the lungs or the body in general. There are also nutraceuticals that can be used as part of a complementary approach to asthma treatment. This includes vitamin C, vitamin B6, magnesium, Ginkgo biloba, omega-3 Fatty Acids, and N-acetylcysteine.
Research suggests that a diet low in vitamin C may be a risk factor for asthma.1 In fact, vitamin C levels of asthmatic children were found to be significantly lower than that for non-asthmatic children.2 Since evidence is accumulating that asthma may, in part, be a result of free radical reactions, and since vitamin C is an antioxidant that can help protect against these reactions,3 the importance of maintaining a healthy level of vitamin C intake should be emphasized. In fact, a review of scientific literature regarding vitamin C in asthma and allergy has revealed several studies that support the use of vitamin C. Significant results include positive effects on lung function tests, improvements in reactions to allergens, improvements in white blood cell function, and a decrease in respiratory infections.4 However, the same review revealed studies that did not show a beneficial role for vitamin C in asthma or allergy. Nonetheless, the general results are promising. Of particular interest is a study where 2000 mg of vitamin C was able to block exercise-induced asthma in eight of twenty patients.5
In one study, vitamin B6 levels were found to be lower in asthmatic patients than in non-asthmatics. In that same study, treatment with vitamin B6 caused patients to experience a dramatic decrease in frequency and severity of wheezing or asthmatic attacks while taking the supplement.6 A similar result was not seen with vitamin B6, however, in patients concurrently using steroids to treat their asthma.7 In any case, the use of the asthma drug theophylline has been found to decrease vitamin B6 levels in adult and children asthmatics.8,9 Consequently, supplementation with vitamin B6 is a wise measure in asthmatics using theophylline.
Magnesium participates in a number of biochemical reactions that seem to be important when lung function is disturbed. A low intake of magnesium in the diet increases bronchial reactivity (a problem in asthma). Magnesium supplementation reduces bronchial constriction and pressure in certain lung disorders.10 Research has shown that asthmatics have lower levels of muscle magnesium;11 as well as increased excretion of magnesium specifically in those patients with using glucocorticoid therapy.12 Furthermore, evidence suggests that magnesium supplementation has value in reducing asthmatic symptoms.13 In one study involving 17 asthmatic patients, a high magnesium intake was associated with improvement in symptoms.14 The Journal of Asthma reported that significant improvement of the asthmatic condition after a 4-week stay at the Dead Sea, "may be due to absorption of [magnesium] through the skin and via the lungs, and due to its involvement in anti-inflammatory and vasodilatory processes." 15 In the interest of preventing magnesium deficiencies, which might otherwise contribute to asthma and other conditions, researchers in Israel even recommended adding it to the national drinking water.16
Ginkgo biloba extract has been found to improve clinical symptoms and pulmonary functions in asthmatic patients, and was concluded by researchers to be an effective agent for airway anti-inflammation.17 One mechanism by which Ginkgo works is that it contains ginkgolides, which are antagonists of the potent inflammatory agent called platelet-activating factor (PAF). PAF plays an important role in disorders such as asthma.18 Similar benefits with Ginkgo and asthma were seen in animal research as well.19
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
The fatty acid, arachidonic acid (AA), can be converted via an enzymatic process into pro-inflammatory substances. Omega 3 fatty acids (O3FA) are able to compete with AA for enzymatic metabolism, which results in less production of less inflammatory substances. This same mechanism holds true for the inflammatory process involved in asthma, and the beneficial role of O3FA in treating this disorder. This was demonstrated in a clinical trial where O3FA significantly decreased bronchial hyper-reactivity in patients suffering from seasonal asthma due to airborne allergens.20 Similar research with O3FA in asthma has also shown a reduction of symptoms.21,22,23
2,510 patients with acute and chronic bronchitis, bronchial asthma, and emphysema were given 200 mg, three times daily of the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) (173 were given a lesser dose). All selected parameters (coughing, etc.) improved.24 NAC may work by more than one mechanism. Since free radicals play a major role in a variety of human disorders including asthma, NAC antioxidant activity may quench the offending free radicals.25 Another possible mechanism has to do with air pollution, since an increase in respiratory symptoms in relation to levels of particulate pollution has been well documented. Animal research has shown that some of the particulate pollution caused a secretion of cytokines (inflammatory substances), which in turn caused lung inflammation. That same research demonstrated that NAC reduced the cytokine secretion.26
Sulfites are substances that are often used as an additive in the food industry (e.g., wine often contains sulfites). Of interest is that four to eight percent of asthmatics are sensitive to sulfites, and may experience a sulfite-induced bronchospasm. Research suggests that Vitamin B12 is capable of totally or partially preventing the bronchospasm induced by sulfites.27
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Gene Bruno, MS, MHS
Gene Bruno is the Dean of Academics and Professor of Dietary Supplement Science for Huntington College of Health Sciences (a nationally accredited distance learning college offering diplomas and degrees in nutrition and other health science related subjects. Gene has two undergraduate Diplomas in Nutrition, a Bachelor’s in Nutrition, a Master’s in Nutrition, a Graduate Diploma in Herbal Medicine, and a Master’s in Herbal Medicine. As a 32 year veteran of the Dietary Supplement industry, Gene has educated and trained natural product retailers and health care professionals, has researched and formulated natural products for dozens of dietary supplement companies, and has written articles on nutrition, herbal medicine, nutraceuticals and integrative health issues for trade, consumer magazines, and peer-reviewed publications. Gene's latest book, A Guide to Complimentary Treatments for Diabetes, is available on Amazon.com, and other fine retailers.