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The Asthma Section

Breath of Wellness

Strategy 1: Lose Weight

Researchers have dug deep into the link between asthma and obesity, but have yet to determine exactly how the two conditions interact, and whether one causes the other. However, it has been shown that shedding some pounds can result in fewer asthma symptoms. In obese asthmatics (defined as having a body mass index of 30 or greater), even losing 10 to 15 per cent of body weight can make a difference.

Dr. Corinna Bowser, an allergist at the Thomas E. Klein clinic near Philadelphia, counsels her overweight asthma patients to slim down to help with asthma control. “The more weight you carry on you, especially if it’s around the abdomen, the more it pushes up and decreases the ability of your lungs to work properly,” she explains.

The keys to weight loss are exercise and healthier eating. If you’re not used to working out, start by making small changes such as taking a flight of stairs at work rather than the elevator, or getting off one bus stop before your destination and walking the rest of the way. As a bonus, your lungs will get many other benefits from a consistent exercise routine. (See Strategy 5.)

As for the food you eat, the basics of a weight-loss diet are actually quite simple: start the day with a good breakfast, and eat regular balanced meals and snacks. “If you’re just eating a salad and bread for lunch, then chances are pretty good that you’re going to crave something sweet in the afternoon,” explains Toronto dietitian Rosie Schwartz.

Strategy 2: Eat Greek

When it comes to diet, people living along the Mediterranean Sea have been getting it right. Their traditional fare – full of fruits and vegetables, legumes, fish, nuts and whole grains – is high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, two highly sought after food components these days.

In the past few years, it has become clear that eating a Mediterranean diet has a positive effect on children and results in fewer asthma symptoms, such as wheeze. Recently, researchers have traced the advantage right back to the womb: a study from Crete showed a protective effect against children developing asthma when their mothers ate a “high quality” Mediterranean diet while pregnant.

To add to the case for “going Mediterranean,” research released in July suggests the benefits are not only for kids. A study from the University of Porto in Portugal found an improvement in asthma control in adults with this same style of diet. Snacking on carrots, apples and nuts (if you’re not allergic), dining on fresh fish and pasta tossed in olive oil, and finishing the day off with a glass of red wine is not only a delicious regimen, it may help you to breathe easier.

Strategy 3: Develop a Taste for Fish

Back in the 1980s, scientists began to notice that the Inuit, whose traditional diet is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, had low rates of inflammatory conditions such as cardiovascular disease and asthma. Since then, researchers around the world have been trying to find ways to make omega-3s useful in preventing or treating such diseases.

So far, it has been shown that omega-3s are quite effective in reducing cardiovascular risk. However, “allergic disease is way behind cardiovascular research,” says John Brannan, a PhD in pharmacology from Australia, who has come to McMaster University and the Firestone Institute for Respiratory Health in Hamilton, Ontario to research fish oil and asthma.

In his study, Brannan is trying to replicate recent research that finds fish oil, in high doses, effective at treating exercise-induced asthma. He wants to take the research a step further as well, and see whether fish oil has a positive effect in cases of severe exercise-induced asthma.

At this point, Brannan doesn’t foresee fish oil caplets becoming a standard treatment for asthma, in part because of the high dose being used in the current research (about 20 times the amount in a capsule from the drugstore). However, he doesn’t discourage people from taking omega-3 supplements*, particularly if they’re not eating fish with high amounts of omega-3s, such as salmon, herring and tuna, as part of their regular diet.

“I think the bottom line is more [research] needs to be done,” he says. “It’s exciting though. The potential anti-inflammatory properties of [omega-3s] are definitely something that requires more investigation.”

Strategy 4: Relax and Rejuvenate

Many people know stress triggers their asthma, while others swear it doesn’t play a role. But studies have now proved what once seemed dubious: constant worry and stress can bring on symptoms on full bore. To make matters worse, the wheezing and coughing from your asthma can cause you more concern, increasing the feelings of anxiousness and panic, and likely making your symptoms worse.

As with all triggers, it’s best to avoid stress. But there will be times when that’s simply not possible. “It’s hard to tell the patient, ‘just relax,’” says Bowser. If a person has a severe asthma flare-up while dealing with a particularly anxious time, such as the death of a family member, that person may need to be put on oral corticosteroids, such as prednisone.

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