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The Asthma Section

Breath of Wellness

The effects of longer term stress may not be evident to the patient and the person’s physician. So besides triggering asthma symptoms, this kind of stress can have an impact on how well an individual controls the disease.

“Chronic stress can contribute to not managing their disease proactively,” notes Dr. Christine Jenkins, head of the Airways Group at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia. “They may not maintain lifestyle behaviours that are good for their asthma, such as sleeping, eating, exercising well, and they may forget to take their medications.”

Keeping yourself healthy will help to curtail your stress level and prevent your asthma from going into overdrive when a taxing or hectic time does occur. Relaxation exercises such slow, deep breathing and shoulder and neck rotations can assist in relieving the tension that builds up from long days at the office or from shuttling your kids around town in rush hour. A healthy diet once again comes into play, and it’s important to get an adequate amount of sleep.

While yoga is a time-honoured way to reduce stress, it has also been shown in a few studies to be directly helpful to reducing asthma symptoms. Similarly, a study published in October found that six weeks of Tai Chi training contributed to signifcantly better lung functioning among middle-aged asthma sufferers – and improved their quality of life.

Jenkins adds one qualification: some acute stress, which induces adrenalin, might actually be good for asthma, since adrenalin is a bronchodilator; it opens up the airways briefly. But as for stress that comes from the daily grind, there are great advantages in taking steps to reduce that.

Strategy 5: Work out Regularly

All asthmatics should take the time to exercise. “I tell my patients: ‘It’s the one trigger I don’t want you to avoid,’” says Amy Kropf, a registered respiratory therapist and certified respiratory educator at St. Mary’s General Hospital in Kitchener, Ontario.

For one, if a patient sits on the couch all day, he may not be aware that his asthma isn’t under control. By exercising and pushing himself, he’ll realize his limits, and can begin to find the right medication to ensure he can exert himself without developing symptoms.

But beyond that, exercising will improve the efficiency of the person’s lungs, teaching them to work with what they’ve got. “Asthma can get worse if you don’t do something regularly, like playing outdoors for kids, or just going for a walk for elderly people,” says Bowser.

While the many other benefits of exercise are well known – improving muscle strength and endurance, improving flexibility and posture – what’s also important with asthma is that “it actually improves your ability to relax,” says Kropf.

For those whose asthma is triggered by exercise, it’s important to use a short-acting bronchodilator 15 minutes before hitting the treadmill or ice rink. “It’s a matter of controlling their asthma well enough so they don’t have these exacerbations when they exercise,” says Bowser.

Strategy 6: Breathe Better

For years, people have tried to “fix” their asthma by changing the way they breathe. In the 1950s, Russian professor Konstantin Buteyko developed a method to reverse “over-breathing” – and it is now practised throughout the world by people who want to treat their condition without medication.

Another technique, the Papworth method, is used by physiotherapists and includes breathing with your diaphragm and relaxation techniques.

Medical asthma guidelines typically don’t include breathing techniques as a way to treat asthma, because there hasn’t been enough independent research to prove that breathing methods are effective. While practitioners of these techniques have done their own studies, “there’s nothing really that’s been supported by the Canadian asthma guidelines,” says Kropf.

At Sydney’s Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, Dr. Christine Jenkins looked at the research that had been done and wondered: Could the breathing techniques be helpful in reducing symptoms and reliever use when used alongside traditional asthma medications? She devised a study to see if people who mastered these styles of breathing could decrease the amount of both the reliever and controller medications they were taking.

She had the asthma patients divided into two groups, and then each were given a set of breathing techniques to learn. One was similar to Buteyko, and included methods called nasal breathing, prolonged pause, (a slow breath out, and reducing the frequency of breaths) and shallow breathing. The other group learned relaxation and diaphragmatic exercises modeled after the Papworth method, as well as shoulder and neck rotations.

Patients mastered the techniques for 12 weeks, and were told to try the new breathing regime instead of using their inhaler when they experienced asthma symptoms. (Of course, if they felt they really needed the inhaler, they were to use it.) After the 12-week period, doctors assessed each patient’s asthma control. In those whom it was well-controlled, they then attempted to reduce the amount of controller medication.

*Do not take Omega 3 supplements derived from fish oils if allergic to fish.