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Even if you don’t have asthma, chances are you know someone who does. More than 26 million Americans have asthma, including 6.1 million children, according to the American Lung Association. This common lung disease makes it harder to move air in and out of your lungs due to airways that are chronically swollen, constricted and produce more lower mucus.
Asthma is a serious condition that could be life threatening if the triggers and how to manage them are not well understood. Though there is no cure for asthma, episodes of wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath can be reduced and avoided when triggers are known. Common triggers of an asthmatic episode are:
- Infections: Colds, upper respiratory infections, influenza, sinusitis and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Allergens: Pet hair and feathers, dust, mold, pollens, and certain foods and medications
- Irritants: Smoke, chalk, certain weather conditions, aerosols and strong odors
- Behaviors: Strong laughing or crying, vigorous exercise
Asthma often is diagnosed in children, but it can appear in people of any age. Though there is no proof that asthma is inherited, there is a tendency for it to run in families. More male children have asthma and more female adults have asthma. Among all racial and ethnic groups, Puerto Ricans have the highest rate of lifetime asthma and Mexicans the lowest, according to the American Lung Association. Puerto Ricans are almost 80% more likely to be diagnosed with asthma than non-Hispanic whites. Non-Hispanic blacks and American Indians are about 25% more likely to be diagnosed with asthma than non-Hispanic whites.
Asthma attacks are managed by quick-relief medications, usually an inhaler or nebulizer with medicine that relaxes and opens airways. But prevention of asthma is one of the best ways to control and live healthfully with the condition. Prevention includes monitoring, avoiding triggers, preventing illness, having clean surroundings and taking medications as prescribed. And while there is no diet for all people with asthma, there are certain foods that are believed to help prevent or worsen asthma.
What to eat to help control asthma
Foods high in vitamins A and D
In studies, higher levels of vitamin A has correlated with better lung function, and one study found that children with asthma tended to have lower levels of vitamin A than children without asthma. Get vitamin A by eating plenty of orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, dark leafy greens like spinach, eggs and fortified milk. Low levels of vitamin D have also been connected to people with asthma, and getting enough vitamin D could reduce the amount of asthma attacks in children. Get vitamin D from salmon, mushrooms, and foods that have been fortified with vitamin D, such as milk, orange juice and eggs.
A diet full of some of the highest antioxidant foods could help reduce inflammation of airways in people with asthma. To get plenty of antioxidants daily, focus on fresh berries, tart cherry juice, apples, walnuts, pecans, leafy greens, artichokes, broccoli, turmeric, ginger and beans.
Foods high in magnesium
Studies have connected diets low in magnesium to low lung flow and volume in people with asthma. Magnesium can help relax and dilate airway muscles and reduce lung inflammation. Get magnesium from avocados, beans, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Foods high in EPA and DHA
Diets rich in omega 3s have been tied to fewer childhood asthma symptoms triggered by indoor air pollution. Two potent omega-3 fatty acids can have a positive effect on lung health by changing how the body responds to and processes inflammation. If you don’t have a fish allergy, eat more foods that are good sources of EPA and DHA, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and anchovies.
Foods to avoid when you have asthma
People with asthma are at higher risk for food allergies. There are eight foods that account for 90% of all food-allergy reactions: cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans, almonds and cashews), fish, shellfish, soybeans and wheat. Symptoms of a food allergy range from sneezing and itchy eyes to swelling of the face, itchy skin, shortness of breath, dizziness, vomiting and more. If you suspect a food allergy, ask your doctor or pediatrician to test for food allergies, which will likely include skin and blood tests, reviewing family history and an elimination period.
Foods high in sulfites
About 10% of people with asthma are triggered by foods that contain high amounts of sulfites. Food high in sulfites include wine, dried fruits, pickled foods, sauerkraut, molasses, grape juice, and bottled lemon and lime juice. Also, avoid foods with these preservative ingredients on the label: sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite and sodium sulfite.
Large meals and gas-causing foods
Eating large meals, especially those with typical gas-causing foods – like beans, fried foods, cabbage or carbonated drinks – can create pressure on the diaphragm and may even cause acid reflux. For people with asthma, this can create more chest pressure and trigger an asthma attack.
Artificial food additives
Research on artificial sweeteners and artificial dyes and a connection to asthma in humans is still being researched. However, many experts believe people with asthma may be more sensitive and/or allergic to artificial additives.
Supplements that can help with asthma
Additional support from certain supplements could help prevent asthma attacks. Always consult your doctor before starting a new supplement.
Multivitamin with minerals
Taking a daily quality multivitamin with minerals could be helpful to people with asthma, as some scientists believe asthma and vitamin deficiencies are linked. While it would be inappropriate to regard vitamin deficiencies as the cause of asthma, they are a marker of poor health and nutrition, which can make people more susceptible. Vitamins C, D and E may be especially helpful, due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect and help at building immunity.
The anti-inflammatory properties of EPA and DHA – two potent omega-3 fatty acids – is beneficial for reducing asthma exacerbated by inflamed airways and can be useful, especially for those who don’t regularly eat two servings or more of fatty fish per week. If you are allergic to fish, consider a vegan algae oil supplement.
Magnesium sulfate administered either through an IV or nebulizer is often used to help stop a life-threatening asthma attack. Over-the-counter magnesium supplements, however, may be useful in helping to prevent attacks. Speak with your doctor who can advise you on the right dosage to balance a magnesium supplement with your calcium intake so as to avoid low blood pressure or irregular heartbeat.
Have asthma? Do this first.
If you have been newly diagnosed with asthma, the best thing to do first is fully understand your condition and work to identify triggers. Next, eliminate your exposure to triggers and make sure your close family, friends, teachers and/or schoolmates understand how to support you if you’re having an asthma attack. If you’ve had chronic asthma for some time, re-learn the proper way to take your medication. According to the American Lung Association, approximately 86% of asthma patients don’t take their medications correctly.
What else to know about asthma
For people with chronic asthma, there are many factors to consider to help prevent and manage attacks. Consider the above recommended dietary approaches with the following in mind.
Asthma sufferers almost always use some or several forms of medication to help manage the condition. Since everyone reacts to medications differently, it’s important to play an active role, working with your healthcare providers, to find the best medication(s) and dosage for you. Also remember that it may take a few months for medications to work, so be diligent. There are many types of medications used to treat asthma, including long-term controllers, rescue medications, allergy medications and those used to reduce lung inflammation.
If you or your child is diagnosed with asthma, you will work with your healthcare providers to create an asthma management plan that can help you live well with the condition. Common goals of an asthma plan are to help you sleep through the night, be physically active, not miss school or work due to asthma, reduce coughing or wheezing, and avoid asthma-related emergency room visits or hospitalizations. All of these goals are possible and many people thrive and live active lives with asthma. A certified asthma educator can also be a helpful teammate in creating your management plan and revising it as life or your condition changes.
Dust mites, pollen, mold, and pet hair and feathers are often triggers for people with asthma. It is wise to declutter your common areas often to avoid dust buildup. Also, perform routine cleaning (consider wearing an N95 mask while doing so) and keep windows closed when there is a lot of pollen in the air. If you live in a humid environment, keep surfaces dry and use a dehumidifier to prevent mold.
Some people with asthma find that their symptoms get worse at night. Sleeping on your back with your head and neck elevated, or on your left side with a pillow between your legs and head elevated, are known positions that can help people with asthma breathe easier when sleeping.
Some people only suffer from this type of asthma, which is a temporary narrowing of the airways triggered by exercise. This type of asthma can occur during or just after vigorous activity, and it usually resolves within 20 to 30 minutes. People with exercise-induced asthma can still exercise, even vigorously, when the correct measures are taken. The condition is usually managed by performing warm-up and cool-down periods, having quick-relief medication nearby, taking a bronchodilator 15 minutes before exercise, and reducing exercise intensity in cold or dry air.
Health experts recommend that people with asthma get annual vaccinations for the flu and pneumonia, since they are more susceptible than the general population to these illnesses that could trigger an attack.
Put these recommendations into practice with our three-day, dietitian-curated meal plan.