Patients who have asthma quickly learn that managing their lifestyle is one of the keys to managing the condition. Certain activities may trigger an asthma attack; even the foods they eat may play a role. Of course, the condition varies greatly from patient to patient, so there is no specific asthma diet, but a variety of studies from the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine demonstrate that the foods we eat may have an impact on both the frequency and severity of asthma attacks and symptoms.
In particular, respiratory specialists recommend a well-balanced, plant-based diet with few if any processed foods. Of course, we recommend a natural food diet for all patients; it’s the central piece of a holistic approach to health and wellness, but it is particularly valuable for patients managing chronic conditions such as asthma.
The Relationship between Food and Asthma
Asthma does not look the same for every patient. For some, it has little effect on their daily lives. Others, however, suffer frequent attacks, which may even be life-threatening. Treatment methods vary according to the severity of the condition, but most patients manage symptoms with a rescue inhaler or prevent them with a controller inhaler.
In an asthma patient, the lung’s airways (bronchial tubes) are inflamed; they become too narrow or too swollen and produce an excess of mucus. During an asthma attack, the surrounding muscles also become tighter. All of this combines to make breathing difficult and patient experiences the common asthma symptoms: coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, and a tightness of the chest.
An “asthma diet” is one that helps improve or reduce these symptoms. For example, studies suggest that, over the last few decades, the Western shift toward a diet high in processed foods may have contributed to an increase in asthma cases. In contrast, nutrient-rich foods help decrease risk and improve lung function.
Asthma and Diet: Foods that May Help
Even though there is no specific diet designed for asthma patients, there are certain foods and nutrients that help reduce symptoms and that studies show help improve lung function.
- Apples: In addition to keeping the doctor away, the phytochemicals in apples are shown to improve lung function.
- Bananas: The antioxidants and potassium found in bananas are believed to help reduce wheezing symptoms in children.
- Beta-carotene: A form of vitamin A, beta-carotene supports lung function and is found in leafy greens, carrots, cantaloupe, broccoli, spinach, and sweet potatoes.
- Magnesium: Studies show that children with low magnesium levels also have lower lung function. A diet rich in magnesium helps improve lung flow and volume. Magnesium-rich foods include chard, pumpkin seeds, salmon, spinach, and dark chocolate.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: These plant-based fats reduce inflammation in asthma patients. Good sources of omega-3 include flaxseed, soybeans, and walnuts, but you also find it in some cold water fish, including cod, salmon, and halibut.
- Vitamin D: There is some evidence that vitamin D helps reduce the number and severity of asthma attacks in children, particularly between the ages of 6 and 15. In addition to milk, good sources of vitamin D include eggs, salmon, and fortified juices.
Asthma and Diet: Foods to Avoid or Limit
Just as there are foods and nutrients that support lung health, there are also foods that trigger asthma symptoms.
- Chemical preservatives, colorings, and flavorings: Some asthma patients have increased sensitivity to these, which are found in most processed and fast foods.
- Gassy foods: Certain foods are more likely to cause gas, which puts extra pressure on your diaphragm (particularly in patients who also have acid reflux). Limit intake of beans, carbonated drinks, cabbage, garlic, fried foods, and onions.
- Omega-6 fatty acids: Although these are an essential fatty acid, they may increase inflammation when eaten in excess. You find these in refined oils, including flaxseed, hempseed, and grapeseed oils. You also find omega-6 in raw sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, and pistachios.
- Sulfites: This is a preservative found in pickled foods, bottled lemon and lime juice, dried fruits, wine, shrimp, and maraschino cherries.
You may also discover that eating large meals triggers an asthma attack, as it puts pressure on your diaphragm, similar to the effect that eating gassy foods has.
Before making any major dietary change, whether adding or eliminating foods, always talk to your doctor first.
Food Allergies and Asthma
Like asthma, food allergies are on the rise, with the American Academy of Family Physicians estimating that around 5.4 percent of children have food allergies today, which is about twice the rate of adults. The most common food allergy is peanuts, but nearly any food can cause an allergic reaction. Common items include eggs, milk, soybeans, shellfish, and wheat, but certain additives also cause allergic reactions.
The symptoms of the allergic reaction vary as well. For some people, food allergies are a life-threatening condition. Others experience little more than an itchy mouth and mild swelling. Some food allergies cause a reaction similar to an asthma attack, particularly wheezing.
Certain food additives may also cause an allergic reaction. Many patients are sensitive to Yellow No. 5, a common food coloring additive. Other additives that may cause asthma symptoms include benzoates, monosodium glutamate (commonly known as MSG), and sulfites. Many people also experience asthma-like symptoms after consuming artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. These are not common asthma triggers, but if you notice a pattern after consuming such items, talk to your doctor.
Eating Right Is the Ideal Asthma Diet
While following a balanced, nutritious diet will not cure you of asthma, it does improve overall health and may help reduce your symptoms and improve lung function. You also benefit from avoiding certain items, particularly processed foods.
When monitoring your asthma symptoms, it helps to consider everything that might have triggered the attack. If you aren’t already, start listing the foods you ate before an attack occurred. This helps you determine possible lifestyle changes to successfully manage your condition. As always, talk to your doctor before making any significant dietary changes.