Breathing is such a natural, unconscious activity that you usually take it for granted—unless you have a chronic respiratory disorder such as asthma. Asthma is a serious condition that affects 26 million Americans, including almost 10 percent of our children. Every year, it is responsible for 17 million visits to doctors’ offices or emergency rooms, half a million hospitalizations, and nearly 3,500 deaths.
Acute asthma attacks have been likened to “breathing through a straw.” This is an apt description because asthma causes the airways (the bronchi and smaller bronchioles) to inflame and constrict, resulting in serious breathing difficulties.
Preventive and “rescue” medications for acute asthma attacks can be lifesaving. Everyone with asthma should have a rescue inhaler on hand at all times for quick relief of symptoms. Short-acting beta2 agonists (such as albuterol) work within minutes to relax the muscles in the bronchioles, which constrict during an asthma attack, restrict airflow, and cause wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath.
For long-term control, the most effective medications are inhaled corticosteroids. Inflammation of the airways increases sensitivity to irritants that trigger asthma attacks, as well as swelling and mucus buildup that make breathing more difficult. Regular use of corticosteroids reduces inflammation and helps prevent future flare-ups. These inhalers are much safer than oral steroids, which may be prescribed for severe cases.
Long-acting beta2 agonists (Serevent, Foradil) are also used for long-term control, often in combination with corticosteroids (Advair, Symbicort). I do not recommend them. These drugs require a black box label warning that they increase the risk of asthma-related death. They are indicated only for serious disease that can’t be controlled by corticosteroids alone, and many experts recommend that children avoid them altogether. Nevertheless, massive overuse, spurred by aggressive, shady marketing, has made Advair the world’s best-selling asthma medication.
Other meds include leukotriene receptor antagonists, theophylline, and biologics; all have safety concerns and should be used only if first-line meds don’t work.
If you have asthma, embracing a handful of natural therapies that have been shown to be effective can almost certainly minimize severe acute asthma attacks and reduce reliance on drugs.
Step 1: Know Your Triggers
Everyone with asthma knows about smoking, air pollution, and airborne allergens, but did you know that food sensitivities can trigger attacks? Or that imbalances in gut bacteria are a risk factor that can be addressed by a healthy diet and probiotic supplements?
Other triggers include exercise, weather changes, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), dehydration, or even laughter.
Obesity is also linked with asthma risk and severity, and losing weight often leads to improvements. Although exercise is a common asthma trigger, with proper precautions it actually enhances lung function and quality of life.
Step 2: Beef Up Your Nutritional Regimen
The next step is to beef up your nutritional regimen. Harvard researchers found that children with a low vitamin D blood level were 50 percent more likely to suffer severe acute asthma attacks than those with normal levels. Antioxidants, including vitamin C, selenium, and zinc, are also often depleted in people with asthma. And because inflammation is a primary underlying mechanism, I recommend taking high doses of fish oil in addition to supplementing with these other vitamins and minerals.
But of all the nutritional supplements that help patients with asthma, one stands out like a searchlight in the desert at night: magnesium. Magnesium is effective at preventing asthma because it helps keep the airways open by decreasing bronchial reactivity and relaxing the smooth muscles of the bronchioles. Deficiencies in this mineral are extremely common in asthmatics, and studies suggest that the lower the level, the greater the risk of exacerbations.
That’s why I believe supplemental magnesium is such an excellent natural therapy for preventing asthma flare-ups. Furthermore, intravenous magnesium sulfate can stop an asthma attack in its tracks. Studies reveal that high-dose magnesium given intravenously in emergency rooms restores breathing and reduces the need for hospitalization, and a 2016 clinical trial found that nebulized (inhaled) magnesium worked as well as albuterol for acute attacks. Sadly, use of this natural, non-drug therapy is routinely ignored in emergency rooms.
To help prevent an acute asthma attack, take:
- 500–1,000 mg of magnesium per day
- A good daily multivitamin
- 6 g of fish oil
- 30 mg of zinc
- 200 mcg of selenium
- 2–5 g of vitamin C
Finally, have your vitamin D blood level checked, and supplement with enough D3 to bring it into the optimal range of 50–80 ng/mL.
Step 3: Raise Your CO2 Level
While knowing your triggers and increasing your nutrient intake—especially magnesium—are important for preventing asthma naturally, here’s another therapy you should try.
Anytime you feel an asthma episode coming on, hold your breath for 5–10 seconds (after inhaling or exhaling, whichever is more comfortable for you). This causes an increase in levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the body’s most powerful bronchodilators.
When CO2 levels are low, the airways constrict, causing shortness of breath and other symptoms of asthma. Raising CO2 in this way relaxes the airways and often nips acute asthma attacks in the bud. Repeat this breath-holding exercise until you’re breathing freely again.