Health & Nutrition with Rosie Shelley, BA, SAC.Dip, ITEC.Dip
IRELAND has the fourth highest prevalence of asthma in the world, and shocking statistics just out state that one person is dying from an asthma attack every five days, so this is not something to be taken lightly.
But doctors say that 90% of these deaths could be prevented with proper management. The Asthma Society of Ireland are stressing this week that it is essential for sufferers to take both of their inhalers on a regular basis, and also to have a plan in place for when hit by an attack (see panel).
Protect from before birth
Research suggests that we can protect our children from the womb: the offspring of pregnant women who eat oily fish twice a week are up to five times less likely to develop asthma, and it’s now accepted that doing so also eases established symptoms. In other research magnesium supplements, or eating plenty of leafy greens, wholegrains and nuts, can relieve symptoms too. I think the point is that omega 3 oils, and magnesium (and vitamin D, also found in oily fish) are anti-inflammatory, and asthma is, like so many issues, an inflammatory one.
Figures are rising all the time, for several possible reasons: rising levels of pollution, use of food additives, food processing, premature weaning, deficiency in certain nutrients (including from the womb), and over-cleanliness, the modern obsession with antibacterial agents.
Our immune systems rely on good levels of bacteria, including exposure to ‘bad’ bacteria (children whose families use a dishwasher have a greater risk of all allergies, as do those born by c-section, while those raised on farms have a lower risk); increasing antibiotic use also compromises this mechanism, as does the fact that naturally probiotic foods that boost levels of anti-inflammatory, good bacteria are rarely eaten. A good probiotic such as Bio Kult, and more fermented foods like plain, live yoghurt, aged cheeses, sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir would be invaluable here. 70% of the immune system resides in the gut.
When it comes to diet, there is unfortunately no one size fits all, largely because of the central role played by food allergies and intolerances and the fact that they are highly individual. The most common dietary culprits, however, are E numbers and MSG, milk, eggs, wheat, shellfish, nuts (especially peanuts), soya, corn and pork.
Track your triggers
Keeping a food and symptom diary is the only effective method of working out what your personal triggers are and eliminating them accordingly. Other stimuli include stress and anxiety, viral infections, dust mites, pet hairs, traffic and cigarette fumes, moulds and pollens, damp climates, household and cosmetic chemicals.
What we can say is that certain nutrients will be helpful in the management of asthma, and that asthmatics tend to be lacking in some of them.
Antioxidants in general, found mostly in fruit and veg, work to counteract the free radical damage to the respiratory system that stimulates constriction of the airways (which is what causes an attack) and increases the allergic response.
What to stock up on
They include vitamins A, C and E, betacarotene, selenium and more specifically flavonoids such as those in apples, for example, which actually open up the airways; quercetin, found in apples, red onions, tea and broccoli, reduces the inflammatory response to allergens and irritants and is especially protective to the lungs.
Other anti-inflammatories include (again) oily fish, turmeric and ginger. Turmeric also contains glutathione, which is a crucial antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, detoxifier and immune system booster; other sources are onion and garlic, asparagus, avocado, greens and walnuts. Nettles are a tried and tested source of compounds that modulate the allergic response.
Vitamin A and its precursor betacarotene play a vital role in the health of the respiratory system, while vitamin C significantly lessens the histamine (allergic) response.
All of the B vitamins are especially helpful where stress is a factor, and B12, supported by B6, works to decrease inflammation during an attack.
B12 is largely only available from animal sources, but you can also get your B12, as well as helpful vitamin D and-anti-inflammatory omega-3, from that oily fish. Ground linseeds would be a good addition to your diet because they contain magnesium and selenium, vitamin E, B vitamins and omega 3 oils.
While excessive exercise can be a trigger, gentle activity is important both to keep the airways healthy, and control weight — as there is a clear link between bodyweight and severity of symptoms.
Crucially, simple things like walking or swimming, yoga or meditation will all be of great benefit in reducing stress levels and relaxing both your body and mind.
BEST FOODS: Garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, watercress, spinach, parsley, peppers, tomatoes, olives, peas, green beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin, apples, berries, peaches, apricots, bananas, cantaloupe melon; oily fish, tuna; organic liver (unless there is a possibility of pregnancy); beans, lentils and chickpeas, nuts (not peanuts), linseed; yoghurt and fermented foods (kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut); brown rice, oat and oatcakes, millet, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, rye; seaweeds; turmeric, chilli and ginger.
SUPPLEMENT: A good probiotic, high strength B complex, vitamin D, magnesium and quercetin.
AVOID: Food additives including MSG and all E numbers, sulphites (E220-28) in dried fruit, preserved shellfish, processed veg, jams, vinegar and condiments, some burgers and sausages; yeast and mould foods such as bread and blue cheese; trans/hydrogenated fats (some margarines, commercially baked goods etc).