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The Power of Your Mind

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Asthmatics who believed an odor was harmful experienced significantly more airway inflammation than those who believed it to be therapeutic
  • The elevated levels of inflammation stayed constant for 24 hours, which in turn might increase sensitivity to other asthma triggers, resulting in a self-perpetuating cascade effect.
  • Managing fear and anxiety about asthma triggers may help to improve your symptoms
  • Nearly 30 percent of people with asthma said air fresheners caused breathing difficulties, and more than 37 percent found scented products irritating
  • Natural strategies for healing asthma are plentiful, and include Buteyko breathing, optimizing your vitamin D levels, dietary changes such as balancing your intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fats, and exercise

By Dr. Mercola

Asthma has been on the rise for decades and now impacts nearly 20 million Americans, or 8 percent of the population.1 If you have asthma, the airways in your lungs may narrow and swell, triggering coughing fits and wheezing and making breathing difficult.

Asthma may produce symptoms ranging from minor to life threatening in severity, and asthma attacks may be brought on by many triggers, including exercise, allergens (such as pet danger or pollen), or environmental pollutants (such as smoke, chemicals, or dust).

An intriguing new study suggests, however, that your expectation of an asthma trigger may influence how it impacts your airways, at least as far as certain odors are concerned.

Mind Over Matter: Believing an Asthma Trigger Is Harmful May Make It So

Asthma triggers vary from person to person, and there is little explanation for why an innocuous substance for one person may trigger asthma symptoms in the next. While there is certainly a physiological basis for why air pollutants, including fragrances, may cause trouble for asthmatics, part of the response may be traced back to your mind.

In a new study, asthmatics were exposed to a harmless odor (phenylethyl alcohol, a rosy, pure scent that has no known harmful properties). One group was told the odor was therapeutic while a second group was told the odor might cause respiratory issues.

There were marked differences in how the two groups reacted to the scent, with those who believed the odor was harmful experiencing significantly more airway inflammation. Furthermore, the elevated levels of inflammation stayed that way for 24 hours, which in turn might increase sensitivity to other asthma triggers, resulting in a negative cascade effect.

Meanwhile, the group who was told the odor was therapeutic had no increase in airway inflammation, even among those who said they were highly sensitive to many odors.

Considering that strong odors, including perfumes, deodorants, cleaning supplies, scented candles, hair spray, personal care products, and more, are widely publicized as potential asthma triggers.

Could it be that asthmatics' expectation of harm when exposed to these scents is part of the problem? The study's lead author, Cristina Jaén, Ph.D., noted,2 "It's not just what you smell, but also what you think you smell."

Asthma Often Has an Emotional Component

If the study is, indeed, correct, it would suggest that managing fear and anxiety about asthma triggers may help to improve your symptoms. This isn't as far-fetched as it may initially seem, as strong emotions are a recognized asthma trigger that may lead to rapid breathing and more.3 This includes:

  • Laughing or crying too hard
  • Feeling stressed or anxious
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Yelling

The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) has also been demonstrated to be helpful in about 80 percent of asthma cases. EFT is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture to treat physical and emotional ailments for over five thousand years, but without the invasiveness of needles.

Instead, simple tapping with the fingertips is used to input kinetic energy onto specific meridians on the head and chest while you think about your specific problem and voice positive affirmations.

You can use EFT directed toward your asthma symptoms or to help relieve emotional trauma that may be causing you chronic stress. You can also use it to eliminate phobias you may have about certain triggers causing you an asthma attack.

Tapping with EFT has been shown to alter conditioned responses, such that, if you've become conditioned to experience asthma symptoms in response to various triggers, it might help you to break free.

EFT can also be part of your regular stress management, along with meditation, exercise, proper sleep, and anything else you find relaxing and refreshing. This is important, because when stress becomes chronic your immune system becomes less sensitive to cortisol.

Since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control. Inflammation, remember, is an integral part of asthma, which is another route through which managing your emotions may help you to manage this disease.

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Does Exposure to Fragrance or Pollution Trigger Your Asthma? It's Not All in Your Head

While the research suggests that your beliefs about a potential trigger can influence your body's physical response to it, please don't take that to mean every reaction to an environmental chemical is "all in your head."

Far from it, research suggests that a significant number of Americans have chemical hypersensitivity, and this often overlaps with asthma. In fact, one study found that, of those diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity (MSC), 42 percent reported also being diagnosed with asthma.4

Additionally, nearly 30 percent of those with asthma said air fresheners caused breathing difficulties, and more than 37 percent found scented products irritating. The term "fragrance," under US law, actually means a combination of chemicals that gives a perfume or cologne its distinct scent.

These ingredients may be derived from petroleum or natural raw materials, or they may be produced synthetically. Perfume manufacturers typically purchase fragrance mixtures from companies that specialize in developing fragrances (known as fragrance houses) and then combine them to create a unique scent.

It is this chemical combination that is typically kept protected as a "trade secret," while other chemicals in the products (solvents, stabilizers, preservatives, dyes, and UV absorbers) may be listed on the label. For this reason, it is very difficult to discern what component (or components) of any given scented product is triggering asthma symptoms. Likely, it's a combination that varies from person to person.

If You Have Asthma, Try Buteyko Breathing

Most people chronically "overbreathe," which just means breathing more than you need to. When you overbreathe, you are depleting your carbon dioxide reserves. The odds are that if you are breathing through your mouth during the day, you are also doing so at night, which can lead to several health problems like dehydration, snoring, and sleep apnea.

Mouth breathing also plays a critical role in bronchial asthma, especially exercise-induced asthma. In a study published in the American Review of Respiratory Disease, young asthma patients had virtually no exercise-induced asthma after exercising while breathing through their noses.5 However, they experienced moderate bronchial constriction after exercising while mouth breathing. Other studies have shown similar findings.

Mouth and nose breathing differ dramatically in terms of the depth of your breath, how the air is "prepared," and the effects they produce in your body. The first step to attaining optimal breathing is to breathe through your nose, not through your mouth. If you have asthma, I recommend using a simple technique called The Buteyko Breathing Method—named after the Russian physician who developed the technique—which can help restore normal breathing patterns, improve the delivery of oxygen to tissues and organs, increase the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood, and radically improve your overall health and fitness.

Asthmatics typically breathe through the mouth. They also tend to breathe heavier and have a higher respiratory rate than non-asthmatics. According to Patrick McKeown, who is one of the top teachers of the Buteyko Method in the world, there's a feedback loop, in that the heavier breathing volume that's coming into your lungs causes a disturbance of blood gasses, including the loss of carbon dioxide (CO2). Contrary to popular belief, carbon dioxide is not merely a waste gas. Although you breathe to get rid of excess CO2, it's very important that your breathing volume is normal, in order to maintain a certain amount of CO2 in your lungs.

"If you're breathing too heavily, you lose carbon dioxide, and smooth muscles surrounding your airways constrict. Another factor from an asthmatic point of view is dehydration of the inner walls of the airways. It's a combination of these factors that cause the airways to constrict. Heavy breathing is causing the loss of carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide also helps to relax smooth muscles surrounding your blood vessels. So, it's not just the airways which constrict when you're breathing too much, but it's also the blood vessels," he says.

You can test this out by taking five or six big breaths in and out of your mouth. Most people will begin to experience some light-headedness or dizziness. While you might reason that taking bigger breaths through your mouth allows you to take more oxygen into your body, which should make you feel better, the opposite actually happens. This is because you're getting rid of too much carbon dioxide from your lungs, which causes your blood vessels to constrict—hence the light-headedness.

So, the heavier you breathe, the less oxygen that's actually delivered throughout your body due to lack of carbon dioxide, which causes your blood vessels to constrict. The Buteyko Method teaches you how to bring your breathing volume back toward normal or, in other words, to reverse chronic hyperventilation or chronic overbreathing. When your breathing is normal, you have better oxygenation of tissues and organs.

Another Primary Underlying Cause of Asthma That Is Often Overlooked

If you have asthma, optimizing your vitamin D levels is absolutely crucial. In fact, research suggests that vitamin D deficiency may be a primary underlying cause of asthma. This means that many are needlessly suffering with a potentially life threatening ailment, since vitamin D deficiency is easily remedied. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology6 showed that asthmatic children with low blood vitamin D levels also have an increased risk of suffering severe asthma attacks. According to this study, vitamin D insufficiency itself was linked to a 50 percent increase in the risk of severe asthma attacks.

Separate research similarly showed that 86 percent of the children in the study with asthma had insufficient levels of vitamin D, while only 19 percent of non-asthmatics had these low levels.7 This makes sense, as optimizing your overall immune function is an essential part of treating asthma, and vitamin D is proven to be an incredibly powerful immune modulator, which is why optimizing your vitamin D levels is so essential.

Ideally, you'll want to get your vitamin D from safe sun exposure. Beware that using sunscreen when outdoors effectively shields your skin from making any vitamin D. Another alternative is an oral vitamin D3 supplement. If you opt for a vitamin D supplement, you also need to boost your vitamin K2. For more information on this, please see this previous article. Whichever way you go, make sure to check your vitamin D levels to make sure you're within the therapeutic levels of 50-70 ng/ml. If you get your levels to about 60 ng/ml, there's a strong likelihood -- especially if you combine it with exercise and balancing out your omega-3 and omega-6 fats as described below -- that you will not experience asthma anymore.

'Healing and Sealing' Your Gut May Help Relieve Asthma

Leaky gut is a condition that occurs due to the development of gaps between the cells (enterocytes) that make up the one-cell-thick membrane lining your intestinal wall. These tiny gaps allow substances such as undigested food, bacteria, and metabolic wastes that should be confined to your digestive tract to escape into your bloodstream -- hence the term leaky gut syndrome. Once the integrity of your intestinal lining is compromised, and there is a flow of toxic substances "leaking out" into your bloodstream, your body experiences significant increases in inflammation.

Besides being associated with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, or celiac disease, leaky gut can also be a contributing factor to allergies and asthma. According to a growing number of experts, including Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University and an expert on Paleolithic lifestyles, humans are NOT designed to eat grains, and doing so may actually be damaging to your gut. The problem isn't only that there are superior sources of nutrients; grains actually contain anti-nutrients that may damage your gut. Cracks in your intestinal wall can then allow undigested proteins to enter your bloodstream.

These large complex substances are antigenic and allergenic, meaning they stimulate your immune system to produce antibodies against them. This is what sets the stage for the occurrence of allergies and other autoimmune disorders. "Healing and sealing" your gut, which the GAPS nutritional program is designed to do, has been shown to help alleviate allergy and asthma symptoms. The key lies in altering your diet to eliminate the offending foods, such as grains and processed foods, and introduce healthier ones that will support a proper balance of bacteria in your gut. To restore gut health, and prevent leaky gut from occurring, eating traditionally fermented foods is essential.

Eight Additional Natural Strategies for Healing Asthma

As already mentioned, optimizing both your gut health and vitamin D levels should be at the top of your list if you're suffering from asthma. Here are a few other basic strategies that can help treat the root of the problem as well.

  • Increase your intake of animal-based omega-3 fats – I can't emphasize enough the importance of getting sufficient amounts of high-quality animal-based omega-3 fats in your diet. The fats DHA and EPA found in fish oil and krill oil are potent anti-inflammatories.
  • Reduce your intake of omega-6 fats – In addition to adding omega-3 fats to your diet, you also want to reduce the amount of omega-6 fats you consume because the ratio between these two fats is very important. If you eat processed foods daily, the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats (common in vegetable oils) will become distorted, which can cause the type of inflammation that leads to asthma.
  • Avoid pasteurized milk products, which are notorious for increasing phlegm and making asthma worse.
  • Get regular exercise – Exercise (especially out in fresh air if you're an asthmatic) is crucial, as it helps to moderate insulin levels. Asthmatics who exercise tend to show improvements in maximum ventilation, oxygen uptake, work capacity, and heart rate.
  • Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) – A natural antihistamine, this herb has been used since ancient times to treat a variety of conditions. As far back as the 17th century, butterbur was used to treat coughs, asthma, and skin wounds. Researchers have since identified the compounds in butterbur that help reduce symptoms in asthma by inhibiting leukotrienes and histamines, which are responsible for symptom aggravation in asthma.8 In a German study,9 40 percent of patients taking butterbur root extract were able to reduce their intake of traditional asthma medications.
  • A word of caution: butterbur is a member of the ragweed family, so if you are allergic to ragweed, marigold, daisy, or chrysanthemum, you should not use butterbur. Also, the RAW herb should not be used because it contains substances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can be toxic to the liver and kidneys and may cause cancer. Commercial butterbur products have had a lot of these alkaloids removed.

  • Avoid unnecessary antibiotics – Children whose mothers took antibiotics during their pregnancy were more likely to develop asthma compared to those whose mothers did not take antibiotics.10
  • Consider the hygiene hypothesis – There's a tendency in our modern culture to be obsessive about cleanliness, especially in children. However, this may not be as healthy as initially thought. It appears that being exposed to common bacterial and viral infections as a child can be instrumental in providing the stimulus to your immune system to help prevent asthma naturally.
  • Ginger – Adding ginger compounds to isoproterenol, a type of asthma medication called a beta-agonist, enhanced the bronchodilating effects. Conventional asthma treatment typically consists of a non-steroidal bronchodilator, an anti-inflammatory agent that you inhale, which causes the smooth muscle cells in your lungs to relax. This helps to open up your airways. If that doesn't t work, the next step is typically an inhaled steroid, which is a very potent anti-inflammatory agent.

Part of the explanation for ginger's benefits for asthma is likely due to its potent antioxidant content, which includes gingerols, shogaols, and zingerones. It is believed that these compounds have particular anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties similar to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). If ginger could enhance bronchodilation, it may provide a much safer alternative, or at least adjunct, to current medications on the market, which is badly needed.

While asthma is a serious condition that can be fatal if left untreated, asthma medications themselves carry serious side effects. The common asthma drug Advair, for example, contains the long-acting beta-agonist (LABA) salmeterol, which can actually increase the severity of an asthma attack as well as the risk of death from asthma problems. The drug used in the above-mentioned study, isoproterenol, was also linked to an epidemic of asthma deaths that occurred in the 1960s, whereas conventional asthma treatments have also been found to increase your risk of heart disease, cataracts, and osteoporosis, just to name a few of the additional risks.

If you follow the simple strategies mentioned above, you may be able to virtually eliminate your need for bronchodilators and steroid drugs for asthma in the first place. As always, using the most natural approach that targets the underlying causes of your asthma is typically far preferable to simply masking your symptoms with medications. As mentioned, you may even find that reducing your anxiety about certain asthma triggers helps to significantly relieve your symptoms as well.