You've taken up running to stay fit, but after a five-minute jog, you're already huffing and puffing. You assume you're out of shape or just tired. Then a friend suggests another possibility: exercise-induced asthma.

Asthma is a condition in which the airways become constricted in certain situations. Triggers include allergies, cold air, stress, pollution, and strenuous activity. The most common symptoms are coughing, chest tightness or pain, and squeaky breathing. Vigorous activities—particularly in cold weather—can induce an attack in 90 percent of people with asthma, though illnesses, such as cold or flu, are often to blame. While you shouldn't toss out that inhaler just yet, these alternative prevention and treatment methods might help ease the wheeze.

Breathe clearly
Asthma treatments vary depending on the severity of symptoms, the frequency, and the triggers. Your doctor might prescribe an inhaler for use before exercise, a prescription to be taken regularly, or both.

Jana Nalbandian, ND, a naturopathic physician at Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, suggests eliminating environmental triggers and identifying food allergies. "You probably have mildly inflamed airways, and then you put the exercise on top of it, and you get an asthma attack," she says.

A wheat sensitivity is one of the prime suspects. "Gluten is probably the number one, two, and three most contributing food allergen to this type of asthma," says Pierre Brunschwig, MD, of Helios Integrated Medicine in Boulder, Colorado. If you're feeling asthma's squeeze during your workout, Nalbandian and Brunschwig recommend getting tested for intolerances and then avoiding foods with allergens.

Simple lifestyle changes, such as more frequent vacuuming and laundering of bed linens to remove aggravating dust mites, also can help, as can adding more fish to your diet. Fish oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, may reduce the inflammation that contributes to asthma.

Condition yourself
But having exercise-induced asthma doesn't mean you should reduce activity or quit playing sports. Many formidable athletes, such as former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, have well-controlled asthma. In fact, by gradually improving your conditioning, the likelihood of an attack may decrease along with the severity of symptoms, says Kurtis S. Elward, MD, an assistant professor of research in family medicine at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Certain exercises to strengthen breathing muscles can be powerful tools. Brunschwig recommends practicing qigong—an ancient Chinese pattern of breathing mixed with motion—and yoga to improve the musculature of the airways and diaphragm. Aim for a form of yoga, such as ashtanga, that emphasizes rhythmic breathing.

"Patients ask, 'Do I still need my inhaler?'" says Nalbandian, "and I say 'yes.' But after naturally treating their asthma, they come back and say, 'I don't need to use my inhaler as much.' That's what I'm hoping for!"


Misty McNally writes about home, health, and Earth-conscious living.
 

Tips to prevent asthma attacks
  • Be sure to warm up—this helps your lungs get used to the exercise.
  • Avoid cold air. A light cloth or muffler over your mouth may help.
  • Breathe through your nose when possible; it warms air better than your mouth.
  • Gradually cool down to lessen the risk of wheezing.

—M.M.