Play Hard, Breathe Easy: Complementary Approaches To Childhood Asthma
By Heather Grimshaw

Asthma is the nation's leading chronic illness in children and the leading cause of school absenteeism (10 million) each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Such a serious disease calls for serious medicine, but big pharmaceuticals can be tough on little bodies. By combining natural approaches with prescription medicine, experts hope to lessen the frequency of prescription drug use. "Our purpose is to get better management of the disease," says Judith Stern, Sc.D., R.D., former co-director of the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research in Asthma at the University of California, Davis. And many experts believe the way to do this is with a potpourri approach to therapy, including conventional medicine, nutrition, vitamins, herbs and bodywork.

"It's not a matter of substituting vitamins for medicine," says Ira Cantor, M.D., director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. "We're not replacing albuterol in urgent situations, but we have found that our patients need their nebulizers less frequently."

When evaluating asthma patients, Cantor tests for food allergies first. Unrecognized allergic reactions or intolerances to certain foods can produce nasal and bronchial congestion in a child's body, which can predispose them to asthma. In other words, foods that are high in fat or sugar, such as processed foods, can cause chronic inflammation in the body, which exacerbates asthma. On the flip side, Cantor says fresh foods, vegetables and "good" fats help the body maintain an anti-inflammatory state.

Using an elimination diet, Cantor can gauge how different foods affect a patient's body and then design a nonallergenic diet to reduce the occurrence or severity of asthma attacks. To start, Cantor eliminates dairy, wheat, corn products, sugars and yeast from his patients' diets and says that he has seen an improvement in several asthma situations after eliminating mucous-producing foods. The special diet may last a few weeks—if food allergies are ruled out as a trigger—or it can mean a lifelong change to a child's food routine.

Believing that diet is one of the most important elements in controlling childhood asthma, Cantor encourages asthmatics to try elimination diets. Because reactions to food can be delayed by a few hours or even days, food allergies are frequently overlooked as triggers to asthma and may be the easiest and least-expensive way to control the condition. Gradually adding back eliminated foods to the diet can help pinpoint triggers. He also agrees that vitamins are important to treatment.

Thomas Kruzel, N.D., dean of clinical education at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences in Tempe, Ariz., advises children with asthma to take a multivitamin plus 1-2 capsules of vitamin C daily with meals. He emphasizes that doses vary by age, which is why consulting a physician is important. Multivitamins and multiminerals are helpful to asthmatics because they contain antioxidants, which help maintain tissue integrity; magnesium, which assists with smooth-muscle relaxation; and beta-carotene and vitamin A, which ensure healthy cell growth.

Stressed Environment, Stressed Kids
The number of asthma sufferers has more than doubled in the last two decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.7 million people suffered from asthma in 1980. That number jumped to 17.3 million in 1998, 4.8 million of whom were children. Environmental allergens—including dust, chemicals, animals and pollen—can cause and aggravate asthma. Once identified, these can be limited by using the following techniques recommended by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Use an air conditioner to limit exposure to airborne pollen. Have a utility company check the air conditioner and furnace once a year and change filters.
  • Clean bedding frequently in hot water to minimize dust. And clean your home at least once a week to avoid a buildup of asthma-aggravating allergens.
  • Replace down or foam rubber products with synthetic materials.
  • Use exhaust fans in the bathroom and kitchen and a dehumidifier in the basement to keep humidity at about 40-50 percent.
  • Replace upholstered furniture with leather or vinyl and switch carpeting to hardwood, vinyl or tile. And don't forget the stress factor. "There is mounting evidence that stress plays an adverse role for kids who have asthma," says Gailen D. Marshall, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Allergy and Clinical Immunology division at the University of Texas in Houston. "We need to teach them how to manage stress." Marshall also emphasizes the importance of down time for kids and says that parents need to assess their expectation levels. "There should be time for kids to just hang out," he adds. Along the same lines, Marshall notes that the way an individual deals with his/her illness plays an important role in the management of that illness. "Children who have a matter-of-fact approach to their asthma have more control over it than those who are fearful and inhibited. Parents should encourage their children to live as normal a life as possible and work to optimize lifestyle and minimize limitations," he says.
  • In terms of optimizing lifestyle, there are several alternative therapies that can be helpful to kids with asthma, such as yoga, massage therapy and tai chi. These therapies—which have been proven to relax the nervous system, help strengthen the immune system and increase oxygen in the body—also relieve stress and teach deep-breathing techniques.

Asthma is a serious condition that can cause death. While prescription drugs are needed to keep asthma in check, natural approaches can facilitate less dependency on pharmaceuticals.

Heather Grimshaw is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health and wellness.