May 3rd, 2022, is World Asthma Day. The Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA) began the tribute in 1998 and has continued to celebrate on the first Tuesday in May every year since. Each year, GINA chooses a theme and sends out resources to help educate healthcare providers, patients, and the public about asthma.
This year’s theme is “Closing Gaps in Asthma Care,” depicted by a globe made up of colorful puzzle pieces… with some of the pieces missing. The empty spaces represent the gaps that exist in access to diagnosis and treatment (medication).
But is medication really the missing piece? We disagree. It’s time for a different perspective on asthma…
What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a chronic health condition that affects the airways with recurring symptoms, such as inflammation, airflow obstruction, and bronchial tubes that easily spasm and constrict. Other more specific symptoms of asthma may include wheezing, a tight chest, breathlessness, and coughing, especially at night or early morning.
During an asthma attack, the airways become so restricted that it’s almost like you’re sucking in air through a straw, rather than the garden hose size it’s supposed to be. When you take a break to breathe out, you feel like you’re suffocating. It can be a really scary situation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), over 25 million people in the United States have asthma. That statistic includes 5.1 million children.
What Causes Asthma?
There’s a genetic component, but the environment plays a major role. The genetic aspect is a tendency to develop an IgE response to airborne allergens. However, just like anything else, genetics is only one component. The environment you subject yourself to, both inside and outside, is more important.
One interesting phenomenon surrounding asthma and other allergy-related diseases is something called the “Atopic March.” This term refers to the progression of atopic dermatitis (eczema) in infants to allergic rhinitis (“allergies”) and asthma in later childhood.
Food allergies often go along with environmental allergies, so children often have reactions to things like pollen, cats, dairy, tree nuts, etc., all at once. What are the chances that these have a common underlying cause? (Pretty good).
Researchers have even found that egg sensitivity early in life was associated with allergies and asthma later on in life. What’s the connection? An inflammatory response.
A Different Perspective on Asthma
Asthma is an inflammatory condition. What causes inflammation leading to asthma? At The Wellness Way, we always go back to physical, biochemical, and emotional causes. We refer to them as trauma, toxins, and thoughts; the Three T’s.
Trauma Contributors to Asthma
What are some of the physical stressors that can contribute to asthma? Some physical stressors could be a car accident or other injury, a traumatic loss, a severe illness or surgery, sexual assault, being a victim of violence (or viewing it), having a baby, or other events that majorly impact your physical body.
Scientists have found direct connections between asthma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect; witnessing violence; and losing a family member to suicide. The more ACEs, the greater the chance of developing a chronic illness, like asthma.
The mother’s interpersonal trauma can also increase the likelihood of her child being diagnosed with asthma, particularly in baby boys. It’s not just trauma she experienced during pregnancy but throughout her entire life. Trauma clearly changes the DNA.
Toxin Contributors to Asthma
Biochemical stressors that may contribute to asthma include the following:
- Food allergies – eating allergenic foods is a biochemical stressor on the body.
- Giving a baby formula rather than breastfeeding.
- Putting kids on antibiotics before age 6.
- Eating too much sugar.
- Consuming alcohol and potentially the added sulfites (sulfur dioxide, sodium- and potassium metabisulfite, sodium and potassium bisulfite, sodium sulfite).
- Using air fresheners aggravates asthma.
- Cleaning with conventional Household Cleaning products.
- Phthalates in personal care products and food packaging.
- Exposure to weed killers (herbicides) before age 1 makes kids 4.5 times more likely to develop asthma before age 5.
- Exposure to insecticides before age 1 makes kids 2.5 times more likely to develop asthma.
- Swimming in chlorinated swimming pools.
All these toxic exposures, whether internal or external set off an immune response in the body, which, depending on your sensitivity, can lead to asthma-like symptoms.
Thoughts (Mental and Emotional Stressors)
Chronic mental and emotional stressors can also contribute to an asthma diagnosis, as it stimulates white blood cells called mast cells, which then release histamine and a whole host of other inflammatory chemicals. In these cases, the nervous system needs a reset, which means removing anything that may be aggravating it. Other thought-related stressors may include fear or worry about the future, overwhelm from life in general, grief or other feelings from loss, and other emotional stressors from relationships, work, etc.
Chronic stress has a major negative impact on asthma.
The Swiss Watch Approach to Asthma
If you’ve spent any time at The Wellness Way, you will have heard of The Swiss Watch Principle. Basically, like the gears inside a Swiss watch, everything in the body affects everything else. If you have inflammation in your airway (respiratory system), chances are pretty good that you have inflammation elsewhere in your body. It’s all connected through your nervous system, as in the image below:
Research has confirmed that issues in these other systems can contribute to asthma – as the initial cause and as an aggravating factor. Let’s look at a few body systems and how they can impact the respiratory system, contributing to asthma.
The Endocrine System and Asthma
Believe it or not, hormones can impact asthma. The endocrine system is made up of many different hormones that have a variety of effects on the body. Insulin is one hormone that researchers have connected to asthma. Insulin is needed to get glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells. When the body becomes resistant to insulin’s effects, it can lead to diabetes.
A study published in 2016 found that high levels of insulin due to insulin resistance changed lung structure and reduced function. The lungs also became overresponsive to airborne particles. Several studies have found a strong association between insulin resistance and asthma, whether or not the person is overweight.
Estrogens also affect asthmatic conditions. Estrogen receptors are found throughout the body and tend to push the immune system more toward an overactive (allergenic) response. That’s likely why women are more affected by asthma than men. Environmental estrogens in household and personal care products (BPA and phthalates) also tend to worsen asthma.
These “xenoestrogens” specifically trigger mast cells in the immune system to release histamine and other inflammatory chemicals that are associated with asthma. These accumulate in body tissues (particularly the fat) and can transfer to babies through breastfeeding. This can set up infants for asthma in childhood or later in life.
Thyroid hormones also affect asthma, by affecting contraction in the airway. A 2019 study published in the Journal of International Medicinal Research found that levels of free T3 were higher in those with respiratory failure. While poor oxygen levels from asthma may actually be causing the high T3, the important thing to note is that the respiratory system and hormonal system do interact. It’s all a Swiss Watch.
The Digestive System and Asthma
You may have heard of the gut-brain axis or the gut-brain connection. Science has found a direct connection between the gut and brain. But have you heard of the gut-lung axis? It turns out, that the gut microbiome has a major impact on lung health and can influence the development of asthma. The gut microbiome makes up most of your immune system. If there’s dysbiosis, it can impact how the immune system responds to the surrounding environment.
Your ability to absorb nutrients is also important when it comes to asthma. A 2021 study published in the journal Nutrients found that deficiencies and overloads in certain minerals, like selenium, zinc, manganese, and others caused increased inflammation and/or poor outcomes in asthmatics. Certain minerals also caused problems when consumed in excess.
The Skeletal System and Asthma
The skeletal system, particularly the spine and rib cage can also affect asthma. After all, the rib cage surrounds the lungs and the spine protects the central nervous system, determining nerve flow to all our different organs and tissues, including the lungs.
A study of children with mild to moderate asthma found that chiropractic adjustments over three months improved the quality of life in the patients and decreased the severity of their asthma.
The Immune System and Asthma
The immune system is very much connected to the digestive system, as the gut contains 70 to 80 percent of the immune system. If what we eat causes an immune response in the gut, the inflammation tends to translate to other parts of the body, particularly those areas where we have a genetic weakness. That’s how food allergies can cause joint pain or headaches.
Our gut barrier determines when nutrients from the food we eat are allowed to enter the bloodstream. If food particles enter the bloodstream before being broken down, the immune system sees them as toxins or invaders – something that should not be there. It responds by sending out the white blood cells to eat up the pathogens and clean things up. Then it sends out inflammatory chemicals, which ultimately brings about healing.
Additionally, exposure to microorganisms early on in life is protective against asthma. Research has found kids who grow up on farms have lower rates of asthma, likely because they are exposed to so many kinds of bacteria and their immune systems had to adapt. Kids who grew up drinking raw milk from the farm specifically had lower rates of allergies and asthma.
As mentioned, food allergies and asthma often go together. It’s the over-reactivity of the immune system that underlies both conditions.
Some Thoughts on Where to Start
Start by thinking and acting differently when it comes to asthma. Could food be causing symptoms?
Take a Break from Dairy
In The Wellness Way network of clinics, dairy is one of the most common allergies that come up on patient tests (both IgE allergies and IgG allergies). Cow’s milk in particular has long been associated with an increase in mucus production and breathing conditions, including asthma.
Research shows that cow’s milk that’s rich in A1 beta-casein (like from Holsteins) stimulates mucus production in both the gut and respiratory tract if the tissue is already actively inflamed. Eliminating dairy or switching to A2-rich milk, like goat milk, may improve respiratory health.
Do a Food Allergy Test
The best way to see what’s contributing to asthma symptoms is to test. You may switch to goat milk only to find that you have an unknown allergy to goat milk. Believe it or not, for some people, the source of their inflammation is such innocuous foods as lettuce, bananas, or black pepper.
Switch Out Your Household and Personal Care Products
Toxins are the first of the Three Ts. Household cleaning products, air fresheners, scented candles, and xenoestrogen-rich personal care products are daily adding to your toxic burden. All these things lead to chronic inflammation, hormone disruption, and an increased risk of asthmatic symptoms. Don’t forget your gardening products. The chemicals in conventional insecticides and herbicides aggravate the nervous system and lungs. You also don’t want these chemicals on the foods you eat.
Addressing Asthma, The Wellness Way
At The Wellness Way, we support whole-body wellness, rather than just looking at the airway. Asthma has many contributing factors, and no two people are alike. That’s why we start with an in-depth consultation, where we listen to your story – what you’ve tried, what worked, what didn’t work, and where you’d like to go with your health. Next, we’ll recommend testing that’s best suited to you, based on what you’ve shared with us.
From there, we’ll work with you to create a health restoration plan and connect you with a clinician who can best help you on your journey back to a happy, healthy airway and balanced, vibrant health.
- Section 2, Definition, Pathophysiology and Pathogenesis of Asthma, and Natural History of Asthma – Expert Panel Report 3: Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma – NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)
- Most Recent National Asthma Data | CDC
- The Atopic March: Progression from Atopic Dermatitis to Allergic Rhinitis and Asthma – PMC (nih.gov)
- Food allergies and asthma – PMC (nih.gov)
- Chronic inflammation and asthma – PMC (nih.gov)
- Fast Facts: Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences |Violence Prevention|Injury Center|CDC
- Impact of maternal lifetime interpersonal trauma on children’s asthma: Mediation through maternal active asthma during pregnancy – PMC (nih.gov)
- Pathways in the association between sugar sweetened beverages and child asthma traits in the 2nd year of life: Findings from the BRISA cohort – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Alcoholic drinks: important triggers for asthma – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Fragranced consumer products: effects on asthmatics – PubMed (nih.gov)
- EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning | Household Cleaner Ratings and Ingredients
- Early-life environmental risk factors for asthma: findings from the Children’s Health Study. – PMC (nih.gov)
- Outdoor swimming pools and the risks of asthma and allergies during adolescence | European Respiratory Society (ersjournals.com)
- Psychosocial stress and asthma morbidity – PubMed (nih.gov)
- The impact of psychological stress on mast cells – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Onset of asthma during intense mourning – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Hyperinsulinemia adversely affects lung structure and function – PMC (nih.gov)
- Estrogen effects in allergy and asthma – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Environmental Estrogens Induce Mast Cell Degranulation and Enhance IgE-Mediated Release of Allergic Mediators – PMC (nih.gov)
- Impact of thyroid hormones on asthma in older adults – PubMed (nih.gov)
- The Role of the Microbiome in Asthma: The Gut⁻Lung Axis – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Mineral Micronutrients in Asthma – PMC (nih.gov)
- Chronic pediatric asthma and chiropractic spinal manipulation: a prospective clinical series and randomized clinical pilot study – PubMed (nih.gov)
- The Interplay between the Gut Microbiome and the Immune System in the Context of Infectious Diseases throughout Life and the Role of Nutrition in Optimizing Treatment Strategies – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Asthma epidemiology and risk factors – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Molecular Approaches for Diagnosis, Therapy and Prevention of Cow’s Milk Allergy – PMC (nih.gov)
- Does milk increase mucus production? – PubMed (nih.gov)