By Samantha Costa, Staff Writer
What is asthma, anyway?
nhale, exhale. We do both involuntarily, around the clock, every day of our lives. For those with asthma, a chronic lung condition, the very act of breathing can be frustrating and sometimes scary – especially for kids. When you breathe in air through your mouth or nose, it travels to the lungs by way of the bronchial – or breathing – tubes. Visualize tree branches: On the end of each branch are tiny sacs that push oxygen into the blood system. When asthma flares up, those already narrow breathing tubes swell and constrict, causing wheezing, coughing and a feeling of chest tightness.
Is your asthma under control?
Although you may have heard otherwise, asthma cannot be outgrown. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the lifelong, unwelcome sidekick impacts 18.7 million adults and 6.8 million children in the U.S. alone. Knowing your triggers and taking your medications as prescribed are just some of the ways to control your disease. But diet and exercise should also be part of your asthma action plan. Here are some lifestyle changes you can make now to improve your breathing.
1. Use a peak flow meter.
Many doctors and pharmacists recommend people with asthma use a peak flow meter. The portable, hand-held device measures how much air your lungs push out. Essentially, it will tell you or your doctor just how well your current asthma medications are working and if your action plan needs adjusting. Talk to your doctor to determine if you or your child should try a peak flow meter. The American Lung Association provides step-by-step instructions on how to use the device.
2. Know your triggers.
Asthma attacks can be triggered by allergens such as dust, pollen, animals, mold, cigarette smoke, perfume or infections, including the common cold or flu. Occupational hazards such as dust, fumes, gases or other dangerous chemicals can also cause asthma. Meanwhile, some patients only develop asthma symptoms while exercising. Your doctor may prescribe a rescue inhaler when sudden triggers lead to shortness of breath or wheezing.
3. Consider caffeine.
Coffee and black tea drinkers, rejoice! “These commonly contain biological active chemicals that assist in bronchodilation,” says Dr. Leonard Bielory, director of the STARx Allergy and Asthma Center in Springfield, New Jersey. Bielory explains that caffeine is chemically related to the drug theophylline, which is used to treat asthma. It also reduces respiratory muscle fatigue, thereby opening the airways. Research published in the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews in 2010 found that caffeine improved airway function for up to four hours in people with asthma.
4. Don’t forget fruits and veggies.
Research published in 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that antioxidant-rich diets – which emphasize, for example, spinach, broccoli, strawberries and tomatoes – may be linked to improved asthma symptoms. Patients with asthma were assigned to one of three treatments: a high-antioxidant diet plus an inactive placebo medication, a low-antioxidant diet plus a tomato extract or a low-antioxidant diet plus a placebo. The study showed that tweaked eating patterns had an impact on asthma symptoms. The high-antioxidant diet included five servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit per day.
5. Try the anti-inflammatory diet.
Dr. Neil Kao of the Allergic Disease and Asthma Center in Greenville, South Carolina, recommends the anti-inflammatory diet for people with asthma. Inspired by the Mediterranean diet, it claims to reduce the inflammation that often occurs in asthma and other serious conditions such as heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. “The goal would be for people to be conscious of their food choices, the portion sizes, perhaps lose weight and avoid fatty or fried foods,” he says.
6. Stay active.
Physical activity is important for all walks of life – even if you’ve got exercise-induced asthma. In a study published in the June 2015 issue of the journal Thorax, researchers found that patients with moderate and severe asthma experienced less severe reactions to exercise after 12 weeks of education and aerobic training. Bonus: It will also help you shred excess pounds that may be worsening your asthma. “Since two-thirds of Americans are overweight and this is a disproportionate trigger for asthma symptoms, it should not be taken lightly,” Kao says.
7. Calm down.
Take a deep breath if you can. Research has proven that stress is strongly associated with asthma, hospitalization and the use of asthma medications. Even laughing or crying too hard, getting angry or fearful, and yelling can offset your asthma. The American Lung Association suggests calming down via deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tightening particular muscles and releasing the tension while paying attention to how it feels once the muscles are relaxed. Guided imagery – using words or music to conjure images of a relaxing environment – is another tool you can use to alleviate physical and emotional stress.