Natural Treatments for Asthma

Natural Remedies for Asthma

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A variety of practices, treatments, and dietary supplements are used for asthma support, yet none are a replacement for standard treatment. Asthma is a chronic lung condition that causes difficulty breathing. The airways of the lungs, called bronchial tubes, become inflamed. The surrounding muscles tighten and mucus is produced, which further narrow the airways. It is a serious condition that should not be self-treated. If you have asthma or are experiencing asthma symptoms, you should consult a physician before trying any natural therapies and should work with a physician to form an individualized asthma action plan. 

Self-treating and avoiding or delaying standard care for asthma flare-ups may have serious consequences that can lead to hospitalization or even become fatal.

Mind-Body Techniques

A variety of mind-body practices, treatments, and forms of self-care are used by those with asthma to cope with symptoms and to reduce stress that can trigger asthma symptoms.

Breathing Exercises

A variety of breathing techniques are used for asthma, and preliminary research suggests some potential benefits, yet more research is needed. The breath exercises usually encourages relaxation and focus on modifying the breathing pattern, nasal breathing, and lower rib cage and abdominal breathing.

A 2020 review of 22 studies that included 2880 participants with mild to moderate asthma concluded that breath exercises for asthma may have some positive effects on quality of life, hyperventilation symptoms, and lung function. The results for overall asthma symptoms were inconclusive and the authors noted that many of the studies used poor methodology. More high-quality studies are needed to explore these potential benefits, to identify any adverse effects, and to parse out which techniques may be most helpful.

The review included the following types of breath practices:

  • Pranayama (breath work in yoga): A variety of breath manipulation practices may be used, such as deep, rhythmic nasal breathing, long exhalations, and alternate-nostril breathing. In the review, more than half of the studies focused on pranayama.
  • Buteyko Breathing Technique: Developed by Russian-born researcher Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko, this method consists of shallow breathing exercises that are similar to certain types of pranayama. It is based on the premise that raising blood levels of carbon dioxide through shallow breathing may dilate the smooth muscles of the airways, yet this has not been proven. Critics say that the technique is expensive, that it makes no difference in the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, that higher levels of carbon dioxide is not an effective strategy, and that any effects of the technique may be due to general relaxation.
  • Deep diaphragmatic breathing: This type of breathing focuses on the movement of the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle below your lungs.
  • Papworth Method: Used by respiratory physiotherapists, this technique integrates relaxation techniques with gentle diaphragmatic breathing and nasal breathing and focuses on adapting patterns of breathing to suit your current activity.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation may help reduce stress and improve asthma control. A study of an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) intervention for people with asthma found that while the MBSR didn't lead to improvements in actual lung function, it boosted asthma-related quality of life and reduced stress in patients with persistent asthma compared to a control group. The benefits appeared to be lasting and were still evident a year after the training.

In addition, the percentage of study participants with well controlled asthma in the MBSR group went from 7.3% at baseline to 19.4% at a 12-month follow-up compared with 7.5% to 7.9% in a control group that didn't practice MBSR. 

The mindfulness training in the research included three main techniques:

  • Body scan: Attention is slowly moved to different parts of body to bring awareness to sensations and promote relaxation.
  • Sitting meditation: Focus is on breathing in and out and awareness of thoughts and feelings without trying to analyze or judge them.
  • Gentle stretching: The aim is to develop mindful awareness during slow movement.

In the study, participants were also given recordings of guided mindfulness exercises that they were told to practice for 30 minutes six days a week.

Another study with an eight-week MBSR intervention found that those who practiced MBSR experienced less inflammation after stress compared to a control group. This suggests that interventions targeting emotional reaction may be effective in reducing inflammation and, potentially, outcomes in chronic inflammatory conditions. Although, the other MBSR study looking at asthma did not find a direct benefit for lung inflammation specifically.

You could start with a few minutes of mindfulness meditation each day and slowly work your way up to 30 minutes most days of the week. For a body scan, start at your feet and think about how they feel and try to relax them and work your way up by region and body part until you get to your head. In a seated meditation or during a gentle stretch, focus on your inhales and exhales. Observe wandering thoughts but try not to get involved too much with them. Just acknowledge them and get return to focusing on your breath.

Tai Chi

Research suggests that the centuries-old practice of tai chi, a slow-moving form of martial arts, may improve quality of life for people with chronic diseases.

While the research on tai chi and asthma is minimal, a small study of 38 elementary school kids (20 students with asthma and 18 without asthma) found that after practicing an hour of tai chi weekly for a period of 12 weeks, lung function and airway inflammation improved in both the children with mild asthma and those without asthma. The children with asthma also scored better on a quality of life questionnaire after the intervention.

The results are preliminary and larger sample sizes are needed to confirm the findings. The researchers also suggest that tai chi may allows kids with asthma to be active without such a heightened risk of triggering asthma symptoms that happens with more vigorous exercise.

While serious injuries are unlikely while practicing tai chi, there is some risk of aches or pains.

Yoga

A 2016 review of 15 studies of yoga for asthma with more than 1,000 participants concluded that yoga probably leads to small improvements in quality of life and asthma symptoms, yet any potential for improving lung function remains unclear since results varied. Researchers warned that larger sample sizes are needed to confirm the results and to further explore potential benefits or any adverse effects.

A study included in the review that looked at adults with mild to moderate persistent asthma found that those who practiced yoga three times a week for 10 weeks had improvements in quality of life and heart rate variability compared to controls who didn't practice yoga. Heart rate variability is a measure of the timing between heart beats and can be a general marker of health and wellbeing.

While serious injuries in yoga are rare, the practice carries risks of sprains or strains, especially in adults over the age of 65.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback is sometimes used as a complementary therapy for asthma. It involves uses electronic monitoring devices, such as those for heart rate variability or brain waves, to help identify when certain techniques, such as visualization or slow breathing, have a direct impact on the monitor. The idea is that this loop of feedback can help you learn techniques to better relax and control asthma symptoms and potentially improve lung function.

Acupuncture

A few small clinical trials suggest that acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice, may help improve asthma symptoms or reduce the need for medications in children. But overall the research is inconsistent, and high-quality randomized control trials are needed.

Acupuncture involves stimulating specific points on the body that is typically done by inserting thin needles through the skin.

It is generally well tolerated but there may be some pain or sensitivity in places where needles were inserted. Other potential side effects include skin rashes, allergic reactions, bruising, and dizziness.

Acupuncture Warning

Problems with acupuncture are rare, yet if it's not delivered properly there can be serious or even life-threatening complications, such as infections or organ or tissue injuries. Licensing and requirements for acupuncturists vary by state, but it's still a good idea to ask acupuncturists about their credentials and experience using acupuncture for asthma. You may also be able to get a referral for an acupuncturist from your physician.

Steam Baths

Breathing in warm steam can be soothing for some people with asthma as it may help clear out mucus that can make breathing more difficult and encourage relaxation, yet research on this is lacking. Treatments can include filling the bathroom with steam from a hot bath or shower, spending time in sauna, or using at at-home portable steam machine. If warm air is a trigger for you, avoid this type of treatment.

Foods and Dietary Supplements

Eating an overall healthful diet may be helpful for asthma and there are certain foods and supplements with potential to offer additional support. Whenever possible, opt for food sources of nutrients since supplements are largely unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They haven't been tested for safety and it's hard to know if the dosage and contents are consistent with the product label. Always discuss supplements with your physician since some are known to interact with medications.

Also, keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions has not been established.

When buying supplements, look for those certified by ConsumerLabs, The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International. It won't guarantee that a product is safe or effective, but it ensures that there is some testing for quality.

Fruits and Vegetables

In addition to all the general health benefits of eating a balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables, increasing your produce intake may also help your asthma. A systematic review and meta-analyses of 58 studies that examined fruit and vegetable intake and asthma found an association between high fruit intakes and lower risks of prevalent wheeze or asthma severity. It also linked high vegetable intakes with a lower risk of prevalent asthma.

How exactly fruits and vegetables might help with asthma is still unclear, but it's suggested that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are behind the support. Studies in the same review that looked at immune responses found that diets rich in fruits and vegetables had a protective effect on inflammation in the airways or throughout the body.

Some studies also link certain types of produce with a benefit, but more research is needed to determine which nutrients and types of fruits and vegetables may be most helpful for asthma. For example, one of the studies included in the review examined food diaries of 68,535 women and found that those who had a greater intake of tomatoes, carrots, and leafy vegetables had a lower prevalence of asthma. Other research suggested that asthma symptoms in adults may be associated with a low dietary intake of fruit, vitamin C, and manganese. Kiwi, strawberries, and bell peppers are rich in vitamin C, while sweet potatoes and leafy greens are sources of manganese.

Daily intake of fruits and vegetables in childhood is also associated with a lower risk of asthma.

Research suggests that a diet full of fruits and vegetables may help weight management. This can be helpful since obesity is a risk factor for asthma and is linked with worsening of asthma severity. 

Turmeric and Curcumin

Curcumin is the main active ingredient in turmeric, a root and spice commonly used in South Asian cuisine, such as curries, that has anti-inflammatory effects. Preliminary research suggests that curcumin supplements may be an effective add-on therapy for asthma, but more research is needed.

A small study of patients with mild to moderate bronchial asthma found that those given 500 mg curcumin capsules daily for 30 days showed improvements in lung functioning, including forced exploratory volume (FEV1).

In smaller amounts, ground turmeric or fresh turmeric root can be added to foods to add flavor and its active compounds are better absorbed when combined with black pepper.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

One of the primary inflammation-causing fats in our diets is believed to be arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is found in certain foods, such as egg yolks, shellfish, and meat. Eating less of these foods is thought to decrease inflammation and asthma symptoms.

A German study examined data from 524 children and found that asthma was more prevalent in children with high levels of arachidonic acid.

Arachidonic acid can also be produced in our bodies. Another strategy to reduce levels of arachidonic acid is to increase intake of beneficial fats such as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) from fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines) or fish oil, and GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) from borage seed oil or evening primrose oil.

Omega-3 fatty acid capsules are sold in drug stores, health food stores and online. Look for fish oil with the active ingredients EPA and DHA on the label. To reduce a fishy aftertaste after taking fish oil capsules, they should be taken just before meals.

Omega-3 fatty acid capsules may interact with blood-thinning drugs such as Coumadin (warfarin) and aspirin. Side effects may include indigestion or diarrhea. At high doses, omega-3 fatty acids can slow blood clotting and increase your risk of bleeding.

Nigella Sativa

Nigella sativa seeds come from a flowering plant that's native to South Asia and the Mediterranean. The small black seeds and black seed oil have a main active ingredient thymoquinone that may have anti-inflammatory properties.

Common Names for Nigella Sativa

  • Black cumin
  • Black caraway
  • Black seed
  • Kalonji

Some preliminary research suggests that nigella sativa extract may offer some bronchodilatory support to help open the airways in those with asthma. A small study with 15 participants found that boiled extract of nigella sativa improved pulmonary function tests, including forced expiratory volume (FEV1), peak expiratory flow (PEF), and maximal mid expiratory flow (MMEF). Although, the bronchodilatory effect was not as effective as the drug theophylline that was used as a comparison. More research is needed to explore nigella sativa's potential use for asthma, an effective dosage, or any adverse effects.

Honey

A 2019 review in the Journal of Medicinal Food concluded that there was no strong evidence that honey can be effective in controlling asthma. It did, however, find improvements in lung function tests, including forced exploratory volume (FEV1), in studies that used a combination of honey and either nigella sativa seeds or celery seeds for asthma. The studies were small and most lacked controls, so more research is needed to explore these potential combinations of honey and seeds.

Honey has also been used for ages as a natural remedy for coughs and studies have shown that a spoonful of honey may help reduce cough symptoms in adults and kids over 1 year old. Honey may act as a demulcent, a substance that coats the throat and relieves irritation of mucus membranes. It also contains antioxidants and antimicrobial properties that may help support healing.

One study that compared the effects of honey, cough medicine (dextromethorphan), and antihistamine (diphenhydramine) on nightly coughing due to upper respiratory infection in 139 children found that honey offered the greatest symptom relief. It's possible that those with asthma who experience nighttime coughing may see some benefits in symptoms with a 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey.

Honey Warning

Honey should never be given to babies younger than 12 months because of the risk of botulism, a rare but potentially fatal type of poisoning caused by toxins that attack the nerves. Their digestive systems are too immature, which can result in the growth of bacteria that produces the toxins. Botulism can lead to muscle weakness and breathing problems, and it requires immediate medical attention.

Ginger

Research suggests that ginger can have bronchial relaxation properties yet few clinical studies have looked at ginger use in actual asthma patients. One case control study of 25 people with asthma found that ginger extracts could help control asthma by affecting the primary cells involving the symptoms in the airways. 

Additional clinical trials will examine if taking 2 g of ginger extract daily offers any improvements in airway inflammation or blood levels of inflammatory markers in people with asthma.

Ginger can be consumed fresh or the dried root can be used to add flavor to meals. It can also be taken in tablets, capsules, liquid extracts, and teas. Side effects are mild and can include abdominal discomfort, heartburn, diarrhea, and gas.

It is still unknown if ginger interacts with any medications, but some suspect that it may interact anticoagulants (blood thinners).

Garlic

While the use of garlic for asthma hasn't been studied in asthma directly, research suggests that raw garlic and garlic extracts have anti-inflammatory properties.

It's unknown if this would offer any benefit for conditions related to inflammation, such as asthma. Also, the anti-inflammatory properties of garlic are reduced when heated.

The amounts of garlic usually eaten in foods is generally safe. Although, some people may have allergic reactions to garlic. Side effects, particularly for raw garlic, include breath and body odor, heartburn, and upset stomach.

Garlic supplements can interact with some drugs, including Invirase (saquinavir) that's used to treat HIV. It may also increase the risk of bleeding, which may be an issue for those on blood thinners, such as Coumadin (warfarin). 

Butterbur

Butterbur is a perennial shrub that grows in Europe, Asia, and North America. The active constituents are petasin and isopetasin, which are believed to reduce smooth muscle spasm and have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Researchers at the University of Dundee, Scotland, evaluated the effects of butterbur in people with allergic asthma who were also using inhalers. They found that butterbur added to the anti-inflammatory effect of the inhalers.

Another study examined the use of butterbur root extract in 80 people with asthma for four months. The number, duration, and severity of asthma attacks decreased and symptoms improved after using butterbur. More than 40 percent of people using asthma medication at the start of the study reduced their intake of medication by the end of the study.

Side effects of butterbur may include indigestion, headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation. Pregnant or nursing women, children, or people with kidney or liver disease should not take butterbur.

Butterbur Warnings

  • The raw herb as well as teas, extracts, and capsules made from the raw herb should not be used because they contain substances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) that can be toxic to the liver and kidneys and have been linked to cancer. Look for products that are certified as PA-free. (Although, labeling is not a guarantee due to lack of regulation.)
  • Butterbur is in the ragweed plant family, so people who are allergic to ragweed, marigold, daisy, or chrysanthemum should not use butterbur.

Bromelain

Bromelain is an extract from pineapples that may have anti-inflammatory properties. While it hasn't been studied in humans with asthma, an animal study from researchers at the University of Connecticut found that bromelain reduced airway inflammation in animals with allergic airway disease.  This is all suggestive, and doesn't mean it would be helpful in people.

Side effects can include digestive upset.

Those with allergies to pineapples should not use bromelain. Bromelain may interact with some medicines, including the antibiotic amoxicillin.

Boswellia

The herb boswellia, known in Indian Ayurvedic medicine as Salai guggul, has been found in preliminary studies to inhibit the formation of compounds called leukotrienes. Leukotrienes released in the lungs cause narrowing of airways.

A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of forty patients, 40 people with asthma were treated with a boswellia extract three times a day for six weeks. At the end of this time, 70 percent of people had improved. Symptoms of difficulty breathing, number of attacks, and laboratory measures had improved.

Boswellia is available in pill form. It should say on the label that it is standardized to contain 60 percent boswellic acids. It should not be taken for more than eight to 12 weeks unless otherwise recommended by a qualified health practitioner.

It is not clear what dose is safe or effective or how boswellia may interact with other asthma treatments. Side effects may include digestive upset, nausea, acid reflux, or diarrhea.

A Word from Verywell

Due to a lack of thorough supporting evidence, it's too soon to recommend any form of alternative medicine for asthma. If you're considering using any of these complementary therapies, make sure to consult your physician first.

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