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Asthma Overview

The number of breathing problems, especially asthma, worldwide has been rising dramatically. According to the Global Initiative for Asthma (GIA) in a report released on May 6, 2003, more than 300 million people worldwide now have asthma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the number of asthma sufferers in the United States alone rose from 6.7 million in 1980 to 17.3 million in 1998. Of these, 4.8 million were said to be children (click here to learn about the early warning signs of asthma, especially in children). Apparently, the most striking increases have occurred in Australia, where approximately 25 percent of all children have been diagnosed with asthma.

If you have asthma or another major breathing problem, be sure to click on the link below for possible help.

The Main Symptoms and Warning Signs of Asthma

In normal breathing, air flows more or less freely into and out of the lungs. During an asthma attack, however, airway linings swell, muscles around the airways tighten and constrict, and the airways of the lungs become clogged with mucus. The end result is episodes of coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness, with a suffocating sense of never being able to get enough air.

What Causes Asthma?

Asthma attacks can be brought on by many things, including stress, exercise, respiratory infections, irritating smells, pollen, smoke, dust or dust mites, mold, mildew, certain kinds of food, and so on. A study (1994) in The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine seems to show that “gas stove exposure” increased asthma symptoms and resulted in more visits to the emergency room. The findings seem to suggest that those with severe asthma should avoid gas stove cooking.

Though theories abound as to what causes asthma, there is no real consensus. Some years ago, scientists thought that petroleum-based pollutants might be a major cause, but this theory is no longer in favor since asthma cases are surging while pollution levels are said, at least by some, to be declining. One of the latest theories is that genetics are involved.  Researchers at the Lawrence National Laboratory in California say they have recently isolated two genes that they believe contribute to asthma.

One recent and unusual theory has to do with the increasing hygiene of modern life. This theory states that since babies are less exposed to viruses and bacteria than they were in previous generations, their immune systems do not develop fully. These researchers point out that people who live in rural areas or on farms—people who are much more likely to be exposed to organisms in the soil—are much less likely to get asthma than those who don’t. Recent studies (2003) seem to confirm these findings. 

Chronic Hyperventilation

Another intriguing theory, this one coming from Dr. Konstantine Pavlovich Buteyko in Russia, and this one seemingly offering a cure, claims that asthma is really just the result of bad breathing habits, especially “deep breathing." What Buteyko seems to actually mean by "deep breathing" is "over breathing." When we inhale and exhale too much air too quickly, says Buteyko, we lose too much carbon dioxide too quickly. We hyperventilate. This fast loss of carbon dioxide causes the various airways to clog and tighten, and also makes it difficult for the oxygen in our blood to reach the cells of our brain and body. Buteyko tells us that the symptoms of asthma are simply the body’s way of attempting to slow down the loss of carbon dioxide. His cure? Breathe less.

Buteyko and his instructors cite their high incidence of success in helping people reduce or even eliminate both their symptoms and their medications through their methods as proof that they are right. But their logic seems a bit flawed. Clearly, one can influence asthma through good breathing habits. One can also influence asthma through specialized breathing techniques that help increase carbon dioxide in the body to normal levels. But this reduction of symptoms does not prove that asthma is caused by not breathing a certain way, any more than reducing asthma symptoms through medication proves that asthma is caused by not taking the right medication. And it certainly does not prove that "deep breathing" is the culprit behind asthma, especially since many of us in today’s stress-filled world, including asthmatics, are unable to breathe fully and deeply in the first place. The fact is, many people who "over breathe" do not get asthma, though they may, indeed, eventually wind up with other health problems.

Nonetheless, Buteyko is clearly right about "over breathing." When we breathe too much air for the needs of the moment—that is, when we "over breathe"—we are actually hyperventilating. And chronic hyperventilation does indeed have many negative health consequences, including a constriction of the airways. Related to this increasing phenomenon of "over breathing" is the fact that more and more people today breathe frequently through their mouths. Unless one breathes very slowly, breathing through the mouth, especially on exhalation, is associated with a rapid loss of carbon dioxide. Asthmatics must learn to breath through the nose, and this may require special breathing practices.

Learning to Breathe in a Coordinated Way with Your Whole Body

As vital as the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance is to asthma and many other diseases, healthy breathing is not just a matter of blood chemistry. It also requires the full fluid motion, coordination, and use of all the breathing muscles and spaces of the body. For most people, breathing coordination will require increased awareness of their breathing habits and an exploration of natural, authentic breathing. When we breathe though our nose in a coordinated way with our whole body (including our diaphragm, belly, back, and chest) our breath automatically slows down and we instinctively begin to breathe the right amount of air for the demands of the moment. While one is still learning how to breathe in this way, it is imperative to breathe as much as is possible only through your nose, and to learn to extend the length of your exhalation whenever possible. There are a variety of specific breathing practices that can sometimes help with asthma, but these a best taught in person.

Reducing Leukotrienes--The Mediators of Asthma

Finally, of course, no matter what actually triggers an asthma attack, Dr. Barry Sears points out in his book The Omega RX Zone (ReganBooks, HarperCollins, page 173) that "the lungs respond in a universal way; they overproduce 'bad eicosanoids,' which results in the production of leukotrienes, which "are the primary mediators of asthma." Corticosteroids, the basis of many asthma drugs, can, of course, reduce leukotrienes, but, as Sears (as well as others) points out, they "have an impressive number of very adverse side effects, including immune suppression and cognitive impairment." He suggests that a better way to safely reduce these leukotrienes is by reducing the amount of arachidonic acid in the lungs, which also reduces inflammation, which can be done both through diets like The Zone and through the use of high-dose fish oil.

Exercise-Induced Asthma

Some researchers today believe that up to 90 percent of asthma sufferers experience "exercise-induced asthma." Symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness or congestion, chronic coughing, exercise fatigue, and many more.

Exercise-induced asthma apparently occurs when the airways narrow in response to the intense level of ventilation (inhalation and exhalation) that occurs during exercise. It is noteworthy that many people who exercise end up breathing rapidly through their mouths, which, we do not recommend, especially if you have asthma symptoms of any kind. Exercise-induced attacks (EIA), which are generally most severe within 5 to10 minutes after the exercise is finished, are usually over within 30 minutes of the start of the attack, often without the need for medication, and frequently involve airway constriction only--with little or none of the swelling and secretions of mucus that occur during other kinds of asthma attacks.

People who get EIA often believe that they should not exercise. But research has shown that aerobic exercise can be a valuable aspect of treatment, since people who are physically fit generally have fewer asthma attacks and need less medication. But it is extremely important how you undertake aerobic exercise to get the most benefit from it. Assuming you have talked to your health care professional about undertaking an exercise program, and are following all instructions with regards to your medications, here are a few tips that may be helpful in helping you avoid exercise-induced asthma.

First, exercise only as intensely as you can while breathing in and out through your nose. The moment you start breathing through your mouth, you will probably exacerbate the asthmatic symptoms.

Second, be sure you warm up slowly. The moment you feel short of breath rest for a couple of minutes, then continue with your warm-up. After you have warmed up for 10-15 minutes, depending on how you feel, begin your actual workout.

Third, find the best environment in which to exercise. Don't exercise where pollens and pollution are high. Jogging on a road with many cars emitting exhaust fumes is not healthy. Don't exercise in extremely cold or dry air. Exercise, if possible, in a somewhat warm, humid environment. If you exercise inside your home on a stationary bicycle, etc., be sure you have vacuumed recently and be sure to use an air filter. Our homes are often filled with pollutants of all kinds.

Fourth, be sure to cool down when you are finished with your main workout--that is, use activities such as walking and stretching until your pulse rate slows down. As you cool down, let yourself relax. Rub your hands together until they are warm and then put them one on top of the other on your navel. Feel how your breathing deepens naturally, with your belly expanding as your inhale and retracting as you exhale. Then stop, sit down, and just enjoy this slow, relaxed belly breathing.

Early Warning Signs of Asthma, Especially in Children

There are a number of early warning signs of asthma. Here is a list of some of the things to look or listen for:

bulletFrequent coughing without a cold;
bulletFast breathing without exercise;
bulletBreathing that is often irregular;
bulletFrequent clearing of the throat;
bulletBreathing that is noisy or difficult;
bulletWheezing, no matter how quiet it is;
bulletFlaring of the nostrils as the child attempts to get more air;
bulletFrequent mouth breathing;
bulletInability to sleep without being restless;
bulletFatigue that is unrelated to activity;
bulletAreas or spaces in the ribs that sink in as the child inhales;
bulletThe sinking in of the notch above the Adam's apple as the child inhales;
bulletThe inability of the child to sit or stand straight; the child hunches over a lot.

Be sure to consult your health professional if you think that you or your child might have asthma.

Learn about or order Dennis Lewis' book Free Your Breath, Free Your Life (Shambhala, May 2004)

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Last modified: February 14, 2014