Naturopathic doctors use a variety of strategies to treat children with asthma – this includes both conventional asthma medications and natural therapies. Before we talk about natural treatments it is important to know a little bit more about the basics of asthma.
What is asthma, anyways?
Asthma is a chronic lung condition where the airway becomes inflamed and swollen. The swelling narrows the breathing tubes (called bronchioles), and causes difficulties in breathing. Often certain triggers will irritate the muscles around the airway, causing something called a bronchospasm. When a bronchospasm occurs the muscles squeeze the airways creating an even smaller space for the air to travel through. This makes it difficult to breathe. (See below for a description of different types of triggers.)
Coughing, wheezing, and trouble breathing, oh my!
Since asthma is characterized by a narrow airway there is less area for air to travel outside from the lungs. Children with asthma will often have trouble breathing or have wheezing, which is a whistling sound associated with breathing. Children may also have a chronic cough or difficulty exercising because of the breathing issues. Asthma is often not a constant problem, but will occur as “attacks” when the airway becomes smaller and there is difficulty breathing.
Children whose parents have asthma or who had asthma when they were children are more likely to develop asthma. The exact cause of asthma is unknown, but there are a few factors that can make a child more susceptible to developing asthma. These factors include family history of asthma, an inherited tendency to develop asthma, and respiratory infections early on in childhood. Asthma can also be triggered by airborne allergens, such as, dust, pet dander, and pollens.
Albuterol to the rescue!
All children with asthma will have a rescue inhaler (known as albuterol) that is used when there is difficulty with breathing. This is extremely important, because albuterol helps the bronchioles relax and open up when a child is having an asthma attack. Yes, even naturopathic doctors recommend having albuterol on hand! Many natural remedies and herbs can be used when your child has an asthma attack, but if it is severe enough you will always want to have that albuterol just in case. Make sure your child’s doctor also prescribes a spacer with the inhaler, because it makes it much easier to use the inhaler correctly. (Even adults can use spacers!)
Some children with asthma will also be prescribed a daily asthma medication if they are using their rescue inhaler too often. These asthma medications help to reduce the swelling and inflammation to make breathing easier. It is really important to keep asthma symptoms under control and to decrease the swelling and inflammation in order to prevent airway remodeling. Airway remodeling happens when there is prolonged inflammation and swelling in the large and small airway tubes. Remodeling leads to permanent scarring and narrowing of the airway, which can lead to complete loss of airway function – the goal of asthma management is to prevent this! Natural treatments can help prevent remodeling too, but if asthma isn’t under control many children may need prescription medications to quickly lower inflammation and prevent permanent scarring. Then, these long-term medications can be discontinued after their health improves.
Natural treatments for asthma:
There are a number of additional treatments that I recommend in addition to conventional asthma medications. Often times I have seen that after incorporating some of these treatments children might have less need for their rescue inhaler and/or they many not need to be managed with a daily asthma medication because they have better control of their asthma. Here are a few naturopathic approaches that I find to be helpful in children with asthma:
Since asthma is often triggered by allergens it is important to identify what they are so that they can be avoided and treated. I will send children to an allergist for skin scratch testing or I will order blood work to test for allergies. Quercetin, vitamin C, curcumin (turmeric), nettles, and omega 3 fatty acids that are found in fish oil are some of my favorite supportive supplements and nutrients for children with asthma that is triggered by allergens (If your child only has allergies and not asthma these would still be helpful for allergy symptoms). Sublingual immunotherapy can also help children to manage allergies more effectively. Another really important part of allergy control is keeping the home free of allergens, this can be done by having special filters in the house and doing regular cleaning. All of these natural therapies and home hygiene tips will be discussed in detail in Asthma Part II, so stay tuned!
Supporting digestion and the healthy balance of bacteria that live in the digestive tract can help with asthma. There is growing evidence that the bacteria that live in our digestive tract actually influences how the immune system functions. I think this is so fascinating! Children who have had multiple rounds of antibiotics or who have a past history of respiratory infections as infants are good candidates for digestive support when it comes to treating and supporting their asthma. I find that these children often benefit from taking probiotics.
Decreasing inflammation starts with avoiding triggers (as discussed above) – this can also include foods that a child is sensitive or intolerant to. Eggs, dairy, and gluten tend to be common trigger foods for those children who have asthma. I have often seen that children with asthma who decrease or avoid these foods have less asthma flares. If I think that a child has a high inflammatory load (lots of allergens, food sensitivities, lots of antibiotics, etc…) then I will consider using supplemental anti-inflammatories, such as, omega 3 fatty acids, quercetin and/or curcumin (turmeric).
Improving the variety of nutrients that children eat on a daily basis can be helpful for asthma. I always encourage families to “eat the rainbow” so they are getting a variety of phytonutrients, which are nutrients from plants. Foods high in vitamin C, vitamin E, omega 3 fatty acids, and magnesium all act as antioxidants, which work to prevent cells from damage and decrease inflammation.
There are a number of natural therapies for children and when used in conjunction with medications they can achieve control of asthma and prevent permanent breathing issues. Still need more information? Check out A Naturopathic Approach to Treating Asthma: Part II where I go into detail about the natural therapies.
Beermann, C, et al. Combinations of distinct long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid species for improved dietary treatment against allergic bronchial asthma. Nutrition 2016; Nov-Dec;32(11-12):1165-70.
Farjadian, S, et al. Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on serum levels of T-helper cytokines in children with asthma. Cytokine 2016; Sep; 85:61-66.
Kazaks, KG, et al. Effect of oral magnesium supplementation on measures of airway resistance and subjective assessment of asthma control and quality of life in men and women with mild to moderate asthma: a randomized placebo controlled trial. J Asthma. 2010 Feb;47(1):83-92
Russell, Shannon, et al. Early life antibiotic-drive changes in microbiota enhance susceptibility to allergic asthma. EMBO report 2012 May; 13(5):440-447.
Townsend, EA, et al. Quercetin acutely relaxes airway smooth muscle and potentiates β-agonist induced relaxation via dual phosphodiesterase inhibition of PLCβ and PDE4. Am J Physiol Lung cell Mol Physiol 2013 Sep; 305(5):396-403.