ASTHMA – causes, symptoms and natural treatment

What is asthma?Asthma

Asthma affects millions of Australians, in particular an increasing number of children. It has a genetic basis and therefore is seen to be inherited from one or both affected parents or grandparents. It is influenced by environmental, allergic, microbial, nutritional, postural and emotional factors and may affect the individual in a mild, moderate or severe way.

What causes asthma?

The cause of asthma is two-fold: there is a bronchospasm component, where the muscle in the walls of the airways contracts excessively in response to an irritant, such as carbon particle from combustion engine exhaust. In addition to this there is usually an inflammatory reaction to the organism, irritant or allergen, causing the lining (mucosa) of the airways to swell and therefore further narrow the opening of the airway.

Asthma affects the sufferer by causing difficulty breathing, especially expelling air from the lungs due to spasm of the bronchioles (airways). There may be a wheezing which accompanies the shortness of breath, as well the cough and production of small amounts of clear to white phlegm (sputum). In severe cases it may cause very low oxygen levels in the blood, producing a blue complexion (cyanosis) and eventually inability to draw breath into an overinflated chest, with respiratory arrest and death.

Most commonly, asthma occurs in paroxysms in response to such triggers as allergens (spring grass pollens, dairy products, chemical fumes), infection (upper respiratory tract infection), particle irritation (passive smoking) or emotional stress. The onset can be very sudden with the bronchospasm phase, which may be reversed without further consequence, or lead to secondary inflammation, where the mucus production increases the cough and difficulty breathing. At this point a secondary bacterial infection may complicate the picture, producing fever and yellow sputum, sometimes affecting the sinuses and developing into bronchitis.

How to deal with asthma

Understanding the process for asthma occurring in each individual is the key to reversing the symptoms and perhaps eradicating the disease. It is most important firstly to assess the immune system of the affected person to ascertain whether allergy is responsible for the airways reactivity, or whether infection is the cause of the inflammation - or even perhaps a combination of the two may be occurring in the one person.

Allergy testing may be arranged through a medical practitioner and referral to an allergy specialist or allergy clinic of a hospital may be very beneficial for identifying the trigger factors for allergic response. Once the allergens are identified they may be eliminated from the diet (such as eggs, peanuts, shellfish) or the immediate environment (such as moulds, dust mite, pollens) to minimise exposure and allow recovery of the oversensitive immune system.

Desensitisation programs have been used in the past to reduce a tendency to react to certain allergens, especially inhalants. However I have seen in my practice that the relief achieved is only temporary, if any, and may lead subsequently to a heightened sensitivity in the individual to other allergens. Homoepathic desensitisation is much safer than subcutaneous (injections) medical desensitisation, but even some asthma sufferers will react adversely to the gentle allergen stimulation which they produce.


In the case of allergies in asthma I find the best, most effective and most long lasting treatment is a regular detoxification program. This can be undertaken with your naturopath or wholistic health practitioner, preferably early in the spring or autumn, to reduce the total toxin load, which the body accumulate through every day living. This process needs to be repeated at six-month intervals until exposure to the original allergen no longer produces an adverse response. In this way it is possible to reduce dangerous allergies to mild ones and to eliminate mild allergies altogether.

Chemical versus natural medicines for asthma

There are drugs which modify the immune response or suppress the allergic reaction, such as steroids, which are important when asthma is dangerous or even life-threatening. However when used long term they cause serious adverse reactions in many systems and a safer alternative is preferable for the long term management of mild to moderate asthma.

This is where herbal and homoeopathic medicines can be safer and more appropriate. For example the herb licorice root has a steroid-like action, reducing inflammation and mucus formation, reducing the allergic response and also supporting stressed adrenal glands, without the serious side effects of steroid drugs, like diabetes and osteoporosis.

An amazing herb for regulating immune hyperactivity is Panax notoginseng or American ginseng. A component of this herb has the ability to suppress an allergic tendency, while supporting a weak immune system and protecting against infection. It is the perfect adaptogen, bringing the immune system back into midline balance. Please note that it is usually not advisable to use Echinacea in asthma, since this can increase immune reactivity.

Bodywork for asthma

There are numerous modalities which have something to offer the person suffering with asthma and may, in fact, offer permanent relief. Osteopathy and chiropractic can address spinal imbalances which contribute to nerve overreactivity in the thoracic (chest) region which can cause spasm of the airways in asthma. Deep tissue massage can release tension in the chest wall which restricts breathing and remove a layer of physical and mental stress which is contributing to the asthma scenario.

Acupuncture/Chinese Herbs for asthma

Acupuncture can give instant relief from bronchospasm with the insertion of a needle, as well as strengthening the lungs so that they are not as susceptible to allergy or infection. Traditional Chinese medicine, which will also incorporate herbal medicines, is a powerful modality for treating the whole person and the many aspects of the disease process in asthma.

Reflexology, Kinesiology, Bowen therapy and massage are other physical therapies which may produce real benefit to someone suffering with asthma, particularly since they can be very effective modalities for correcting imbalances in the nervous system and for relieving mental or emotional stress.

Nutrition and immune health

It is impossible to reverse chronic asthma if one’s diet is not addressed and corrected. Food choices are critical for those who have asthma. Specific food allergies need to be identified and eliminated; chemical additives, such as preservatives, food colouring and artificial sweeteners, need to be removed from the diet altogether; and foods which have a cold, sticky, oily consistency need to be avoided to eliminate tacky mucus from the airways. The latter concept is based on the traditional Indian Ayurvedic concept of waste (“ama”) accumulation in the tissues with the regular ingestion of these foods, such as ice cream, chocolate, bananas, avocados and cheese.

Essential fatty acids, found in flax seeds and oily fish, are particularly beneficial for blocking inflammation in the lungs. If these oils and fats are eaten in preference to animal fats, over a period of three months, any inflammatory process in the body will be dampened down to a low level, allowing the healing process to initiate.

Lifestyle changes to relieve asthma

Exercise is always beneficial for asthma sufferers, but it needs to be carefully attempted and well chosen for the individual. Swimming is can greatly relieve asthma, encouraging the lungs to relax and flush out stale air. Swimming in a chlorinated pool may cause an asthma attack for some, so salt water pools or sea water are preferable. Rowing and cycling are excellent also, since they are seated activities, for those who need to rest in spells during exercise, and offer all over body conditioning. It is best always to choose your exercise location where there is no traffic or industrial pollution. Cross country skiing is also a great fresh air activity for asthmatics – the alpine environment is so invigorating and healing.

Did you know that more Australians die from the effects of PM-10’s – the superfine carbon particles which come from combustion engines and form a large visible component of air pollution in cities - than deaths by the annual road toll?

And what about stress?

Dealing with physical and emotional stress is vital for clearing major trigger factors for asthma in some people. Poor sleep, chronic pain (such as back pain) and recurrent infections cause physical stresses on the nervous and immune systems, aggravating asthma in those who are genetically susceptible. Mental and emotional stresses, caused by worry and unresolved issues in our lives, can increase the level of sensitivity of the immune and nervous systems of someone with asthma and can cause an immediate attack if significant enough. Having an argument with someone, for instance, can cause an asthmatic to cough and wheeze within minutes!

The best solution for stress is to find a relaxation practice which you can incorporate every day into your life, such as meditation, qi gong or tai chi. These disciplines offer the opportunity to create a more harmonious balance between the “fright and flight” nervous system and the “rest and digest” one, giving the mind and body a chance to come into balance and release the tensions which cause airways to spasm and allergy reactions to occur.

Often with regular calmness practice you will discover issues which lurk unresolved in your subconscious, creeping up to the surface for recognition and resolution. If this occurs, don’t bury these thoughts and feelings again, but make note of them in a journal or diary and take them to a counsellor or psychotherapist, who can help you to deal with these matters with finality.

The Buteyko Breathing Method:

One of the most amazing, yet extraordinarily simple, methods of reversing asthma is with the Russian Buteyko Breathing Method. Taught throughout Australia today by trained Buteyko practitioners, this technique counteracts the hyperventilation which often occurs with asthma and encourages slower breathing with the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the lungs to allow relaxation of bronchospasm.

Research into the Buteyko Method showed that asthmatics were able to decrease bronchodilator medication by 90% and steroid medication by 50%. (Ref: Bowler & Mitchell, “Buteyko Breathing Techniques in asthma: a blinded randomised controlled trial” Medical Journal of Australia 1998; 169:575-578). It is absolutely safe, inexpensive to do and can be done anywhere, especially when no medication is available, bringing confidence rather than panic to the asthmatic having and attack.

CASE STUDY : How I banished asthma from my life!

In my particular case I suffered with asthma from the age of eight to twenty-two. I reacted to house dust, moulds, chemical fumes such as paints and lacquers, and eating dairy products, especially cheese, as well as chemical additives in foods, especially metabisulphite, a preservative. I took regular asthma “puffer” inhaled medications, but never required hospitalisation. I was also a passive smoker in my teens. My asthma was very much exacerbated by emotional stress, moving to Australia from Canada, where I grew up, and dealing with my parents’ acrimonious divorce soon afterwards. It was through a process of curiosity and self-discovery that I found the cure for my asthma.

I started my recovery with a course of acupuncture, which relieved tension and airway spasm. I had allergy testing at The Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, which identified chemicals and moulds in foods as being significant triggers for me, as well as moulds and dust in my living environment. I was living in a damp, rather dusty apartment on the waterfront of Sydney Harbour at the time, eating the mouldiest foods like blue vein cheese, pumpernickel bread, mushrooms, peanuts and red wine. Needless to say the diet needed a major overhaul and I had to move to a drier place, which also cleared up a bad case of chronic jawline acne!

I worked with a series of counsellors to resolve some of my emotional issues and discovered a trigger relating to my father, who had returned to Canada to live. Once I had resolved this issue I did not seem to have the same hypersensitivity in my lungs which I had carried for the previous fourteen years.

I became far more tolerant to stresses and allergy challenges once I had made these changes and my airways became much less reactive to inhalant particles and fumes. I moved to a less polluted suburb and had all my mercury amalgams (sixteen!) removed from my teeth over a period of four years. I noted, in retrospect, that I was generally far less allergic following that procedure. I undertook a series of colonic irrigations and regular spring liver detoxification programs and became stronger and healthier with every cleanse program. I can now go into a damp, mouldy or dusty environment without sneezing or wheezing and can eat most of my former “allergy foods” now without any reaction to them.

My experience with asthma, and the elimination of it, has been so valuable for helping me to carefully plan my own children’s nutrition and environment so as to prevent their inheriting and manifesting the asthma with which I suffered as a child.

© Copyright Giselle Cooke

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