Diet for Asthma & Respiratory conditions
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
– Our lungs
– Inflammation and your immune system
– Anti-oxidants friend or foe?
– Pro inflammatory foods and substances to avoid
– Anti-Inflammatory foods to reduce inflammation
– Specific lung healthy foods
– To summarise
A diet for respiratory support is what it says – a support – but certainly not a cure for respiratory conditions. Different types of lung issues that the diet may assist with (but are not limited to) include :
- Emphysema & Mesothelioma
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Persistent post viral/bacterial cough
There are many aspects when considering the best approach to support respiratory systems; each condition has unique differences that need guidance from your health practitioner.
Lung conditions can go through different phases, such as infection, allergy, coughing/wheezing, mucus congestion and inflammation. A diet for respiratory support will help to reduce inflammation and mucus, lower allergy risk (on a gut level, which can help respiratory allergies), support the immune system and the gut (80% of our immune system is in the gut), and help to build healthy connective tissues in the lungs.
Each person is different as is each condition, so there may be times, particularly with acute infection or inflammation that you need more specific support. You may need a leaky gut healing diet or an immune support diet for a length of times depending on what is going on with your health. Seek the advice of your health care provider to understand which diet is best for you, along with any other treatment plans.
Our lungs are made of hundreds of thousands of branching tubes that end in tiny air sacs called alveoli (that’s not ‘aioli’ – the sauce to accompany fish). To keep up with the oxygen demands of our body, there are over three hundred million alveoli in our lungs. If stretched out, they would roughly cover the surface area of a tennis court.
Our lungs are remarkable and make up a large part of our immune system.
Pollutants and microbes are captured by mucus in the lungs and shuttled upward by tiny cilia (like little hairs) for us to cough out, sneeze or swallow.
We need to care for our lungs by avoiding inhaling harmful substances both indoors and outdoors. For example, smoking destroys the cilia that help to remove infection and pollutants, resulting in clogged airways. Anything we can smell – and even things we cannot smell – will be in our lungs via the air we breathe in.
Eating healthy food and exercise are equally important to keep your lungs clear, healthy and not overburdened. Fresh foods are the best way to get the enzymes, vitamins and minerals you need to keep breathing easily.
Don’t forget to move your body; cardiovascular exercise to elevate your heart rate will help to strengthen your lungs and keep the oxygen supply up. You may not be able to do a full cardio work out, but even raising your heart rate a little will help. A gentle walk around the house or around the block until you can build up to more substantial exercise is better than nothing.
WARNING: breathing difficulty can also be a sign of cardio-vascular disease, so please ensure that you have a full medical examination and get the OK from your doctor before embarking on any exercise regime.
Inflammation and your immune system
Your immune system attacks anything in your body that it recognizes as foreign, such as invading microbes, plant pollens, or chemicals. Any damage to the body also triggers the same response (our immune trigger). This process is called inflammation.
Intermittent bouts of inflammation directed at protecting you against threatening invaders is vital for your health. But when the inflammation persists day in and day out, even with no foreign invaders present, then inflammation can become your enemy.
If you have permanent damage to your lungs such as with emphysema, mesothilioma or COPD, then the body constantly attacks itself (the lung tissue) to repair the damage. Reducing this on-going inflammation can slow down the destruction of tissue in your lungs.
Because inflammation can be a driving factor for lung complaints, an anti-inflammatory diet can be very helpful to support and look after your lung health.
When considering foods to reduce inflammation, what you leave out of your diet is often more important than what you add. Details follow along with how to avoid toxins. Avoiding toxins, even those that are not directly related to the lungs, gives the body a better chance to heal.
Antioxidants, friend or foe?
There’s lots of information available confirming anti-oxidants are great for your health. While this is true, it’s a different story for people with lung damage. Many people now take anti-oxidants as supplements, rather than simply getting them from their food. The extra concentration of these nutrients can be great to ward off certain infections and disease, but it can also backfire and accelerate the growth of certain cancerous tumours.
According to a study published in Science Translational Medicine, the consumption of high doses of antioxidants such as vitamin E (beta-carotene), lutein, lycopene, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and acetylcysteine may speed up the progression of lung cancer in smokers and people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a lung disease often triggered by smoking. These studies on lung cancer patients showed that antioxidants harmed rather than helped them by accelerating the progression of the disease.
If you have never been a smoker, then this information may not apply to you. But if you are, or have been a smoker, then your risk for getting lung cancer increases. The above antioxidants are meant to protect the body from disease by preventing cell damage caused by molecules known as free radicals. The protection they initially intend to provide can backfire for those who already have cancerous or pre-cancerous cells in the lungs.
If the body detects any cell DNA damage, say from smoking for example, it releases a tumour-suppressing protein called p53. In the scientific research, the antioxidants not only cleared free radicals, but also prevented the release of the p53, thereby actually promoting cancer cells to escape from detection in the body which allowed it to multiplying quicker than usual.
Today there should be no doctor, naturopath or health practitioner who would prescribe anti-oxidant supplements to anyone who has smoked at any time, due to the increased risk of lung cancer.
Interestingly, there are also studies that show that the use of anti-oxidants helps to support lung function and even slow the rate of lung cancer. But at this stage, the defining issues appear to be the risk for smokers and that supplemental synthetic anti-oxidants were used in the trial, rather than foods.
Some reports throw food and supplements together into the one wagon. But in my opinion (and many other’s) nutrients from food sources are there to help us heal naturally. Makes sense to me!
What has the gut got to do with your lungs? A lot!
The whole body works in synchronisation; when one part of the body is sick, you can be sure that the rest of the body knows about it and will do whatever it can to bring back balance. But this can also work in reverse, where if one area is unhealthy then that can affect other parts of the body.
You have receptors and neurotransmitters in your gut, just like in your brain. Even though our white blood cells, bone marrow, and lymphatic system supports our immune system, our gut holds 70-80% of our immune system. The food that passes down our throats has germs like bacteria, viruses, parasites, foreign particles and more that our immune system must deal with. Our immune system is our first line of defence, rather like the front line in war zones.
For more information, see my great article Our amazing immune system
If what we eat or drink is not in harmony with our body then our immune system will be so busy working on the front line, that there will be little energy left for it to work elsewhere in the body.
Similarly, if the liver is so busy detoxifying the rubbish we eat, drink or breathe in, then it too cannot function properly to do all of its jobs such as produce the enzymes needed to digest food and break down fibrotic tissue, damaged cells and more.
My point is that every part of your body needs to be as healthy as possible so it can focus its attention on pressing matters…like healing your lungs.
Many years ago, when I ran a detoxification clinic, I came across research about gut healing to get rid of asthma. They even called it a cure, but I don’t like to use that word unless I know it will help everyone with that condition. The theory was that if you used Aloe Vera juice in large quantities (1 litre per day) then you would rid yourself of asthma.
I did have a few clients who were willing to give it a go (who had not resolved their asthma from other methods). We ensured they always kept their inhalers handy, and they drank the Aloe Vera juice daily, along with a diet that was free of gluten, grain, dairy and sugar and they had great success.
I realised later that it was because they were healing their ‘leaky gut’. Intestinal permeability or leaky gut is somewhat of a new kid on the block compared to what was around 20+ years ago, but essentially, the treatment I recommended was the same as for leaky gut today.
Now I’m not saying to drink copious amounts of Aloe Vera, but what I am saying is that healing the gut can make a difference, even if your asthma is due to airborne allergies. I have treated hay-fever and sinus from pollen allergy the same way. Treat the gut and boost things like zinc for the immune system and in a lot of cases their allergies go away, or so it seems. At the very least their body seemed less reactive to the pollens etc.
Warning: Some people have a salycilate sensitivity and aloe has a high salycilate content.
In the case of conditions such as asthma, it’s amazing how many kids and adults have healed it with a diet that heals their gut!
It will take a while before we know and understand everything about the human body but one thing that seems to be consistent with just about any health condition is to look after the gut and make sure you have healthy microbiome (good levels of a diversity of friendly bacteria). If you do some research you can quickly validate this information, and find it really makes sense to look after your gut to heal.
It’s all about making the whole body strong and vital so that it can do its job of cleaning up any mess or damage made along the way.
Although there are many drugs, herbal and nutritional anti-inflammatory supportive potions, lotions, pills, and powders, you can aid their effectiveness and better support the body during times of inflammation with the right foods. Remember – where there is damaged tissue in the body, including the lungs, there will be a degree of inflammation.
Choosing foods that are pro-inflammatory will not only make inflammation worse, but you could also accelerate the inflammatory process and potentially turn a simple inflammation into a disease. This can occur when the immune system creates ‘auto-antibodies’ in order to clean up the damaged body part. These auto-antibodies create auto-immune diseases.
Generally, a clean, no additives, natural, unprocessed diet that is high in vegetables, fish, unprocessed oils and some nuts and seeds with a few good fruits is considered the best diet that is anti-inflammatory. Some people also need to look at histamine as a source of inflammation (more below).
But first, let’s look at foods and substances that are pro-inflammatory (increase inflammation) and anti-inflammatory (decrease inflammation).
Pro inflammatory foods and substances to avoid
When we use the word ‘pro’ as in pro-inflammatory, it may sound like that’s a positive…but it’s not! Pro-inflammatory foods and substances promote inflammation in the body which is bad for our general health – particularly for those with respiratory issues.
Here is a run-down of what to avoid…
Dairy products can congest the lungs and the body in general. For hundreds of my clients with asthma and other respiratory symptoms, just taking them off dairy made a huge improvement to their symptoms.
It seems that if someone has been tested and found to not have a direct allergy from dairy, milk or lactose, they are told to just keep consuming it. However it’s not always about allergies. Because I have seen these products generate mucus in so many people, I really don’t know why they are still promoted as healthy food.
I may upset many people by stating my views, as these foods are high in calcium, but the bottom line is that they are congestive to the body and so many people react to them, but not in an obvious way like the diarrhoea of a lactose intolerant person.
My suggestion is to give up all dairy products including cheese for a month (it takes that long to get it out of your system) and then see how you feel. There are many healthy alternatives to dairy such as fresh nut milks.
Refined and artificial sugars and fruit juices
Avoid any processed and artificial sugars and fruit juices, especially from a bottle, as these generally contain concentrated sugar that can affect your blood sugar levels which negatively affect your immune system and hormones. Some great alternatives are stevia, honey or maple syrup in small amounts and whole fruits or blended fruit smoothies.
Avoid grains such as wheat, rye, barley (gluten containing) and white rice, as these can be very acidic, inflammatory, mucus forming and can react with your immune system and create inflammation.
Studies have shown that caffeine can increase inflammation.
Foods which are altered to be reduced in fat or fat-free are usually highly processed and high in sugar. Choose foods as nature intended. Our bodies need good fats to be healthy.
Grain fed cattle can contain high levels of added hormones and antibiotics which are toxic to the body.
Large deep-water fish
Avoid large deep-water fish such as mahi-mahi, tuna, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass due to their potential concentrations of mercury. When choosing salmon, avoid farmed salmon and choose wild salmon instead if you can get it. Farmed salmon contains antibiotics and food dyes and are often fed pellets made from chicken feathers and bones.
Certain personal care items
Personal care items such as facial products, shampoos, conditioners, sun-screens, repellents, toothpaste and perfumes are just a few of the items that may contain toxic chemicals that could affect your health. With many of these items you can detect a chemical smell and if so, then it’s in your lungs, creating irritation and inflammation (even for some you can’t smell). There are plenty of great alternatives that are chemical free. You may need to experiment to find what suits you.
Un-purified water can contain a host of chemical including chlorine, fluoride, bromide and heaps of other chemicals used to balance the Ph of the water and prevent water born disease like parasites and bacteria. Avoid water from inferior plastic bottles as some of these leach chemicals into the water.
My son refused to drink water from the water purifier as he thought it took too long and didn’t want to wash up his glass after use, so he drank straight from the tap, believing it to be fine (even though I regularly explained the downside of doing so). That was until his first day on the job as an electrician for the water board when he came home after work and I caught him drinking from the filter. I asked him about why he changed his mind and with a horrified look on his face he said, “Do you realise what they put into our water!”? “Yes”, I replied and smiled ?
Anti-Inflammatory foods to reduce inflammation
Studies have shown that organic produce has more nutritional value, so that alone is good. Where possible, chose organic or spray free fruits and vegetables, as conventional produce contains residues of harmful herbicides and pesticides which are toxic to the whole body.
For a similar reason to the produce, it is best to buy organic meats or at least grass fed if possible.
Free-range grass-fed animals
Grass fed meats are a great source of essential fatty acids, lower in saturated fat (compared to grain fed) and a great source of protein.
Grass-fed have higher ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio of fats in their system, whereas conventional raised grain-fed animals have a higher Omega 6 pro-inflammatory ratio of fats. For healthy lungs, it is much better to eat meats richer in the Omega 3 fats.
If you find free-range, organic or grass-fed chickens (or other meats) too expensive, consider having it less often or serve up smaller portions.
Cold water fish such as wild Alaskan salmon, cod, and Alaskan halibut contain good levels of healthy fats, proteins, vital minerals and vitamin A, along with healthy Omega 3 fats which help to reduce inflammation. Fish caught wild in pollution free waters are also beneficial.
Purify your water and drink plenty of it.
Non-gluten grains are filled with fibre, important vitamins and immune supporting properties which can help the body stabilise blood sugar. Choose whole grain rice or whole grain rice pasta, quinoa and brown rice. There are also plenty of great seeds and nuts which contain lots of healthy nutrients.
Specific lung healthy foods
Garlic and Onions
These pungent foods help to reduce inflammation and fight infection.
Peppers are filled with capsaicin, the spicy compound that gives them their bite. Capsaicin improves blood flow, stimulates mucus membranes and fights infection.
Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and kale are rich in chlorophyll which cleans and builds blood.
This spice is related to ginger with many of the same benefits. It also contains curcumin, a compound that encourages the destruction of cancer cells and is anti-inflammatory.
Especially good at cleansing the lungs.
Beans, Seeds, and Nuts
These all contain rich amounts of magnesium, a mineral that contributes to healthy lung function.
Bone Broth & Jelly
Both contain gelatine – a collagen supportive nutrient. Our lungs are made up of connective tissue consisting of collagen and elastin, so gelatine from bone broth and jelly can help to strengthen connective tissue and is also a good gut repair nutrient. Be sure to use sugar free jelly.
There are times when some of the healing foods in a diet for respiratory support – for example the bone broths, jelly, nuts, or tinned fish – may make things worse by inducing an asthma attack or increased coughing. This is a sign that you may have histamine intolerance and you need to eliminate foods high in histamine.
Following is a list of foods high in histamines. If you feel that you have reactions to some of these foods, consult with your health practitioner as a low histamine diet may be more suitable for you.
- All alcohol and any other fermented, pickled or canned foods/drinks
- Cheese, especially matured cheeses
- Smoked meat products – salami, ham, sausages
- Shellfish, tinned fish and fish that are not fresh
- Beans and pulses – chickpeas, soy beans, peanuts, cashews
- All nuts, especially walnuts
- Chocolates and other cocoa based products
- Citric fruits, plus kiwifruit, pineapple, plums, papaya, strawberries & tomatoes
- Wheat and foods containing yeast as they are a catalyst for histamine generation
- Vinegar and foods with vinegar such as mustard, mayo and sauces
- Readymade packet meals
- Salty snacks, sweets with preservatives and artificial colourings & additives – benzoate, sulphites, nitrites, glutamate, food dyes
The focus of a Diet for Respiratory Support is on anti-inflammatory foods, gut healing foods, immune supportive foods and specific nutrients, herbs and spices that help heal damage in the lungs. The gut healing foods also help the connective tissue of the lungs to repair.
While the diet is not considered a cure, it’s about including foods that support the body, and eliminating foods considered detrimental, to help your body to do its natural job of healing. For this reason, foods that are Gluten-free, Dairy-free and Additives-free are highly recommended.
Important: Before you commence this diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance and do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional, who may even prescribe extra supplementation.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client names and identifying information changed
This is really a double case study; a retired husband and wife come to see me a few years back. They had a great time travelling around Australia for many months and were in good health, until they visited their children and grandchildren. The kids had a bronchial infection that Margaret and Tom both contracted.
Initially, they didn’t think much of it because the kids appeared to get over it quickly. But the cough stayed with Margaret and Tom even after they didn’t feel sick anymore. This went on for weeks until they saw their doctor who promptly put them onto a double course of antibiotics. With no change in their cough, they continued their road trip.
Several months passed and because they were both still coughing they saw another doctor who ran some tests. They had chest x-rays, MRI’s, CT scans and more blood tests. Margaret’s results showed lowered white blood cells and low-grade inflammation. Tom’s tests showed inflammation, scarring and congestion on his lungs consistent with COPD (congestive obstructive pulmonary disorder) although many years before, Tom had smoked cigarettes for about 25yrs.
They were prescribed cortisone tablets to help reduce the inflammation which may have triggered the coughing, but after taking them for two weeks and not getting any change from their consistent coughing they stopped. They continued their travels, still feeling ok apart from the constant coughing which was sometimes a dry cough, but mostly on the wet productive side (mucus coming up).
It was a year since their initial lung infection when they saw me. I recommended they first visit a doctor to be re-checked with similar tests to before, to determine whether there had been any changes or their conditions had deteriorated. Their tests showed that Tom’s lungs were a little worse, while Margaret’s white blood cells were still low and her inflammation was a little higher. That doctor suggested more antibiotics and cortisone, but they didn’t want to do that as it didn’t work before, so they came back to see if I could help.
We had already discussed their diet at their previous visit but they didn’t want to make any changes until they saw the doctor, but now we needed to see what could be done to support the healing process.
Even though they considered they had a healthy diet, their food and lifestyle choices reflected their holiday travels. While their diet may have been healthy compared to other ‘nomads’ they met on their travels, there was certainly room for improvement. Apparently the 4pm beer o’clock is common with travellers. This is where the travellers get together in a common area with their preferred alcoholic drink plus some shared nibbles of foods like cheese, nuts, dips, crackers, lollies, cakes or whatever they felt like that day.
Breakfast for them was usually cereal with milk and sugar, and full milk coffee. Morning tea and afternoon tea were much the same with cake and full milk coffee. Usually they skipped lunch due to the 4pm meeting, then sometimes had a late dinner of salad with meat, chicken or fish.
I spoke about inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods and drinks, and how it is difficult for the body to heal when it doesn’t have the right ingredients to do its job, and particularly how pro-inflammatory foods just keep driving and increasing the inflammation.
I asked them how committed they were to make the necessary changes to get rid of their coughs. They told me they were fed up with constantly coughing and having to explain to others that they weren’t going to pass on an infection. Not to mention that they were worried about developing lung cancer if things didn’t improve.
One doctor told them that this was possible if things didn’t change soon. One of their new blood tests showed some auto-immune markers that the doctor wanted to ‘keep an eye on’, because although not fully developed, it might get worse. So not only did they have a threat of lung cancer, but also of an auto-immune disorder as their body was relentlessly trying to break down lung tissue in order to rebuild good tissue.
After our discussion, Margaret and Tom decided that it would be best to rent a house and stay away from the scene of merriment for a while to get their health in order, and then go travelling again when things were better.
The diet I put them on was was anti-inflammatory and immune supportive. It was free of gluten, dairy, grain, sugar, alcohol, coffee and additives of any kind including bacon, ham and smallgoods, which had been a large part of their 4pm munchies. These foods contain all sorts of additives detrimental to the lungs.
They were encouraged to eat plenty of fish, which Tom loved as he enjoyed fishing, and to temporarily cut out red meat, yet eat foods such as pasture fed chicken and turkey once or twice a week. They also consumed lots of turmeric made into an anti-inflammatory tea.
Initially I prescribed a supplement that was a mix of papain (from green papaya), bromelain (from pineapples) and protease (protein digestive enzymes) as well as a turmeric supplement. We began to restore their gut health with some strong probiotics which was followed by probiotic and prebiotic foods to encourage the growth of the good bacteria.
I also prescribed some magnesium rich foods and supplements to relax the lung muscles and suggested that they eat a lot of green papaya salad to get the papain digestive enzymes to break down fibrotic tissues in their lungs.
After a few weeks, they found the supplements were too expensive, so they committed to get what they needed from their diet in the ways I advised. I checked their progress every month and gradually their coughing slowed down.
Within three months they only coughed at night and after six months they had no cough at all.
After 12 months in the rented house they went back on the road again and revisited the doctor who organised their first round of tests. He was astounded and said he couldn’t believe their results and felt that he would have been diagnosing something much more sinister by then.
Margaret’s results were completely healthy and Tom’s went from a diagnosis of COPD to mild scarring on the lungs. They both continued their diet so their healing could continue and both felt and enjoyed the extra vitality this had given them.
Better still was that they shared this information whenever they had 4pm gatherings (not beer o’clock for them anymore) with fellow campers. Tom and Margaret brought along healthy snacks and drank mineral water with frozen blueberries, which also ‘rubbed off’ on a few other happy campers and some of them also changed their diet for the better. ?