By Kelley Herring
Over 25 million Americans currently live with asthma – a respiratory disease that causes episodes of coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.[i]
And while anyone can develop asthma, researchers believe numerous genetic and environmental factors play a role. These factors are especially important during the early years of life when the immune system is developing.
Typical treatments for asthma include anti-inflammatory medications and steroid inhalers, both of which come with a laundry list of side effects. Immunotherapy in the form of “allergy shots” is also used, as well as common-sense instructions to avoid exposure to known respiratory triggers.
Unfortunately, diet is rarely considered by asthma sufferers and modern medical professionals and usually only as it pertains to eliminating food allergies or antigens – such as gluten or sulfites – which can promote inflammation and provoke an attack.
But what if we could tamp down the severity and incidence of asthma with an easy anti-inflammatory biochemical dietary hack?
To understand how this could work, we must first understand…
How Asthma Affects the Lungs
Asthma is foremost an inflammatory disease. This inflammation causes the lining of the airways becomes swollen and clogged with mucus and fluid. This is the “quiet” part of asthma. And each time your airways are exposed to an asthma trigger, the inflammation increases.
As the symptoms worsen, the muscles around the breathing tubes tighten and more mucus is produced. These forces make the breathing tubes narrower and make it more difficult to get air into the lungs. This is known as an “asthma attack” and may call for immediate medical treatment (more on that later).
Allergens and irritants like pollen, dust mites, and smoke can all trigger an attack. And the triggers that set off symptoms for you may be quite different from those that affect another person.[ii]
Limiting exposure to these triggers is obviously important. But new research shows that a specific diet may target the cells that produce inflammation in the respiratory tract, which are responsible for causing asthma.
The Keto Diet: Metabolic Antidote for Asthma?
Research conducted at the University of Bonn sought to uncover how specific diets might help certain cases of asthma.
The researchers knew that asthma patients react to even minute concentrations of certain allergens. And when they do, they produce more mucus, making breathing more difficult.
The scientists discovered that cells called Innate Lymphoid Cells (ILC’s) are sequestered during an asthma attack. These cells help to regenerate damaged mucosal tissues and can repair damage caused by pathogens and harmful substances. However, for those with asthma, this process can also produce an onslaught of inflammatory molecules, called cytokines.
The researchers who designed this study wondered if by slowing the division of ILCs they could bring asthma under control. They knew that activated ILC’s use fats. But what if these fats were needed elsewhere in the body?
To answer the question, they put mice on a ketogenic diet.
As expected, they quickly saw metabolic changes in the cells, including the Innate Lymphoid Cells they hoped to target. Dr. Christoph Wilhelm from the Institute for Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology, states:
“Normally, contact with allergens increases the number of ILCs in the bronchi fourfold. In our experimental animals (on the keto diet), however, it remained almost unchanged. Both mucus production and other asthma symptoms decreased accordingly.”
It seems that the ketogenic diet acted as a “buffer” between the allergen and the ILC, reducing the cells’ response and therefore the symptoms.
Dr. Wilhelm continues:
“The prevalence of asthma has increased dramatically over the last few decades. Perhaps this is also related to an increasingly common high-sugar and high-fat diet.”[iii]
Therapeutic Diets for Asthma
In addition to tamping down on inflammation with a high fat, moderate protein, low carb diet (also known as the keto diet), you may also consider the following potential triggers for asthma:
- Sulfites: These compounds are found in common foods such as farm-raised shrimp, dried fruit, jams, beer and wine. Not only can they provoke asthma symptoms, but may even trigger anaphylaxis in sensitive individuals.[iv]
- Histamines: Histamine is a natural chemical produced by the body that plays an important role in the immune system. If you have asthma, histamine may promote bronchoconstriction – the tightening of the muscles surrounding the airways in your lungs – and production of mucus.[v] A number of foods (like tomatoes and aged cheese) contain histamine or promote the release of histamine (like citrus). Histamines are also present in environmental allergens. If you have asthma, consider a low-histamine diet to see if it helps with symptoms.
- Environmental & Dietary Allergens: Many environmental allergens – like mold and pollen – can provoke an asthma attack. If you believe allergies are contributing to your asthma, consider a comprehensive immune profile to determine what antigens may be impacting you.
Find more health and wellness articles on the Discover Blog.
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[i] Centers for Disease Control. Recent National Asthma Data. https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/most_recent_national_asthma_data.htm
[ii] What is Asthma. Allergy & Asthma Network. https://allergyasthmanetwork.org/what-is-asthma/
[iii] Fotios Karagiannis, Schekufe Kharabi Masouleh, Klaus Wunderling, Jayagopi Surendar, Vanessa Schmitt, Alexander Kazakov, Marcel Michla, Michael Hölzel, Christoph Thiele, Christoph Wilhelm. Lipid-Droplet Formation Drives Pathogenic Group 2 Innate Lymphoid Cells in Airway Inflammation. Immunity, 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.immuni.2020.03.003
[iv] Sulfite Sensitivity. Allergy & Asthma Network. https://www.asthmaandallergycenter.com/article/sulfite-sensitivity/
[v] Yamauchi K, Ogasawara M. The Role of Histamine in the Pathophysiology of Asthma and the Clinical Efficacy of Antihistamines in Asthma Therapy. Int J Mol Sci. 2019;20(7):1733. Published 2019 Apr 8. doi:10.3390/ijms20071733