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Nutrition for Asthma

by Penny Crowther(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 81 - October 2002


Asthma is becoming more and more common. In the period between 1958 and 1986 the number of children aged 0-4 admitted to hospital increased twenty fold.[1] The theory that our increasingly polluted environment is to blame, while seeming to be self-evident, is not borne out by research. A study on the prevalence of asthma in children living on the island of Skye, one of the least polluted parts of the UK, found it to be more common than in other more polluted cities such as Aberdeen and Cardiff.[2]

Asthma occurs when the small, muscular air tubes in the lungs known as bronchi become hypersensitive, usually in response to certain stimuli, and go into spasm. The bronchi decrease in size, constricting the flow of air. Mucus collects inside the bronchi and the delicate mucous membrane becomes swollen and inflamed, narrowing the space inside the tubes even further.

The conventional treatment of asthma commonly involves the use of two types of drugs. The first type – adrenaline derivatives – is used to dilate the constricted bronchi during an attack. As you might imagine, the side effects of these drugs are in keeping with the effects of extra adrenaline pumping through the body; for example, raised blood pressure, altered blood sugar levels and a generally stimulated nervous system. The second type of drugs – corticosteroids – is used on a prophylactic basis to suppress the inflammation in the bronchi. Long-term use of steroids can lead to suppressed adrenal function, loss of calcium from bone and increased risk of fungal infections including Candida.

Case Study

When a patient of mine, 37-year-old Graham, came to see me he was concerned because he was having to take increasingly large doses of both types of the above drugs to control his asthma. He was suffering from fungal rashes on the skin and under the nails and his energy had crashed because his breathing difficulties were affecting his sleep. Graham had a history of severe childhood asthma, which then returned in early adulthood on a seasonal basis in conjunction with hay fever. In the past year, however, the asthma had become chronic and he was reliant on continuous medication.

The diet I prescribed for Graham emphasized foods that had an anti-inflammatory effect such as garlic, onions, flax oil, oily fish and seeds. I also recommended chilli peppers because they help to desensitize the bronchial mucosa to allergens, and liquorice tea. Liquorice helps to reduce the side effects of steroid drugs and is anti-allergy. Graham reduced his consumption of eggs to four per week and removed mucus-forming foods from his diet such as cheese and milk but he ate live yoghurt. The milk in yoghurt is fermented which means that it provides beneficial bacteria for the intestines, which are often destroyed by steroid drugs. We also removed citrus fruit and tomatoes from his diet, both common allergenic foods, and reduced his consumption of bread and pasta, which he consumed in large quantities. He also avoided gas-producing foods such as broccoli and cabbage, since gas can put pressure on the diaphragm. Cold foods were also taken out of the diet because cold can cause the bronchial tubes to go into spasm. Finally I advised Graham not to add salt to any food, since sodium is known to increase exercise-induced asthma and he was a keen squash player.

Asthmatics often suffer from hypoglycaemia. In some cases the blood sugar may not drop low enough to be considered a problem according to the conventional glucose tolerance test. This means that it will remain officially undiagnosed but will still cause the patient symptoms that can aggravate the asthma. Graham knew that he was very sensitive to sugary foods and alcohol, and he noticed that he felt much better if he ate small, frequent meals. I advised him to continue doing this to maintain his blood sugar levels and also to increase his consumption of protein and reduce the overall carbohydrate content of his diet.

The supplements I suggested were a strong probiotic containing acidophilus and bifidus, a mineral formula which included 300mg of magnesium (a muscle relaxant)[3-5] as citrate, 1000mg of vitamin C[6] for its protective effect on lung function and a pure fish oil supplement made in Sweden called Eskimo 3. The omega 3 essential fatty acids in fish oil are particularly easy for the body to absorb and they have a known anti-inflammatory action.

After three weeks on the programme, Graham reported a steady improvement in his energy levels. After a further month, he reported that he had reduced his prophylactic medication by half. He noticed that he had stopped coughing up any mucus. But he still needed a daily puff of his Salbutamol inhaler prior to exercise. At this stage, I added in a two-week course of the Australian bush flower essences, Sturt Desert Pea and Tall Mulla Mulla, both of which support the lungs. In addition, he also took a herbal tincture containing milk thistle and dandelion to detoxify the liver.

When Graham came for his next appointment two months later he was thrilled that he had stopped all his medication, except for three puffs per week of his Salbutamol inhaler, and his specialist had discharged him. Initially, Graham had been sceptical about nutritional therapy and he was grateful to his friend who had persuaded him to try it after he had benefited.

Final Comment

I am constantly frustrated by the attitude of the medical profession. While there are exceptions, it is very rare for asthma patients to be given the option of nutritional therapy as an alternative to or in addition to drugs. All too often my patients report that they feel actively discouraged by their doctor's attitude. The most usual response is to say that there is no evidence that what you eat makes any difference. This is not only untrue, but is also very demotivating for people who are about to or already have taken the positive and challenging step of changing their diet. If doctors are not going to endorse nutritional therapy, the very least they could do is to give their patients some encouragement for following a healthier lifestyle. They should be doing a lot more, not least because the potential savings for the NHS could be huge.


1. Burney PGJ 'Has the prevalence of asthma increased in children? Evidence from the national survey of health and growth' British Medical Journal 100: 1306-10. 1990.
2. Austin Jane. Prevalence of asthma and wheeze in the highlands of Scotland. Archives of Diseases in Childhood. 71: 211-16. 1994.
3. Brunner EH et al. Effect of parenteral magnesium on pulmonary function, plasma C-amp and histamine in bronchial asthma. Journal Asthma. 22: 3. 1985.
4. Okayama H et al. Bronchodilating effect of intravenous magnesium sulphate in bronchial asthma. Journal of the American Medical Association. 257: 1076. 1987.
5. Skobeloff EM et al. Intravenous magnesium sulphate for the treatment of acute asthma in the emergency department. Journal of the American Medical Association. 282: 1210. 1989.
6. Ness AR et al. Vitamin C status and respiratory function. Eur J Clin Nutr. 50: 573-9. Sept 1996.


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About Penny Crowther

Penny Crowther BANT CNHC qualified as a nutritional therapist in 1997 and has been in clinical practice ever since. She has seen several thousand clients over the years, at her practice in London and online. Penny now specializes in nutrition for women in their 40s and beyond, particularly around peri and post menopause. Mid Life for women can be a time when fluctuating hormones play havoc with your wellbeing. In the midst of all the publicity around HRT, it's easy to forget just how powerful diet and lifestyle changes can be when it comes to navigating the menopausal years.

Penny will guide and support you through specific changes to your diet, targeted to you specifically, in midlife. She provides practical, easy to follow menu plans with easy and delicious recipes. The food you eat affects every cell and system in your body. It optimizes how you look and feel, both mentally and physically.

To book an appointment view consultation options here >>

As well as being a regular columnist for Positive Health, Penny has written for Holland and Barrett, and contributed to articles for the Daily TelegraphThe Times Literary supplement, Pregnancy & Birth and Marie Claire. She has been featured in the Daily Express, Daily Mirror and on local radio.

Penny is a registered nutritional therapist with standards of training endorsed by BANT (British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy) and CNHC. This includes completing 30 hours of continuing professional development, annually.

Penny’s approach to health is holistic, and takes into account emotional, mental and environmental factors as well as nutrition. She has trained in coaching and studied many complementary therapies before qualifying as a nutritionist, which provides a broad foundation of knowledge in her nutrition practice. Penny may be contacted on Tel: 07761 768 754;

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