Originally published in her weekly column, licensed nutritionist Nonie De Long answers questions about holistic therapies for childhood asthma.
I read your column each week. I am wondering if you know anything about holistic treatments for childhood asthma. My son has had to use serious medications, with a history of health issues. Is there anything natural I can do?
Another great question! Childhood asthma is very responsive to holistic therapies. The most essential of these is dietary changes and changes to rebalance the gut biome. I will explain below.
Asthma has become increasingly common today, compared to when I was a child. I, and others in the holistic community, suspect that’s because of several factors:
increased exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment
increased intake of hyper-processed, nutrient-deficient, inflammatory foods
increased antibiotic use early in life
Increased Exposure to Toxic Chemicals
There is no doubt we are exposed to ever more chemicals. Cleaning chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides on food, colours and chemicals in food products, chemicals in air fresheners, hygiene products, and detergents, and chemicals from industrial manufacturing processes are just some of the chemicals we are routinely exposed to now. “Women’s breast milk in many countries now contains chemicals belonging to a class of compounds known as PFAS at levels well above the safety thresholds set by governments, says a report from international environmental group IPEN.” (full 2004 CDC profile here) These chemicals are unfortunately used in products that are not required to note their presence on the label. Public health protection around these common chemicals has yet to take place.
Toxic chemicals are known to inhibit the development of the gut biome, not only by mechanism of toxicity, but by decreasing environmental bacteria that develop a robust immune system. The abstracts below explain this idea a bit further.
Increased Intake of Processed Foods
There is also no question our children are now consuming more processed foods. And even when their diet contains abundant whole foods, those whole foods are only as healthy as the farming methods and soil that created them. When big agriculture uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides and mono-cropping vs traditional and more holistic methods like crop rotation, soil resting, and natural soil amendments - the soil produces substandard crops - nutritionally speaking. A crop cannot contain more nutrients than the soil it is grown in. Similarly, an animal that is sickly does not produce optimally healthy dairy or meat for human consumption. In addition, fruit are often artificially ripened to be firmer to transport for sale. Overall what this means is that even when our diets are all-natural we are not getting the nutrients we would have gotten 50-100 years ago when family gardens and small scale, more holistic farming were the norm. Modern commercially produced foods are just not as nourishing.
And modern processed foods are far more damaging. The number of chemicals in our food supply today is astronomical. If you think everything on the shelf at the grocer’s is healthy to eat, stop and remember trans fats. These were pushed on us as healthier alternatives to natural saturated fats for decades and could be found abundantly in processed foods! Now we have come to discover that they are highly carcinogenic. Ditto BPA in much of our food product packaging. The same is true of sugar and many food preservatives. We need to be mindful of this when we reach to consume processed foods for our families.
Natural, whole foods, produced as holistically as possible, are always best. And certainly, exposure to these chemicals and substandard foods impacts the health of growing bodies and lungs. Foods that are substandard cause deficiency states in the body that impair the body’s ability to detoxify itself when it comes into contact with toxins. They also impede the body’s ability to downregulate inflammation responses. And they damage good gut bacteria and feed pathological gut bacteria. All this to say food has a tremendous impact on asthma clinically.
Increased Antibiotic Exposure: The Gut Biome and Lung Pathology
But the greatest factor in lung health in youth may be the microbiome. Studies are now discovering the link between asthma and allergies and the health of their microbiome. Clinically asthma and allergies (as well as food intolerances) go hand in hand. As such, we will not separate them herein. Consider these studies on Pubmed:
The human microbiome, asthma, and allergy (Dec. 2015):
“In contrast to the extensive knowledge of the gut microbiome, information on the lung microbiome is limited. However evidence suggests a distinct microbiome of the lungs of healthy subjects and a difference between the microbiomes of healthy people and those with obstructive lung diseases such as asthma …
The findings of studies ... indicate that humans are exposed to fewer microorganisms because of changes in factors such as the use of antibiotics and diet, which are accompanied by increasing susceptibility to asthma and allergies. Moreover, these studies illuminate the differences in the microbiomes of healthy people and those with asthma and allergies...
Increasing evidence suggests that the compositions of the lung and gut microbiomes determine the risk of asthma and allergies:
The Microbiome in Asthma (Dec. 2016)
“Several studies have confirmed the role of microbiota in the regulation of immune function and the development of atopy and asthma. These clinical conditions have apparent roots in an insufficiency of early life exposure to the diverse environmental microbiota necessary to ensure colonization of the gastrointestinal and/or respiratory tracts. Commensal microbes are necessary for the induction of a balanced, tolerogenic immune system. The identification of commensal bacteria in both the gastroenteric and respiratory tracts could be an innovative and important issue. In conclusion, the function of microbiota in healthy immune response is generally acknowledged, and gut dysbacteriosis might result in chronic inflammatory respiratory disorders, particularly asthma.”
In summary, what this means is that the health of the intestinal microbiome is related to the health of lung tissues and where there is chronic lung disease there is frequently gut biome imbalance. The authors all suggest this needs further study. Clinically many holistic physicians have undertaken to do this, with very good results. For a book on just this, you can read Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies: The Groundbreaking Program for the 4-A Disorders by Kenneth Bock M.D.. Dr. Bock is an integrative physician out of New York, whom I had the pleasure of learning from a few years back. His book and advice have been instrumental in my work with parents addressing asthma in children.
Some considerations we check for:
An anti-inflammatory diet that reduces mucus production and helps heal the gut
Household and personal care chemicals
Deficiencies and imbalances in nutrients, including metals
Toxicity and an impaired ability to detoxify the body
Side effects of drug use to manage symptoms
Emotional drivers of anxiety/ stress and support for those
As you can see, Anna, there is a lot that can be done holistically to help your son. Parents can undertake this without professional guidance, from reading books (as above) but I don’t advise it. First of all, no one book captures the interventions required for every child. A good practitioner understands when each therapy and modality is most indicated. Secondly, parents frequently burn out trying to learn about the therapies rather than focusing on parenting. I have fallen into this trap myself, and it was exhausting. The dietary changes alone are enough to manage, even when you have good guidance. As such, I encourage parents to invest in experienced professionals to help them use holistic therapies integrated with the medical therapies they find of benefit. In this way, the outcomes are much improved with fewer lasting side effects of drug therapies. I encourage parents to reach out if they need help. The best time to address such issues is as early as possible.
As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them. Just send me an email. And if you’re looking for more specific health information check out my website and sign up for my free newsletter at nonienutritionista.com.