Asthma Tips From the Garden

More people are suffering from asthma, but phytomedicines may help them breathe freely.

| May/June 1998

  • An X-ray showing a woman’s healthy lungs
  • Tiny air sacs in the lungs called alveoli become inflamed and thicken, reducing the lungs’ elasticity and the efficiency of oxygen transfer.
  • A grain of oak pollen, ­magnified 450 times.
  • Tiny terror: A dust mite, shown here magnified 1,000 times, can trigger asthma.
  • A grain of ragweed pollen
  • magnified 1,000 times; grains of red pine pollen, also magnified 1,000 times; a grain of sycamore pollen at 1,000-¥ magnification
  • An X-ray showing chronically inflamed lungs, most likely caused by inhaled plant dust or animal dander. In this condition

An estimated twelve to fifteen million people in the United States have asthma, nearly twice the number of people who suffered from it during the early 1980s, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. This disorder—in which the airways narrow and become so inflamed and filled with mucus that simple breathing becomes a perilous chore—is sending more people to hospitals for treatment every year, and about 5,000 people die from it annually as well, according to the foundation.

Most people are unaware that asthma is a “new” disease. It was virtually unknown 100 years ago, and is still rare in many developing countries. Although the tendency to develop asthma can have a genetic basis, the rapidly growing number of sufferers ­indicates that diet and environment play a strong role in promoting this disease.

People with asthma can control the number and severity of their attacks, though. Triggers set the inflammatory process in motion, and if your trigger threshold is very low, then you’ll have frequent, severe asthma attacks. Conversely, if you identify your inflammatory triggers, do your best to avoid them, and make use of those herbs and supplements that further increase your tolerance, you can reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. (Note: If you’re taking oral asthma medications or using an inhaler, don’t discontinue using them abruptly—asthma is far too serious to take the risk. Instead, work with your physician to find natural treatments and determine how you may safely reduce your medication dosage or prescription.)

Do You Have Asthma?

Along with tuberculosis and emphysema, asthma was once believed to be a respiratory disease. Today, however, it is considered a chronic disorder, a chronic inflammation of the airways similar to arthritis, a chronic inflammation of the joints. What sparks asthma depends on the person, but whatever the case, that person’s lungs are responding differently from a “normal” person’s lungs. Asthma attacks can be triggered by pollen, dust mites, cigarette smoke, cold air, animal dander, and other allergens. When an asthma attack occurs, the smooth muscles of the bronchi begin to spasm, the airway tissues become inflamed and swollen, and the air passages become blocked by mucus. In medical jargon, this is known as bronchoconstriction, and it results in a more-than-normal effort to breathe.

Asthma attacks may be rare or frequent. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and a “tight chest.” Attacks can come on suddenly or build up gradually and last for hours or days. People with severe asthma may have trouble speaking even a few words without stopping to take a breath. When asthma sufferers appear confused and lethargic and their skin turns blue, they aren’t getting enough oxygen and they need to be immediately taken to a hospital emergency room.

Medical research has traced asthma’s causes to cells lining the airways known as mast cells, which are concentrated in the lungs and mucoid tissue. Mast cells store large amounts of histamine and compounds that promote inflammation, such as leukotrienes and prostaglandins. They release these substances and make the smooth muscles contract in the airways, increase mucus secretion, and encourage some types of white blood cells to come to the area. Mast cells’ action is part of the body’s normal response to foreign substances, or allergens. But in asthmatics, this reaction to allergens, as well as to cold air, stress, and anxiety, is overwhelming and brings on an acute reaction.



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