antique illustration of lungs

Asthma is a disease where the microscopic airways of the lungs become inflamed and constrict, limiting airflow.  Once diagnosed with asthma, someone is generally considered to “have” it, even if they go weeks, months, or even years in between attacks.

Prevention, the Big Picture:

Since asthma is a lifelong disease, preventing it i.e never getting it in the first place can save a person from decades of gasping, wheezing, coughing, medication, anxiety, and physical limitations, not to mention potentially tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses.

This is a big, big deal!

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of individual studies exploring the factors which increase and decrease our risk of developing asthma.  All the data can be overwhelming.  However, stepping back from the nitty-gritty to look at the big picture, we see:

– Industrial and chemical air pollution, generally speaking (smog, tobacco smoke, fragrances) increases our risk of developing asthma.

– Stuffy indoor pollution that builds up when we don’t air out a place enough (cleaning chemicals, off-gassing from artificial fabrics, dust mites, cockroach droppings) also increases risk.

– “Good clean dirt” lowers risk.  Kids who grow up on working farms are less likely to develop asthma, as are kids who play outdoors, and kids who are around animals or other small children (who share their germs).  These factors appear to “train” the immune system.

– Not surprisingly, since low-level germ and dirt exposure reduce risk, over-sanitizing our environments increases risk.  Harsh disinfectants around the house, as well as antibiotics (which “sanitize” us internally) both increase our risk significantly.

Then there was a study out of Denmark on fish oil and asthma, which is to my mind one of the most significant papers ever published on public health.  The findings are right up there with “washing hands before surgery prevents deadly infections” and “smoking causes lung cancer.”

In 1990, 533 pregnant women were randomized to receive either a moderate dose of fish oil (2.7 g total omega-3s) or an olive oil placebo for the final three months of their pregnancies.  The original purpose of the study was to investigate whether fish oil could prevent breach birth.  Turns out, it did.

Sixteen years later, another group of researchers decided to follow up on the children from the original trial, to see if the fish oil their mothers received had lowered their risk of asthma.  523 children were still alive and in Denmark, where their medical records were available through the country’s National Health Registry.

The findings were remarkable.  A mere three months of fish oil reduced the incidence of an asthma diagnoses by 63%!  Now bear in mind that the estimated lifetime cost of asthma for an American born in 2000 is over $18,000.  On the other hand, the dose of fish oil used in the study costs $75 (plus tax) at our store.

Attack Prevention, Daily Lifestyle:

There are a million-and-one potential triggers for an asthma attack.  For some, it’s cold air.  For others, it’s heavy exercise.  For others, it’s environmental or food allergies, panic-stress, acid reflux, or respiratory infections.

When you figure out your triggers, you can often avoid them.  Even when you can’t, you can often find ways to address the triggers (the “cause”) instead of the just the asthma (the “symptom.”)  For example, allergic asthma may respond better to anti-allergy formulas than it may to anti-asthma formulas.

Getting allergens out of the house is a big help for some.  Try airing out your home at least once a week, even in the winter.

Taking good strong antivirals at the start of a cold or flu can often prevent a prolonged bout of asthma as well as the cold or flu!

There’s reason to believe that dehydration can make asthma worse.

And of course, stress and anxiety can bring on an asthma attack.  Calming mindfulness practices can be a big help here.


None of this is going to be as quick-acting or dramatic as a rescue inhaler.  Most of this stuff takes at least a few days to start working.  Don’t leave your inhaler at home!

Butterbur is a plant native to Western Europe, where its enormous leaves were once used to wrap butter.  The root, however, is the part used medicinally.

As a medicine, butterbur does two major things: it fights allergies, and it stops certain smooth muscles from spasming.  (In addition to asthma, you can find research on urinary incontinence and migraine as well).  For asthma, with its spasming bronchioles, butterbur is effective.  For allergic asthma, it’s often spectacular, as it simultaneously addressed the cause and the symptom.

A standard dose is 50 mg of the concentrated extract, three times a day.  A significant reduction in attack frequency and severity is normally seen in less than a month.

Butterbur root naturally contains compounds called pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can be rough on the liver.  Commercial preparations remove these.

NAC stands for N-Acetyl Cysteine, an amino acid derivative which is one of our most versatile and valuable nutrients.  NAC thins mucous, especially in the lungs.  It also helps the body make its most important antioxidant, a substance called glutathione, which is everywhere in the body, but especially important in the liver and lungs.  (In fact, NAC does so much, that it was the subject of its very own three-page article in our newsletter last year.  Feel free to come in and grab a copy back in our supplement department.)

The only decent clinical trial I could find on NAC and asthma was one in which it did not help.  However, this was a 5-day trial in patients who were already hospitalized for very severe asthma.  Over the long-term, I believe NAC will be effective, since it mops up and repairs the damage caused by constant low-level inflammation in the lungs, thins excess mucous, and reduces common asthma triggers such as allergy symptoms, and the flu.

A standard dose is 600 mg twice a day.

Lomatium Root Extract is not anti-asthmatic per se, but it’s to my mind the single best lung anti-viral we have.  If you’re one of those people who gets a cold, and then the cold moves down into the lungs, and then it triggers hellish asthma, Lomatium can intercept the whole process.

Cordyceps Mushroom increases oxygen uptake from the lungs.  Dosed high enough, it’s pretty spectacular for increasing stamina during runs, bike rides, basketball games, etc.  It’s also valuable in asthma, especially during prolonged attacks that aren’t terribly serious, but leave one short of breath or just feeling weak and lethargic.

There’s also a wonderful formula called “Cordyceps 9,” put out by a company called Seven Forests.  Here, Cordyceps is combined with tonic herbs into an overall strengthening blend.  While the folks at Seven Forests like to describe their formula in Chinese medical terms (“nourish kidney/liver, tonify lung, astringe essence”), they also talk about it in Western terms: “One of the intended applications of this formula is to help patients who have been relying on steroid medications for treating asthma or other inflammatory diseases in their efforts to withdraw from the drugs or lower their dosage.  Steroid use weakens the kidney essence [roughly analogous to adrenal capacity], making it difficult to withdraw.”  (Normally, I wouldn’t quote a company’s literature, since it’s almost all sales-driven propaganda.  But Seven Forests is run as a non-profit, and their literature is written by Subhuti Dharmananda, one of the great scholars of Chinese medicine alive today

To me, it’s just a great formula for anytime asthma or lung weakness combines with a general feeling of being worn out.

The Jethro Kloss antispasmodic formula is just about the only herbal formula still in use out of Jethro Kloss’ epic 1,000 page Back to Eden.  Wonderful for a spasmodic coughing, including asthma, it can work on an empty stomach within a half-hour.

Magnesium and Fish Oils: Magnesium reduces baseline muscle tension, and fish oil reduces baseline inflammation.  It certainly makes sense to think these two could help with asthma.  When it comes to clinical trials, however, both have been fairly well studied, and neither one has ever really shone slight improvements at best.  (Although magnesium can be quite impressive when giving intraveinously).

Since both magnesium and fish oil are Generally Good For You, they still might be worth a try if other things aren’t working.  Dose: fish oil standardized to roughly 1800 mg a day EPA; magnesium in a well-absorbing form 600 mg a day.