How a plant-based diet can help relieve asthma symptoms

Author: Sophia Millar

Read Time:   |  30th December 2021

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Sophia Millar investigates the part played by diet in dealing with asthma, and discovers how a whole food plant-based diet can help treat the symptoms.

Our focus on respiratory health over the last 18 months has become vital in understanding how to protect ourselves from viral infections and improve our immunity.

The autumn equinox brings a shift in temperature, humidity and cold air and also a host of winter viruses waiting to greet our immune systems.

For asthma sufferers, seasonal changes can present a challenge for an already compromised immune system.

Focusing on preventative approaches could be the key to reducing symptoms and supporting underlying root causes driving the disease.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a multifactorial condition involving inflammation, food allergies/sensitivities, pollen, animal dander, fur and hair, environmental toxins, pollutants and triggers, stress, processed foods and genetically modified foods.

The prevalence of asthma among our younger generation is widely reported and is higher than ever, with 1.1 million children receiving asthma treatment and 4.3 million adults suffering from the condition.

Asthma can be life-threatening and involve acute treatment of high dose steroids and hospitalisation in more severe cases, with serious asthma attacks occurring every 10 seconds in the UK.

Although these statistics are deeply concerning, exploring triggers, gut health, root causes and taking a holistic view could be a powerful renewed way to take positive, preventative action in reducing symptoms and improving quality of life.

There are many well-researched health benefits of following a wholefood plant-based diet, but how does this apply to asthma? Could the power of naturally nourishing food really help respiratory health, control symptoms, and prevent attacks?

It’s an empowering notion that a whole food plant-based diet could be the missing link in asthma management.

Let’s explore the key areas making waves in recent research.

Can a whole food plant-based diet combat allergies?

Allergies and asthma are closely linked, with 50-80% of asthma cases triggered by allergic reactions1.

Food allergies can be a driver for the condition and key allergens pose the biggest risk, such as milk and eggs.

A clinical study2 investigated the connection between egg and milk consumption in children aged 3-14 with mild to moderate asthma.

Results of the study show that even after a short eight week period, removing egg and milk from the diet can improve lung function and allergy symptoms.

A whole food plant-based diet is centred around foods in their most natural forms, with minimal to no processing. Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats, such as trans fats, salt, sugar and preservatives to improve shelf life.

Ingredients in manufactured foods can trigger allergic reactions and respiratory issues, in particular, due to preservatives and anti-oxidants added and also sulphites found in juices, dried fruits, sauces, gravies, vinegar, and dried food products.

Natural antihistamines include fruits – apples, pomegranates and peaches; vegetables – watercress, pea sprouts, garlic and onions; herbs – holy basil, thyme, nettle, peppermint and nigella seeds and ginger and turmeric.

Whole foods and gut immunity

We are continually discovering more and more about the wonders of our gut microbiome.

The gut-immune link is a key factor in managing asthma and inflammation in the lungs and airways, with 70-80% of our immune cells located in the gut.

It is now recognised that the gut microbiome affects immunity3, which is an important factor in supporting both the allergic triggers in asthma and inflammation too.

Simple ways to boost a healthy gut include eating a rainbow of colours of fruits and veggies to vary both soluble and insoluble fibres, and polyphenols to boost the health of the gut lining and diversity of healthy bacteria.

A WFPB diet is abundant in phytonutrients and fibre, which is shown to boost the microbiota (gut bacteria) and also prevent leaky gut which leads to increased allergies.

These two types of fibre are present in whole fruits and vegetables with these beneficial fibres helping to cultivate beneficial bacteria in our guts.

Early childhood exposure to antibiotics increases asthma risk4, signifying a clear link between a compromised gut microbiome and the increased risk of developing asthma.

Specific strains of bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, have been shown to be helpful in lowering this risk.

Combined with prebiotics found naturally in fruits, vegetables, beans and pulses, this creates a healthy environment in the gut for helpful bacteria to proliferate and thrive. Sugar is pro-inflammatory, as it spikes insulin levels causing a stress response, which isn’t helpful in lowering inflammation.

Opting for naturally occurring sugars in whole fruits and combining them with fibre, protein and healthy fats prevents these blood sugar spikes.

Try having a piece of whole fruit with almonds and Brazil nuts or oatcakes with cucumber and houmous or smashed avocado, instead of highly processed, sugar-laden snacks.

Raw diet benefits to asthma

Incredibly, raw fruit and vegetable intake among children aged 2-8 years is associated with a reduction in symptoms and reduced reactions to allergens5, with the protective effects shown in studies where children consumed five portions of vegetables and two portions of fruit daily.

In adult studies, this protective effect was evident too. One Japanese study found a link between the consumption of raw plants and increased anti-inflammatory effects6, as cooking leads to a reduction in flavonoids.

Foods high in anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory flavonoids include berries, such as blueberries, blackberries and cherries; citrus fruits; kale; onions; parsley and green tea. Vitamin E, C, beta carotene, zinc and selenium are often low in asthmatics.

Interestingly, studies7 have shown a link between a raw diet rich in plants and higher serum levels of micronutrients, such as antioxidants vitamin A, C and E, which had a direct effect on improved lung function.

Mineral balance is also key. Boosting magnesium through foods and/or supplements can open airways and reduce bronchoconstriction.

Magnesium is an important mineral that affects levels of vitamin D and calcium, supporting a healthy immune system.

Furthermore, high levels of magnesium can be found in almonds, cashews, seeds such as flaxseeds and pumpkin, beans and pulses, quinoa, spinach and even high cacao dark chocolate.

Omega-3 fatty acids have protective effects in suppressing the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body and can be boosted through plant-based sources.

They are boosted as alpha-linolenic acid/ALA, which converts to other omega-3 oils, such as EPA and DHA. Good sources of vegan Omega-3 include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, seaweed, and algae oils.

Time to destress

Asthma can be triggered by strong emotions and trauma, with studies8 showing a higher proportion of asthmatics tending to suffer from anxiety and/or depressive symptoms, with stress being an important trigger for attacks.

Mindfulness, breathwork training, and time in nature are steps that help to lower the stress response.

WFPB diets connect us to natural food forms and a plant’s growth cycle, seasonality, an appreciation for meals as we engage in cooking and the social aspects of meal-times that the speed of packaged foods denies us; maybe it’s time to return to a more natural way to eat and heal.

Ready to go whole food plant-based? 
Try our 7-day meal plan to kickstart your journey!

Written by

Sophia Millar

Sophia is a registered nutritionist and nutritional therapist with The British Association of Nutritional Therapists, specialising in gut health and autoimmune conditions, including asthma in children and adults. Her clinical practice is based in rural, coastal Pembrokeshire and online. She is a registered member of CNHC and Plant Based Health Professionals UK.

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