Asthma treatment: Do complementary and alternative approaches work?
Medically reviewed on Aug 23, 2017
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) asthma treatments range from breathing exercises to herbal remedies. However, a lack of well-designed clinical trials makes it difficult to determine the safety and effectiveness of these therapies.
A recent survey of allergists found that most people who used CAM did so because they thought the treatments were safer than traditional medicines. Yet, the doctors observed a link between greater CAM use and increased symptom flares and emergency room visits.
If you're considering CAM treatments for asthma, here's what you should know.
During acupuncture, the practitioner inserts very thin needles into your skin at specific points on your body. There is little evidence to support this therapy as an effective asthma treatment. Several uncontrolled studies have been done, with mixed or disappointing results. Some research suggests that acupuncture may reduce the need for inhaled steroids, particularly in children, but more definitive studies are needed. If you decide to try acupuncture, work with an experienced, licensed acupuncturist, preferably one who is also a medical doctor.
Breathing exercises used for asthma include the Buteyko technique, Papworth method and yoga breathing (pranayama). You take slow, deep, even breaths to change your breathing pattern and prevent rapid breathing (hyperventilation). The exercises don't seem to improve the allergic reaction that triggers asthma symptoms. A comprehensive review of research on asthma breathing methods found there is not enough evidence to say whether or not this CAM treatment really works. However, they are easy to do and may help you relax. Some people who have tried them said they felt better.
A few studies have hinted that spinal manipulation may help reduce the number of asthma attacks and the need for medication, particularly in children. However, a comprehensive review of chiropractic asthma studies found there is not enough evidence to support its use as an effective asthma treatment.
Diet, vitamins and supplements
A nutritious diet helps you stay healthy. And, more and more studies show that certain vitamins and nutrients found in foods may help relieve asthma symptoms in some people. Three that seem promising include:
- Antioxidants. People with severe asthma appear to have lower levels of these protective nutrients found in fruits and vegetables. Hospitals commonly give the antioxidant magnesium through a vein for severe asthma attacks. Studies have hinted that eating foods rich in the antioxidants vitamin C and E may ease asthma symptoms, but a recent, well-conducted review shows they do not.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy oils found in several types of fish may reduce the inflammation that leads to asthma symptoms. Small studies suggest fish oil supplements also offer a modest benefit. It's unclear whether omega-3s from flaxseed and canola oil have the same beneficial effects as omega-3s found in fish. Omega-3s also appear to have a number of other health benefits.
- Vitamin D. Some people with severe asthma have low levels of vitamin D. Researchers are exploring whether vitamin D may reduce asthma symptoms in some people. Ask a doctor how much vitamin D is best. Too much can cause kidney damage.
A multivitamin or supplement pill may help you get nutrients, but the best way to make sure you're getting proper nutrition is to eat a varied diet rich in fresh, unprocessed foods. There's no downside to increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as cold-water fish, nuts, greens and ground flaxseed.
Herbal remedies have been used for thousands of years to treat lung problems in Asia. Some have shown promise in research, but more studies are needed.
Traditional Chinese, Indian and Japanese medicine usually involves using blends of herbs. Taking certain herbs in combination may be more effective than taking only one herb.
Use caution with herbal remedies and always discuss the use of herbs or dietary supplements with your doctor. Consider these concerns before taking any herbal remedy:
- Quality and dose. There are usually no quality control standards for herbal remedies. The content may vary in quality and strength. The product you buy may contain ingredients that aren't listed, or it may be contaminated. Herbal remedies imported from developing countries have a high risk of being contaminated, which can be dangerous to your health.
- Side effects. Side effects caused by herbal remedies can range from minor to severe. It depends on the herb and dose you take. Be especially careful with herbs and supplements that contain ephedra or ephedra-like substances. These can cause dangerous spikes in blood pressure and have been linked to heart attack and stroke. Examples include ma-huang (banned in the United States) and bitter orange.
- Drug interactions. Certain herbal remedies can interact with other medications.
These concerns don't necessarily mean trying an herbal treatment is a bad idea — you just need to be careful. Talk to your doctor before taking an herbal remedy to make sure it's safe for you.
Studies hint that massage may help children with asthma breathe easier. A recent, well-controlled trial found that children who received a gentle, 20-minute bedtime backrub by a parent had greatly improved lung function after five weeks. Massage for asthma treatment seemed to work best in younger children (ages 4-8) than in middle schoolers.
Relaxation therapy helps lower blood pressure and slow breathing. Techniques include meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis and progressive muscle relaxation (Alexander technique). Doctors aren't sure if relaxation therapy directly helps improve asthma symptoms. However, doing them can help reduce stress, which can improve your overall health.
Consider the evidence and safety
More well-designed studies are needed before researchers can make a clear judgment about which complementary and alternative asthma therapies are likely to help. Talk to your doctor before trying any complementary or alternative asthma treatments, and don't stop prescribed medications or other medical treatment.