Whether you are a parent of a child with asthma or suffer from it yourself, the following is a must read regarding a missing piece of information that may be inadvertently withheld from you by your doctors.
Every parent who has a child with asthma has at some point felt helpless. When sport or play turns into a full-blown, hands-on-the knees wheezing episode, you want to reach out and breathe for him! But instead, you run for the inhaler. A few puffs later, his breathing returns, but he’s upset, embarrassed, and frustrated by the limitations that his condition has placed upon him.
That’s the ideal scenario. You have a diagnosis, you have the equipment and medication, and you’re there for him. But not every situation plays out so well. In the U.S. two million annual emergency room visits are asthma related with 500,000 hospitalizations, the average length of stay being three days. In addition, nearly 30 people per day die of asthma or have an asthma-related death. This information is according to New Asthma Estimates: Tracking Prevalence, Health Care and Mortality and the National Hospital Discharge Survey.
Some integrative medical practitioners suggest reducing or avoiding milk and dairy products to support asthma treatment and the less specific Reactive Airway Disease (RAD). Dairy is known to thicken mucous and too much mucous in the lungs can cause attacks. However, in the last decade, more attention has been paid to dietary dairy sensitivity. This is different than lactose intolerance (non-functional lactase enzyme) or a dairy allergy (positive immunoglobulin [Ige]). Lactose intolerance can be side-stepped by enzyme replacement with products such as Lactaid®, and an allergy typically creates symptoms quite quickly, often within minutes or hours of exposure.
Dietary dairy sensitivity is a delayed hypersensitivity reaction to a protein or proteins in milk: casein and whey. Sensitivity is determined by a test for immunoglobulin G (IgG), a related complex to IgE but with symptoms coming much later, often many hours to even days following exposure. So the challenge for the RAD-sufferer is getting the right tests done and the appropriate label given. Integrative and conventional practitioners alike have access to both tests.
When RAD has been diagnosed, either inhaled albuterol or albuterol in syrup and anti-inflammatory corticosteroid medications are often given to open up airway constriction and relieve inflammation. Both in asthma and in RAD, airway constriction and inflammation are the cardinal characteristics, the constriction caused by the inflammation. However, the unanswered question is “What is causing the inflammation?”
Allergic asthma is too-often thought to be induced only by an inhaled allergen such as dust mites, pet dander, pollen, or mold. However, any allergen whether inhaled or ingested that has the ability to cause systemic inflammation can cause the airway to react. More and more frequently, the cause is found to be dairy sensitivities.
In order to maintain dilated airways and keep inflammation to a minimum, significant magnesium levels should be maintained. All kinds of nuts, seeds, and beans contain magnesium. Almonds, Brazil nuts, pine nuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, navy beans, black beans, and kidney beans all contain high levels. Also spinach, fish, and some unrefined grains are also good sources. Supplemental magnesium is also a prudent approach if these foods are not eaten in abundance on a daily basis.
Several products and foods can reduce inflammation once it is started. Spices such as turmeric and rosemary are favorites, and deep sea, cold-water fish such as mackerel, sardines, anchovies, salmon and tuna are healthy sources of inflammation-fighting fish oil. Again supplemental fish oil is appropriate for most people as the human body does not make its own source of omega-3 fatty acids. It must be consumed. (Please remember, however, that fish oil and magnesium are not suitable replacements for fast-acting emergency medicines if the source of inflammation and airway constriction is not identified and avoided.)
Some important things to keep in mind regarding dairy sensitivity and reactive airway disease.
• Dairy products are not the only sources of dietary calcium. They do have high levels of calcium but it is often not readily bio-available. Almonds, broccoli, and green leafy vegetables are great sources of dietary calcium and do not cause inflammation or thicken mucous.
• Sensitivities as well as allergies are affected by exposure, not necessarily amount. Imagine being allergic to a bee sting. You don’t need to get involved with the whole hive to be in serious trouble. Same goes for milk. However, the delayed hypersensitivity reaction may not show up for up to 72 hours, so some people are lulled into a false sense of security.
• Milk can sneak its way into unlikely foods like breads and even meats. If you are strictly avoiding dairy, especially during the first phase of assessment, you should be reading every label every time. Sauces and toppings including salad dressings can include milk. When you are out to eat, let your server know you have a dairy allergy. They may give you a unique menu or let you know which dishes are ok. Also, franchises will often list allergens on their websites. I strongly encourage you to keep your frequently visited establishments’ allergen menus close by when ordering. You will be surprised at where you find dairy when you start looking!
Support lung function in addition to avoiding allergens. Speleotherapy or halotherapy is the inhalation of extremely tiny particles of salt into the bronchial tract to support the micron layer of saline in this tissue that wards off infection and maintains hydration to the sensitive cells in this part of our anatomy. There are man-made salt rooms and recreational salt caves used therapeutically for lung health, but there are resources now that bring this therapy into your home.
Dry salt inhalers such as the Original Himalayan Crystal Salt Inhaler featured on the Dr. Oz Show have become useful for RAD sufferers. With just a few minutes of use per day, the inhalation of dry salt into the bronchial tract as well as focus on healthy breathing can improve quality of life. A study published in 2007 in Pneumologia looked at dry salt inhalation for patients with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Significant results were seen as measured by a walking distance test. This is a nice compliment to conventional, nutritional, and dietary measures.
Asthma and RAD often caused by multiple factors, but reducing known sources of inflammation including dairy and dairy products may be helpful. A two month trial of eliminating dairy intake (strict compliance) is suggested by most integrative medicine practitioners. Re-evaluation of frequency of attacks and a log of lung-related symptoms accompanies this trial. Use of rescue medications as well as compliance to magnesium and/ or fish oils should be logged as well so that a decision can be made in partnership with your integrative medicine provider.
In general, determining food sensitivities and avoiding those foods is a simple method of reducing inflammation and restoring health. While giving up an entire food group like dairy may seem challenging, the health improvements can be significant enough to compensate for any sense of loss.
Dr. Schuler is the National Medical Educator for Natural Health International, an education-driven natural products company with an emphasis on foundational health and hormone balance.