More often than not, “day of the year” holidays baffle me.
A good chunk of the time, I have worryingly nagging questions about the assigning process. (What day should February 8th be? I know! Kite Flying Day. February. 8th. I’m sorry, kites are the summer-isty thing ever. What monster put their day in the tundral-misery that is February? And whyyyy?)
And then there is the plethora of days that worry me just because they exist (such as Hug a Bear Day, Bring Your Manners to Work Day and Take Your Houseplant for a Walk Day. Boy, I wish I were kidding about that last one…)
But May 1st being World Asthma Day, I totally get!
As April winds its way into May, the air becomes warm, and sweet, and rich. All you want to do is stand in your front yard and take hours of belly breaths. But if you’re one of the 235 million people living with asthma, that’s easier said than done. With asthma standing outside on a mild, sunny afternoon and taking a deep breath could be anywhere from uncomfortably painful, to physically impossible, to downright life-threatening.
That juxtaposition is some powerful stuff. Asthma turns one of the simplest, easiest pleasures in life turned into a painful, scary or dangerous ordeal.
Most devastatingly, for an enormous number of people, the pain, fear, and danger are not completely eliminated by medications. An estimated 38% of children and 50% of adults still suffer regular or severe (emergency-room-severe) asthma symptoms. This is even when taking the best medications available.
Aren’t those some of the most depressing statistics ever? Half of the adults with asthma can’t control their symptoms with the best medications we have.
Of course, research is in full swing to try to find better, more effective medications and (fingers quadruple-crossed), eventually, an asthma cure. But pharmacy research is a slow process and these numbers are so terrible that some scientists have decided to think outside the drug box.
They’ve started looking for non-pharmaceutical, complimentary treatments that you can start immediately.
While many of these treatments show promise, one intervention stands out as far-and-above as the most well-studied and most well-supported by the data: filling your diet with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Natural Asthma Treatment: A Plant-Filled Plate
Study after study shows that those who have asthma — both children and adults — have less severe symptoms if they eat more whole, plant foods. And not necessarily just by a little! Depending on the study, increasing servings of fruits, vegetables and/or nuts may decrease the risk of uncontrolled asthma symptoms by up to 36% to 70%.
Now you might be wondering, “Why should what you eat have such a drastic effect on asthma symptoms? Food doesn’t go into your lungs! How can what you put in your belly influence how much air gets in your lung so dramatically?”
Well, it looks like the answer to that is: it’s complex.
No — really! That’s the answer! Foods, and diets, are complex.
See, there are (based on current data) at least 5 unique components found abundantly in plant foods that have clear links to lung function. But they only seriously improve asthma symptoms when they are combined.
If you take a single component as a supplement, you see a mild effect, or, not unfrequently, absolutely no effect at all. But take all 5 components at once, packaged in a tasty hazelnut, mango, smoothie or stir fry and you put all 5 to work at once. And then they make a serious difference!
So, what are these 5 components and how do they work?
I’m so glad you asked!
The 5 Pulmonary Protectors in Plants
The single most important lung-protecting components in plants are their antioxidants.
Antioxidants protect you from asthma symptoms by neutralizing a group of seriously dangerous molecules called reactive oxygen species (or ROSs, for short). ROSs play a key role in driving asthma, damaging the cells that line your lungs and causing them to malfunction and become chronically inflamed.
By destroying ROSs before they can harm your cells, antioxidants can nip the whole asthma cascade right in the bud.
Another reason the cells of your lungs may be malfunctioning in asthma is a change in something called their “DNA-methylation”.
DNA-methylation is a kind of cellular coding system, which tells your cells (of your whole body, not just your lungs, by the way) which genes to turn on and which genes to turn off. Since genes control how your cells behave, messing up this code can throw your lung cells totally off their game. They can start responding to completely harmless situations as if they were seriously dangerous, becoming swollen, inflamed and twitchy for no reason.
One of the vitamin folate’s jobs in the body is to help regulate the DNA-methylation code and make sure all your cells are getting the right genes turned on and off.
By boosting levels of DNA-methylation-regulating folate in your body, you can help reset the code, reverse lung cell malfunction and ease your asthma symptoms.
Fiber is the third plant-based-player in the diet-asthma story.
Made up of long chains of sugars, fiber provides the main source of food and energy for millions of bacteria that live in your gut — called your gut microbiota.
Fascinatingly, when your gut microbiota is happy, healthy, and well-fed, they make special molecules called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that regulate your immune system. Specifically, SCFAs keep your immune system call and prevent from causing inflammation in your lungs!
Though indirect, this mechanism (fiber → healthy gut microbiota → calm immune system) is seriously important for linking plant-foods to healthy lungs.
Potassium is another indirect, but powerful, anti-inflammatory nutrient that can help ease asthma symptoms.
See, potassium levels in your blood are a huge player in determining the levels of another electrolyte: sodium. This is because, in order for your kidneys to get sodium out of your body and into your urine, they need potassium ions that they can use as a counterbalance for a tiny molecular pump. If potassium levels in your body are too low, the pump stops working properly, and your kidneys can’t get rid of enough sodium.
Unfortunately, having too much sodium in your body can seriously exacerbate asthma symptoms. This is thought to stem from sodium’s ability to activate the immune system — essentially the opposite of what fiber-made SCFAs do — making it easier for immune cells to attack your lungs.
By making sure your kidneys can pump sodium out of your body efficiently, potassium can help calm your immune system and protect your lungs.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
If you’re like most people, when you hear “omega 3 fatty acids” your brain jumps straight to fish filets or underwater oases. While it is true that marine foods are some of the best sources of omega 3 fatty acids (especially the long-chained docosahexaenoic and eicosapentaenoic acids), they are not the only ones. Seeds and nuts are also wonderfully rich in omega 3s.
Why does this matter for asthma symptoms?
Fresh, Tasty Asthma Treat-ment-s
Clearly, plants are full of pulmonary protectors!
So, what’s the best way to treat yourself? (Ba-dum, ching!)
It doesn’t seem to matter much. All that matters is that you get as many — and as many different kinds — of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds into your diet as you can each day.
If you’re not getting these amounts of plants in your diet at the moment, start building up. Add an extra serving of either a fruit or vegetables per day, one week at a time, until you’re reveling in all 4.5 cups of planty-goodness.
Once you’ve worked up to those healthy “doses”, feel free to keep adding on a serving at a time until at least the majority of your food is from plants!
Studies don’t show a cut-off point for benefits of fruits and vegetables. The more plant-based your diet is, the more benefits you’ll reap!
From Plan to Plate
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Now, if you’re not used to cooking with so many plants, this might sound like a daunting (and bland) task. But you shouldn’t worry! It’s not hard to get the hang of building rich, flavorful, even decadent, meals with lots of fruits and vegetables. It just takes a little practice!
If you’re feeling a little lost about how to get started (after all, how can you practice making a dish until you have a dish to make?) you might find picking up a plant-based cookbook really useful! Three of our favorites — full of seriously delicious, seriously simple, plant-based recipes — are The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook, The Oh She Glows Cookbook and Good Clean Food.
Any one of these would be an excellent tool to help you work to (eh-hem) plant your growing culinary feet under you and get your asthma symptoms under control.
Take Home Message
Millions of people with asthma struggle with serious, sometimes life-threatening, symptoms, despite receiving the best medical treatment available. Luckily, new studies show that traditional drug-based treatments may be more effective when combined with simple, non-pharmaceutical treatments.
One of the most effective of these non-traditional treatments is boosting fruit, vegetable, nut and seed intake. Plant foods are rich in antioxidants, folate, fiber, potassium and omega 3 fatty acids. Together, these plant components can help improve lung cell health, prevent lung cell malfunction, and reduce lung inflammation.