By Beth Thomas Hertz
When asthma and allergy patients think about managing symptoms, they often turn to medications that specifically address their respiratory issues. However, many experts say patients should take a broader view of their health and consider lifestyle factors that can impact their breathing.
Taking a whole-body approach to lung health is not just about quality of life. It can also be a matter of life and death, says Purvi Parikh, MD, board-certified allergist with Allergy and Asthma Associates of Murray Hill in New York City.
“We see 10 deaths a day in this country alone from asthma,” she says. “Many people think it’s a benign disease, but it can be very dangerous if not controlled.”
While you should always consult with your doctor about specific symptoms and medications, you should also evaluate your lifestyle – sleep, exercise, nutrition, stress management and environmental factors.
“These things are all connected. They are not isolated,” Dr. Parikh says. “Your lungs work with every organ in your body, so if something else is not working right, it will affect your lungs.”
Good sleep is important for allergy and asthma management
Getting enough sleep is key to overall health, not just for asthma or allergy management. People who do not get enough sleep on a regular basis will struggle to control their immune system, which plays a huge role in lung health.
“When you don’t sleep enough, you are more likely to have uncontrolled asthma or allergies, and you are also more likely to catch infections or viruses that can affect your lungs,” Dr. Parikh says.
Don Bukstein, MD, a board-certified allergist who practices with Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center in Greenfield, Wisconsin, suggests several steps to create a healthy sleeping environment:
- Avoid exposure to the blue light emitted by cellphones, laptops and tablets for 1-2 hours before going to bed. This light suppresses melatonin production, an important trigger to the brain that it’s time for rest.
- Avoid alcohol or caffeine near bedtime. Both can disrupt sleep.
- Stick to a routine bedtime so your body gets used to a schedule. Try not to take naps during the day.
Adults should aim for eight hours of sleep a night, with more recommended for children.
If you snore heavily, wake up a lot at night or wake up still feeling tired, consider seeing a specialist to be tested for sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep.
Exercise can help with airway inflammation
While it’s common knowledge that exercise plays an important role in a person’s overall health, it is less commonly known that it can help keep airway inflammation under control.
If your asthma is not well-controlled, with frequent coughing and wheezing, exercise can be risky. It’s important to get clearance from your doctor before starting an exercise regimen, otherwise you could be putting strain on your lungs.
Board-certified allergist Maeve O’Connor, MD, of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Relief in Charlotte, North Carolina, keeps a treadmill in her office that she uses to evaluate patients’ readiness to begin an exercise program.
She encourages patients to try low-impact activities such as 10-15 minutes of walking. “I don’t want patients to start out trying to go too fast. It just sets them up for failure,” Dr. O’Connor says. “Low and slow are the best ways to start.”
Strength training with light weights or resistance bands can help build stamina without impacting the lungs. Even lifting canned goods on the way home from the grocery store can be a good start.
Good nutrition is valuable for allergy and asthma management
Following an anti-inflammatory diet can play a valuable role in asthma and allergy management. It involves lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables while limiting carbohydrates and alcohol.
“Strive for a clean, healthy diet that does not promote inflammation,” Dr. O’Connor says.
Consider taking an anti-inflammatory supplement, such as curcumin, essential fatty acids or a multivitamin, especially if you struggle to eat right. Natural antihistamines such as quercetin and bromelain are also helpful for some.
Keep your weight within a healthy range, no matter your age. “There are a lot of links between being overweight and having problems with your lung health,” Dr. Parikh says.
Control stress and anxiety to reduce asthma symptoms
Studies show stress can worsen all medical conditions, but it’s especially hard on lung diseases, often triggering a particularly difficult cycle of breathing problems. Symptoms can mimic asthma and trigger flares.
Controlling stress and anxiety needs to be a priority. “The mind is a very powerful thing, so certain activities like meditating or yoga can create a calming effect and help immensely with lung health,” Dr. Parikh says.
Asthma and allergy patients with untreated depression should seek counseling because the condition can lead to poor adherence to their treatment plan and an overall worsening of symptoms.
Children face different stressors than adults, such as peer pressure and homework, but they can also benefit from stress-reduction efforts. For example, encourage them to play outside so they can burn off stress and anxiety instead of sitting inside playing video games.
Minimize effects of environmental factors that impact asthma and allergies
When managing asthma and allergies, there are air quality factors that are controllable (cigarette smoke in the home or the presence of mold) and uncontrollable (living or working near industry or a highway).
The first step is knowing your triggers and then adjusting your medications on days when the air quality may be particularly bad, Dr. Parikh says.
“It’s important to see an allergist who can identify your asthma and allergy triggers ‒ whether it’s dust mites, pollen, mold, animals, cockroaches or all of the above,” she says.
Environmental allergies and air quality may worsen in the years ahead.
“Climate change is impacting asthma and allergies,” she says. “Warmer temperatures are causing pollen seasons to last longer, which in turn causes plants, grasses and trees to produce more potent pollen.”
How to take a “whole body” approach to managing your allergies and asthma
- Prioritize good sleep and relaxation.
- Try to keep your weight in a healthy range.
- Forget junk food. Focus instead on fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats.
- Aim for at least a little exercise every day.
- Don’t skip doctor’s appointments.
- Take medications as prescribed and refill prescriptions before they run out.
- Stay current with your vaccinations, especially influenza and pneumonia.
- Keep windows and doors closed on days when pollen counts are high and air quality is poor.