Winter Breathlessness

Cold weather aggravates asthma, but you can keep this disorder under control.

by Claire Sykes

January 2013

Winter has settled in and if you have asthma, chilly weather makes it worse. No one is sure what causes this chronic inflammatory disorder of the bronchial tubes, estimated to affect nearly 26 million Americans. But you know what an attack feels like: The coughing, wheezing and difficultly in breathing can happen unexpectedly, and symptoms range from rare to frequent and mild to severe. Fortunately, there are ways to help keep asthma under control.

Excessive Airway Reaction

People with asthma have more mucus-producing cells in the lining of the airway and more smooth muscle surrounding the bronchial tubes. “During an attack, the airway’s muscles spasm and tighten up. Your body reads this as a threat, so it sends in white blood cells to fight. But since there’s no infection, they have nothing to do but hang around. This irritates and stiffens the airway tissues, creating inflammation and swelling of the mucosal membrane lining,” says Stephen Apaliski, MD, author of Beating Asthma: Seven Simple Principles (Salveo Media). “Mucus collects and you try to cough it out of your system. You also may be wheezing because you suddenly feel like you can’t breathe.”

Breathing cold air can cause nasal stuffiness because the nose produces more mucus in cold weather and the mucus is thicker. That air doesn’t warm up right away when it reaches the lungs, so the lungs react by releasing histamine, an inflammatory substance that causes wheezing. Frosty air also thickens the “mucus blanket” that coats and protects the lungs, making it harder to rid the body of inhaled particles; a less-effective mucus blanket invites infection. Asthma tends to exaggerate the entire process.

Avoiding the cold isn’t the answer because other hazards await indoors. Dust mites and mold, pet dander and smoke, household-cleaner fragrances and chemicals from carpeting and plastic can all kick up asthma symptoms. Emotional states, such as anxiety and depression, can act as triggers, as can allergies, tobacco or wood smoke, some medications, strenuous exercise and viral or bacterial infections (which spread more easily in close quarters during inclement weather). Heated, dry air can further aggravate asthma.

Maintaining Control

Asthma can be life-threatening, so it is vital to get a definitive diagnosis from a healthcare provider who specializes in this condition. Such practitioners use pulmonary function tests (PFT) “initially to help confirm the diagnosis of asthma and after that to keep track of your asthma over time,” says Apaliski. “When first diagnosed, asthma is either mild, moderate or severe. Then it’s either controlled or not.”

The cornerstone of treatment is avoiding whatever triggers an attack, starting with what you eat. Most people with asthma have food allergies or sensitivities, which make it worse. The most common are dairy, wheat and gluten, eggs, soy and corn, says Shannon Sinsheimer, ND, of Optimal Health Center in Palm Desert, California. “Foods that irritate the body cause inflammation in weak areas. In asthma that’s the lungs, so if nothing else, go dairy- and gluten-free. And drink plenty of water to keep the lungs hydrated,” Sinsheimer says.

A mostly vegetarian, whole-food diet “supports the immune system, which healthy lungs depend on,” Sinsheimer continues. “Get extra protein from legumes, fish and small amounts of meat. Protein is important for decreasing inflammation.” Avoiding processed foods, especially refined flours and sugars, also reduces the production of inflammatory substances.

Sinsheimer suggests several asthma-fighting supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids (2,000 mg twice a day), vitamin D (2,000 IU daily) and vitamin A (5,000 IU daily) are all anti-inflammatories. (For more natural inflammation fighters, see page 23.) So is vitamin C (2,000 mg twice a day), which Sinsheimer notes is “also an antioxidant for healthy lung tissue and an antihistamine to reduce allergies.” Magnesium (400 mg twice a day) “relaxes the bronchial-tube muscles” and probiotics, the friendly bacteria that live in the intestines, “create a healthier gut.” Sinsheimer suggests vitamin B-12 to boost the immune system (see your healthcare provider to determine the amount and to supervise your supplementation program in general, especially if you take prescription medication).

Sinsheimer uses a number of herbs for asthma, including elecampane (Inula helenium) and yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) to open up the lungs and mullein leaf (Verbascum thapsus) for fungus and mold allergies. Chinese medicine also offers a number of herbal asthma remedies; to find a practitioner contact the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (www.nccaom.org, 904-598-1005).

Easing stress can help keep asthma under control; many people have found practices such as massage, acupuncture, yoga, deep breathing and meditation to be helpful. Keep the furnace filter clean and use a room humidifier and air purifier. Frequent hand-washing helps ward off germs.

When going out into wintry conditions, cover your mouth and nose with a scarf and breathe through that to warm and moisten the air. And continue to exercise, even outside; if your asthma keeps you from sledding or skiing, then you don’t have it under control. But on very cold days, choose the gym or an indoor pool instead. Wherever you exercise, warm up and cool down properly and know your limits, so as not to trigger an attack.

Cold weather needn’t hold you hostage because you have asthma. Avoiding triggers and making healthy lifestyle choices can free you from asthma attacks—and let you breathe a lot more easily.

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