Statistics suggest there are 5.4 million people living with asthma in the UK, with 1 in 11 children suffering from the condition. Asthma related symptoms range from relatively mild cases of breathlessness and chest tightness to severe attacks. Triggers for attacks can take many forms with research suggesting the rise in cases could be increased stress and the impact it has on immune health and nutrient levels. 50-80% of cases are thought to be a result of allergies, which may be airborne, such as animal dander, dust or pollen or food allergies. These, combined with other stresses on the body such as greater exposure to chemical pollution in the air, increased obesity levels, or even early weaning to solid foods have seen a worrying rise in sufferers over the last 30 years. Whilst each case is unique, based on the research findings, one or more of the below tips may be helpful to manage the condition in both adults and children, so worth consideration if a childcare professional and also invaluable information for parents.
Nutrients: There are some links to potential nutrient deficiencies including:
- Low antioxidant levels – Levels of Vitamin C, Vitamin E, carotenes, flavonoids and selenium may directly affect pulmonary function. Individuals who consume diets high in antioxidants from vegetables and fruit have a lower incidence of asthma compared with a typical Western diet.
- Top Tip: Include a rainbow of fruit and vegetables daily.
- Omega 3 essential fatty acids – Research has shown EPA and DHA improve airway hyper-responsiveness to allergens, respiratory function and reduce inflammation.
- Top Tip: Include fish 2-3 times a week, perhaps get children making mackerel pate/tuna dip for snack time. Families could also consider a supplement rich in EPA and DHA. Avoid foods made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils like margarine and baked goods.
- Vitamin D –Important for regulating the immune system, and reducing inflammation.
- Top Tip: Get children outside every day for some sun exposure. Foods like oily fish, eggs and cheese contain small quantities of vitamin D. Parents could consider testing and supplementation.
- Magnesium – This is an important muscle relaxant and can help to keep airways open and ease breathing.
- Top Tip: Include magnesium rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, avocado and fish. Parents could try magnesium oil at bedtime and Epsom salt in the bath. Itchiness may result when using magnesium oil which can suggest low magnesium levels so it’s best to begin using in small amounts.
- Pre and probiotics – These support our immune system as 70-80% of immune cells are found in and around our intestines. Probiotics help to populate the digestive system with beneficial bacteria whilst prebiotics help to feed said bacteria.
- Top Tip: Talk about different foods and try prebiotic and probiotic foods including cottage cheese, olives, kefir, yoghurt, sour dough, banana, chicory and leeks. Parents could also consider a probiotic supplement.
Food allergens/sensitivities: Avoiding common allergens during infancy (first 2 years) has been shown to reduce allergenic tendencies in high risk children with a familial history. There have been links to foods that can increase symptoms including cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, nuts, chocolate, citrus and food colourings. Sulfite used as a preservative in dried fruit, wine and prawns may be another potential trigger.
Top Tip: Parents could consider testing for food intolerances, keeping a food/symptom diary and try an elimination/rotation diet.
Digestion: Research suggests 80% of asthmatic children have inadequate stomach acid levels. This is vital as our immune systems first line of defence and is also essential for the digestion of our foods.
Top Tip: Increase raw foods and include foods to support digestion such as papaya and pineapple, which are both packed with digestive enzymes.
Minimise exposure: reducing exposure to airborne allergens may be beneficial.
Top Tip: Consider introducing hypoallergenic bedding, air filters, or wooden flooring.
Stress and exercise: Stress can intensify asthma symptoms so stress management techniques including exercise can be beneficial.
Top Tip: Plan exercise for children daily and consider incorporating some mindfulness/relaxation into their day to support nervous system balance.
As with any condition, utilising a range of approaches can be hugely beneficial in helping to manage signs and symptoms and improve health. As a childcare professional, being aware of different approaches can be invaluable and also help to educate parents.
About the author
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years. Qualified as a registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. Katharine also presents The Food Teacher show on UK Health Radio where she discusses the importance of food for health and wellbeing.
She has published 2 books: ‘Heat-Free & Healthy’ and the award-winning ‘No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools’. Look out for The Food Teacher at Food Festivals and events throughout the country during 2016.