(updated 1/4/2014 because I am constantly tweaking as I make new discoveries about my illness and triggers)
How is it possible for a person who has suffered from severe asthma her entire life to be able to now live most of her days symptom free, including endurance racing? How is it that I can now swim, bike and run long distances, hike for hours, mow the lawn, plant flowers, race and train (often outdoors) during pollen season, laugh hysterically, have all-day outdoor physical adventures, and make it through most colds without symptoms? How can I race for 17 straight hours and not have to use my rescue inhaler once? I get asked this question a lot and while I am not a medical doctor, I have been living with this since I was born. What I have experienced in the past versus what my condition is like now is remarkable. It has allowed me to live and do the things I want to do more often than not without any symptoms. Consequently, I feel a responsibility to share what has made such a difference in the hopes that it might help others with this illness. The answer is a combination of things, but it’s really quite simple. I’ll disclose in an abbreviated version and then tackle each piece separately in subsequent posts so as to focus on the significance of each piece. While the magic formula isn’t exactly the same for everyone, there are some basic essentials. I’ll point you to some of the research where I can. I have collaborated with some doctors who will help explain in more detail over a series of posts. I am still working through some things in my own formula, constantly tweaking as new things come up (residual smoke from forest fires, inversions and air pollutants, etc.). But the basics of what has turned my life around are….. well, basic.
The short version of the answer is twofold: Environment and nutrition. Stay with me!
Asthmatics are not created equal; at least with regard to our symptoms. Some are classified as severe, others mild. We live in various climates, have different allergies, and numerous levels of reactions to triggers. What causes symptoms for some, may not for others. Still, if you list most symptoms and triggers associated with asthma, we’ll likely find commonalities in varying degrees. Mold, cockroaches (not kidding! those buggers are awful for us!), dust and damp environments are some of the worst environmental triggers for all asthmatics. If you have recently moved and your asthma sypmtoms have started or worsened, your environment may be the key. Our approach to treating symptoms for most of us is quite similar. We typically have a long acting preventative medication as well as a rescue inhaler. In more severe cases such as mine, powerful drugs like prednisone may be prescribed. In my personal experience, these work for a time, but always with side effects and there is still the occasional trip to the hospital and certainly periods of time where exercise or even minimal daily activity is out of the question. Until age 35, I didn’t know what it was like to live symptom free, whether I was exercising or not. I literally went through a rescue inhaler every two weeks, using it several times a day. Occasionally I would make it for three weeks and felt like that was progress. Most of my doctors have agreed that this is not controlling asthma; it’s asthma controlling me. No, thank you.
I still take my medications but the prescription has dramatically changed due to the corresponding change in my condition and I am on most days I am now 100% pharmaceutical free! I didn’t change that prescription on my own; I worked with my doctor. It was so fun to see his reaction as my nutrition and immediate surroundings turned my life around.
Here is how it came about: I began to wonder if there was something more I could do in my own life to better control the symptoms. I started looking into maintaining overall body health, from the inside out. It can feel overwhelming and confusing with all of the information out there, but I started to see some themes in what doctors were telling us all in terms of what our bodies need, but we’re typically deficient. Vitamin D, Omega 3s, antioxidants, CoQ10, Vitamin C; the list goes on. I wondered: What if I really start focusing my daily nutrition on getting what everyone needs regularly? Would that make a difference in my asthma? I figured the side effect would be better health overall, and if it also happened to help with the asthma, even better. It did, and far beyond what I could have imagined. The next step was to figure out how to get what I need. I know that the best option nutritionally is through organic food sources but in order for me to get the essentials in the proper combinations, I’d have to have a personal chef and a much bigger wallet. I changed my diet so that I am eating the right kinds of foods but I also supplement to ensure I am really getting the nutrients my body needs.
Next, I had to decide which supplements to take and from where. This is where it can get overwhelming; there are so many good choices out there. That’s when I discovered some Drs/endurance athletes who were essentially reinforcing what I was doing but from a medical perspective; including how it can impact asthma. I get most of my supplements through Core4Nutrition.
Finally, the bonus: I recently stumbled across a type of treatment for colds and sinus infections as well as environmental allergies that take care of my symptoms almost immediately. Several times now, it has saved me from asthma complications, effectively avoiding antibiotics and prednisone and literally returned me to health in a day. One day! It has worked every time. I’ll get to that too. For now, let’s get to it already!
My Formula: It’s all about CONTROLLING INFLAMMATION.
1) I cut out dairy, almost entirely. That doesn’t mean I don’t have cheese on my pizza; I’m not that die-hard! But it’s a rare occasion and when I have dairy it’s in moderation and never when I have symptoms. I figure it’s the first thing I have to avoid when I’m sick because it makes it worse almost immediately, so why ingest it when I’m healthy? Not rocket science (I do know a rocket scientist by the way, and he concurs with that argument). I do remember doctors restricting this from my diet as a kid. I used to sneak into the kitchen late at night and drink milk. Most often it was straight from the carton because I didn’t want to leave behind the evidence of using a glass. Sorry, mom. Now I actually prefer coconut milk and I’ll use almond or rice milk on occasion. The thing to keep in mind here is that when we’re healthy, we might be able to have things like dairy and not notice anything. But it’s important to understand that it IS having an impact on your body’s ability to fight inflammation so just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean it’s not building up. I say that to myself every time I feel the urge to take a giant swig of cold milk. I usually overcome that urge but I do endulge every now and then.
2) Vitamin D: My daily recommended dose is 10,000 IU. This seems high but I’ll explain that later. If you Google “studies on vitamin d and asthma,” you’ll get a long list of results. In fact, Harvard researchers recently released a new study. You can find it here.
3) Omega 3s: One doctor recommended 3000 mg per day, another 1500. I take 2000 unless I am noticing changes in the air. Today for example, there is a bit of residual smoke in the air because of a major forest fire in our state, so I’ll take 3000. Again, Google some research and you’ll find plenty, but for starters, here is a good one.
4) Appropriate levels of anti-oxidants: So much information on this one. Here, for example.
I get my Vitamin D, Omega 3s and Anti-Oxidants first from foods, but I also use whole food supplements via the Core 4 Nutrition plan at www.core4nutrition.com.
5) Vitamin C: One doctor recommended 10,000mg daily for regular maintenance, with an increase to 15, 000 – 20,000 during pollen season or when I have been exposed to someone with a cold or sinus infection. Caution: A body can only absorb a certain amount of Vitamin C at a time so I had to work up to this amount and in smaller doses throughout the day. It can also cause diarrhea, which is another reason I had to work up to it. My body can take that much per day but there are some who may not be able to. Studies on this have been mixed but at least indicate that there is some positive impact. Something to consider. This has been a big one for me. I also found studies that show that people with a history of kidney stones should avoid too much vitamin C so if that is you, do your research and ask your doctor.
6) Eating “clean” as much as possible and taking care of my digestive system so that toxins are cleared out. A good probiotic is essential here.
7) Prescription Meds (RARELY used now!) My doctor prescribes Advair for daily maintenance and a rescue inhaler for when I am symptomatic. Advair is what originally allowed me to start running. It was amazing and I hardly use it at all now except for during pollen season. Occassionally I use a rescue inhaler.
I do more than the above for overall health but these are the essentials that specifically help target my asthma symptoms, specifically inflammation. To be honest, research confuses and frustrates me. I generally find a myriad of conclusions on most topics. One study says to do one thing, a few years later they say the opposite. One drug is touted as the best thing since sliced bread, and later we find out all of the reasons that it’s harmful and in many cases, lawsuits ensue. What I have NOT been able to find is research that says that the above list of nutrients are harmful and won’t help asthma symptoms at all. It may be out there but everything I have seen seems to support the notion. That was reason enough for me to try it. And the bottom line for me is results. I am 44 years old and I am in the best health and shape of my life which is a far cry from frequent trips to the emergency room and being rendered inactive for long periods of time, not to mention (but I guess I am) nearly losing my life to this illness several times. This works and what’s more, it makes sense.
I know I’ll still have symptoms sometimes. When I do, I’ll report it here and let you know what I’m doing to combat it. I may even end up on prednisone again for a brief period and/or benched from athletic activity for a time. But the infrequency of those episodes in comparison to what it used to be is literally night and day. For me, struggling to breathe normally used to be an everyday reality to a degree. It isn’t anymore and I suspect it will continue to improve. It has allowed me to start really living without the fear of an attack or full-blown episode around the corner. I am in the best physical and therefore mental condition of my life. And with that new-found life, I have a list to get to.
I hope this helps as a beginning point for good dialogue. It really is just the beginning!