Controlling Asthma: My Magic Formula

(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!

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6 thoughts on “Controlling Asthma: My Magic Formula

  1. pat

    Hi,
    I saw your post on the Runners World forum. I could definitely use any words of advice you have to offer on how to stop my asthma from controlling what I want to do. I used to run marathons and half marathons and enjoy them, I was never particularly fast, but enjoyed running. A couple years ago I started to really struggle, any speed I had started leaking away and my endurance followed, I started having bouts of not being able to get enough air. These bouts became more and more frequent, until this last year where i would get out of breath climbing a flight of stairs. My endocrinologist finally sent me to a respiratory dr. He diagnosed me with asthma, no idea where that came from, and put me on drugs and more drugs. For now i’m on Dulera, singulair, foradil, and the rescue inhaler. All the drugs seemed to have stopped things from getting worse, but every time i think things get a little better, something sets off my asthma again. I really really want to get back to be able to enjoy running again and start improving my fitness, but I feel like the asthma is holding me back. I’m assuming I need to get my lungs to settle down and stop setting off my breathing issues before I can make any improvements in my running and fitness. I’m hoping with your success with your severe asthma, you’ll have suggestions for someone like me who is new to this obstacle. Thanks in advance for any help or advice you can offer.
    Pat

    Reply
    1. bringiton23 Post author

      Pat, thank you for stopping by….I’m so glad you did! First, know that there is hope and a better way. I see that you read about my magic formula. That’s a brief breakdown. I have posted about the role of vitamin D as well. It’s all about controlling inflammation and finding your triggers. I will be discussing Omega 3s and their powerful role in that process as well as antioxidants and vitamin c soon…..I am a bit behind! You are right. You need to get your lungs settled. But you can start with these supplements at any time. The sooner the better as it builds your body’s natural defenses so that you don’t need to be rescued so much. There are plenty of good products out there but i recommend those from http://www.bioletics.com. I have learned so much from these guys and i collaborate with them a lot. Their products are the best i have used personally but again, there are plenty of good ones out there. If you email them they are happy to talk you through it. I work with Dr Cohen most. You may have an underlying infection which is preventing it from clearing completely. Colds, sinus infections, or perhaps exposure to mold can be serious underlying triggers. I will be sharing more about different ways to deal with that. Much to share! I see that you subscribed to my blog and I promise to get back to it soon. I will try to email you this weekend with contact info so we can discuss more. Meantime….don’t give up! Ever. Read through my Ironman Joirney to get an idea of my history with this illness and my set backs along the way. If I can then race for 17 hours without the need for an inhaler, I have hope for everyone with this illness. I look forward to talking with you more!

      Reply
  2. Judy

    Hi there,

    I just stumbled upon this blog post while researching vitamin D and asthma. Wow! I would love to be at the same point you are with your health. I’ve had asthma for almost 18 years. I believe it came about as a result of an undiagnosed respitory infection that got out of control. I never really recovered from that. Since then I’ve had asthma and allergies so severely that most excercise is impossible. I’ve told my doctors about this and all they want to do is add more meds. Well I’m 41 and have two young children (15months and 4 years), I need to get healthy for them as well as myself. I really liked reading that you just took your health in your own hands and did your research. I’ve been reading great thing about Vitamin D and have started taking it for about 1 week, 5000IU/day. On Day two of it I noticed I felt great with my breathing. My peak flow was at 400 which it has never been before (normal for me is 250-275). The following day however I caught a cold and went downhill and had to be put on steriod. I’m so tired of this. I would love to find an alternative way of controlling my asthma and my wish is to someday be able to run a half marathon. Thank you for your post!

    Reply
    1. bringiton23 Post author

      Hi Judy! I’m so glad that you stumbled across this blog and more importantly that you found it to be helpful. I’d love to support you in any way I can! This was a life-long struggle for me and it’s amazing to me what I’m able to do consistently now, symptom and nearly medication free. Vitamin D has been a vital part of that program along with other nutrients that I’ve outlined throughout my blog. I haven’t written in awhile as you can see, but as soon as I am able, I will be back at it. Thanks so much for stopping by. This is my mission; to be able to reach and encourage other asthmatics to NOT give in to their illness and let it dictate their lives, to not be afraid of exercise and in fact, to embrace it, seek it and use it to improve their condition, and to NEVER EVER give up on themselves. Thank you for your comments and stay tuned!

      Reply
  3. George

    Hello from Vancouver, Canada
    I was referred to your blog by the folks at Slowtwitch. Loved your story.

    I am 58, a lifelong athlete. About 18 months ago, I experienced shortness of breath, initially not too bad, the warmups were tough, but I was able to do the workouts. Things deteriorated to where I had to stop after every exercise my trainer had me doing. Then I could do the run workouts but if they were intense, the second I stopped, severe loud spasms, scared the hell out of everybody.

    Doctors initially suggested a heart condition, then no, it’s asthma, then no, something else, finally asthma. Initially meds were Symbicort and Ventolin, but still had issues. Then switched to Oxeze which I preferred, seemed to improve a bit. All kinds of sputum tests, could not generate any, and Doctor said I still had lung inflammation so they gave me antibiotics. Also doubled my Symbicor dosage.

    I stopped swimming, as that was my weakest sport, and seemed to affect me the most. Running was ok, unless I did very hard intervals or hill repeats.

    Biking was for the most part ok. There is a 2K hill at the start of our Saturday ride and I find if I push it to the point of heavy wheezing, it helps to open up the lungs for the rest of the ride, but not a fun way to do it.

    Interestingly, seeing your articles, I had a few days ago prior to hearing about you decided to try a Paleo diet so have cut out dairy and sugars and grains. Too early still to tell, but I see evidence of what you say, particularly about inflammation in the book Paleo Diet for Athletes. I shall keep following you and hope I can get back to Long Distance Triathlon and do my first Ironman some day.

    Reply
    1. bringiton23 Post author

      Thank you so much for writing! I’m so glad you were sent my direction. I am always so passionate about helping others to at the very least, know that there are ways to maintain asthma and live and even flourish with this chronic condition. Asthma is often difficult to diagnose and especially, when it’s not earlier in life. Every person is a little different and has varying degrees of triggers. I wish doctors would educate asthmatics more about how diet plays a key role in this and many other chronic conditions. Funny, I have been looking into going Paleo also, and most of what I do tends to follow that regimen anyway. The magic formula will tend to be a little different for everyone but sharing what works among us is so valuable. I would love to connect with you and I will definitely CHEER YOU ON in all of your efforts to find ways to control it and most definitely in your athletic endeavors. Your email shows up for me so I’ll shoot you a note. Thank you again for stopping by! A very blessed Merry Christmas to you and yours! Cathy

      Reply

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