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Lynne Brown
BSc Hons, HDE, Dip Clin Nutr

Starving for air

Do you want to know exactly what asthma feels like?  Pinch your nose shut and breathe through a straw. Now try climbing a flight of stairs or chasing after a frisky toddler.  You’ll soon be gasping for air – a truly frightening experience.

Hereditary link

Asthma tends to run in families and word is that if one parent is asthmatic then the child has a 27% chance of developing asthma and if both parents have this disorder then the child has a 67 % chance. This, however, still cannot account for the epidemic rise in new cases each year with the rate among children increasing by 160% since 1980.

Triggers – sulphites

Presently a large number of sulphiting agents are being used as preservatives and these appear to trigger attacks in many asthmatics. Names to look out for on food packs are: sulphur dioxide, sodium sulphite, sodium or potassium bisulphite and sodium or potassium metabisulphite or otherwise the numbers E220 to E223 used for sulphite additives. Anyone having a sensitivity to sulphites will experience a tightness in the throat following ingestion. If you want to find out if you’re one of these people then try eating a few commercially produced pickled onions and see what happens. An asthmatic could experience an attack after ingesting sulphites if, after it reaches stomach acid and releases sulphur dioxide, the person burps. One burp could produce 3-4 ppm of sulphur dioxide which when breathed in, is enough to elicit bronchospasm and bring on an attack. Sulphites may also be found in dried fruits, wines, instant mashed potato, sausages and all sorts of other processed food, so remember to check the ingredients on the pack.


Salicylates, found naturally in many foods and, less naturally, in some medications, may also cause problems for some asthmatics. Tables showing the salicylate content of foods are available, however one should never eliminate salicylates entirely. A low salicylate diet is preferable to a no-salicylate diet, otherwise one could develop an intolerance to salycilates which may end up being more of a problem.

Medicinal aspirin or acetyl salicylate seems to play a role in some children’s chronic asthma. Aspirin can greatly increase the permeability of the intestinal tract to foreign proteins, so if aspirin is taken together with a potential food allergen such as peanuts, the situation could become life threatening within 20 minutes. Between 10–20% of children and adults have some sort of adverse reaction to aspirin and for this reason aspirin is contra-indicated  for asthmatics ( and certainly should never be taken together with peanuts!).

Other triggers

MSG or monosodium glutanate, used as a flavour enhancer, can also pose a problem, especially for those with a vitamin B6 deficiency.  Ever heard of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? Symptoms of upper respiratory stress, flushing, headaches or nausea. can come on within 2-12 hrs. Fortunately vitamin B6 is an antidote for this and someone who is sensitive to Chinese food should have 50 mg of B6 per day prior to eating it.

Nutritional help

Vitamin B6, at 50 mg twice daily, appears to be an important supplement for asthmatics. A study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed how it dramatically reduced frequency, duration and severity of attacks within a week, in patients who were deficient. Another study showed how children were able to reduce their dosage of bronchodilators and cortisone after taking 200 mg of B6 daily.
Also used quite commonly nowadays is Vitamin B12, 1000 micro grams injected intramuscularly daily for a week. Vitamin B12 also blocks attacks if given prior to a sulphite challenge.

Vitamin C with bioflavonoids at 1-3 g per day orally can inhibit attacks. It is a natural antihistamine and Harvard Medical School researchers found that vitamin C improved levels of lung capacity and helps shield lungs from damaging effects of chemicals in smoke or smog-laden air. It is also especially effective for those for whom exercise produces an asthmatic response. Take 2 g vitamin C before your workout.
Magnesium is Nature’s natural relaxant and numerous studies show that when used intravenously in acute bronchial asthmatics, it can cause very swift and dramatic bronchial dilation.

Omega-3 fish oil is very beneficial to asthmatics, especially those who experience shortness of breath after exercise.

Diet can help

Apart from a prevention program of supplements such as those described above, asthmatics can also benefit from a healthy diet. Eat foods high in magnesium and vitamin C, so lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, brown rice, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Some foods such as chilli, mustard, horse radish, curry, garlic and fenugreek tea can break up mucus plugs. 10 drops tobasco sauce in tomato juice is a great expectorant for airways that are not working properly.


I didn’t think I would ever say this but asthmatics do well with a couple of cups of coffee a day! If caught without an asthma pump, 2 cups of  strong coffee for a 50kg person, will dilate the bronchial tubes and prevent an attack. It’s the caffeine that does it, so no use drinking decaf!


Anyone who has upper respiratory problems or asthma ought to eliminate milk and milk products for a certain period of time. They should not eat ice cream or very cold beverages as cold can shock the bronchial tubes into spasm. Try a dust free environment. Dress in the bathroom so that dead skin cells that slough off and are food for dust mite, are confined more to the bathroom and not where you sleep.

Disclaimer: All information here is for educational purposes only and is not meant to cure, heal, diagnose nor treat. This information must not be used as a replacement for medical advice, nor can the writer take any responsibility for anyone using the information instead of consulting a healthcare professional.  All serious disease needs a physician.

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