THE BLOG
09/29/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

5 Steps to Get Off Your Asthma Inhaler

By Elizabeth W. Boham, M.D., M.S., R.D. and Mark Hyman, M.D.

According to the CDC, about one in every 12 people has asthma, and the numbers are increasing every year. Asthma is a condition in which a person's airway swells and becomes inflamed, resulting in difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and cough. There are many reasons that this condition is increasing in people, from deteriorating air quality and food supply to our poor diet to food sensitivities and the health of our digestive systems. Have you wondered if you can decrease your symptoms of asthma and get off of your inhalers or even get rid of asthma for good? We will share with you some simple steps that help improve many of our patients' asthma symptoms and allow them to get off of their asthma medication.

We should be amazed every time we are able to wean a patient off of their asthma inhalers, because we were trained in medical school that this is not possible. But this is something we do every day for our patients with simple changes to their diet. One patient, Susan,* age 19, was unable to control her cough and shortness of breath. She was an athlete in college but lately was having more shortness of breath and coughing that caused her to have to take a break while playing soccer. This was new for her, and she was frustrated because it was limiting her ability to play the sport she loved. Like so many patients, Susan went from doctor to doctor and was given multiple medications that never got to the root cause of her issue.

First she went to an urgent care center, and they gave her an antibiotic, thinking she had bronchitis. She took the antibiotic, and it did nothing. The cough and her shortness of breath continued, so she was sent to a lung specialist. She was placed on two inhalers for the presumed diagnosis of asthma. They were somewhat helpful, but she was still coughing and was unable to play soccer at the same level that she had become accustomed to. She went to her primary doctor, who felt she may have acid reflux and prescribed an acid blocker. This also did not work, which finally led her to The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.

At The UltraWellness Center, we practice functional medicine. This means that instead of just looking to suppress a patient's symptom with a medication, we want to get to the underlying cause if possible. In the case of cough and shortness of breath or asthma, we know that there is too much inflammation in the body impacting the lungs. I wondered why for Susan, there was an increase in inflammation in her body. As a Functional Medicine center, we began to look for the real cause of Susan's discomfort.

To help answer the question, it was important to spend some time with Susan and get a detailed medical history. When I did that, I discovered, that Susan had started to take daily antibiotics over the past few years for the acne on her skin. So often, doctors are prescribing medications for one problem only to have another problem result from the side effects of the first medication. This often results in a patient's problems becoming a chronic and vicious cycle as it did with Susan.

The antibiotics caused damage to her intestines, resulting in an increase in the permeability of her intestines, or "leaky gut." What does this mean? Well, the lining of our intestine is a very important barrier. This barrier protects our body from the contents in our intestines. This barrier is critical to the health of our immune system and our overall health. If this barrier breaks down, inflammation can result in our body. This is exactly what happened to Susan.

She was taking daily antibiotics for her skin and, as a result, this intestinal barrier started to get damaged. Over time this made her more and more susceptible to food sensitivities. That means that foods that may not have bothered her before started to cause an increased level of inflammation in her body. As a result, she started to have an inflammatory reaction to some of the foods she was eating. For Susan, the inflammation impacted her sinuses and lungs, resulting in cough and shortness of breath.

To help decrease this inflammation, Susan was placed on an elimination diet. Common inflammatory foods including gluten, dairy, corn and soy were removed from her diet. Within a few days she was feeling less short of breath when playing soccer. Within three weeks of this treatment, she was able to stop all of her medications, and all of symptoms had disappeared. She was amazed with the results and how well she felt. Over time she was able to reintroduce some of the foods that we had eliminated, but she realized that dairy would always cause more inflammation in her body and so decided to eliminate dairy completely. Susan is now symptom-free and has no need for inhalers, acid blockers or any other medication to control her asthma.

Have you been diagnosed with asthma and wonder if foods may be at the root cause?

Five Steps to Getting Off Your Asthma Inhaler

1. Do a trial of an elimination diet. Click here for more details on how you can do this.

2. Add in fish oil. This can work as a natural anti-inflammatory agent. Take 1000-2000mg of EPA + DHA per day.

3. Eat foods rich in magnesium. Magnesium helps your airway in your lungs relax and can make it easier to breathe. Magnesium is found in a high quantity in whole foods. Processed foods are often magnesium-poor. So avoiding processed foods and eating whole real foods is the most important step you can take to increase the level of magnesium in your body. You can also add about 400mg of magnesium in a supplement per day. Some magnesium like magnesium citrate can loosen your stools. If you do not need this, choose magnesium glycinate.

4. Breath work. Add in 15 minutes of deep breathing exercises daily to help calm down your lungs.

5. Add in a zinc supplement. 15mg a day is good for most people. Zinc is an important mineral for your immune system, and people with zinc deficiency are at a higher risk for asthma. Foods rich in zinc include, beans, nuts and animal protein.

It is important to work with your doctor when you are eliminating your asthma medication. Many patients need to wean down slowly.

Have you done an elimination diet and had improvement in your cough or asthma? Share your story...

*Name and some details changed to protect the patient.

Elizabeth Boham, MD, MS, RD is a physician and nutritionist who practices Functional Medicine with Dr. Mark Hyman at The Ultrawellness Center in Lenox, MA. Through the functional medicine approach Dr. Boham helps patients restore balance in their bodies, so that they can prevent disease and heal imbalances. She witnesses the power of nutrition every day in her practice and is committed to training other physicians to utilize nutrition in healing. Dr. Boham is on the faculty of the Institute for Functional Medicine and has developed a Functional Nutrition course that is being used to educate physicians and other health professionals worldwide. Through her practice and lecturing she has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of optimum health and wellness.