"I don’t get why I have to stop so often to catch my breath," my 22-year-old patient Amanda said during our first consultation. "I’ve been an athlete since grade school, I’m in great shape, and I eat really well. Yet I start wheezing when I move every few minutes, and I often feel too tired to even go on the field." Amanda’s primary physician told her to "rest it out." One specialist thought she had bronchitis and gave her an antibiotic, yet her cough and shortness of breath persisted. Another diagnosed her with asthma and gave her two inhalers. While that helped a little, she still coughed and felt tired. That’s when she visited me, frustrated, and determined to eliminate the asthma that held her health hostage.
Asthma is more common than you think.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC1), about 1 in 12 people have asthma, a condition in which your airway swells and becomes inflamed. Among its symptoms, you often struggle to breathe, cough, and feel shortness of breath. As a medical doctor who practices functional medicine, I see more asthma among patients these days. Culprits include deteriorating air quality, bad diets, food sensitivities, and gut problems. In other words, almost all of us can become susceptible to asthma.
For many of my patients, conventional practitioners haven’t been able to treat their asthma. In medical school, professors told us if you have asthma, you’re pretty much stuck with an inhaler if you want to breathe normally. I’ve found repeatedly that this isn’t true. In functional medicine, we look at the underlying causes of a problem rather than just the symptoms. I’ve helped many patients struggling with asthma decrease symptoms like shortness of breath and get off medications.
The link between gut health and your breathing.
Studies confirm2 what I’ve seen in my own practice: Patients with moderate to severe asthma often have gut issues like intestinal permeability (more commonly called leaky gut). Chronic inflammation can reveal itself in various ways. For Amanda, it affected her sinuses and lungs, leading to frequent coughing and shortness of breath.
From her medical history, I learned Amanda’s doctor had regularly prescribed antibiotics, which had damaged her intestinal wall, triggering leaky gut that ramped up inflammation while decreasing nutrient absorption. A food intake form revealed Amanda consumed tofu, whole wheat pasta, skim milk, and other foods she thought were healthy that actually contributed to gut permeability and inflammation.
Food is medicine, and as with most patients I started the healing process with what Amanda ate. I put her on an elimination diet that targeted inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy, corn, and soy. That alone allowed her to breathe better and have more energy. During her three-week follow-up, Amanda’s symptoms had disappeared. I was able to wean her off medications, and she was thrilled to finally ditch the inhaler. We reintroduced the former food offenders and found that while she could occasionally tolerate some of them, dairy was a no-go because it always triggered inflammation. I’ve seen these same results among many patients. They look better, feel better, breathe easier, and no more inhalers.
Ditch the inhaler and do this instead.
Everyone’s underlying conditions are different, and I strongly encourage working with a functional medicine practitioner to pinpoint and eliminate any potential issues. And please never go off any medications without your physician’s consent. That said, I’ve found these five strategies almost always benefit patients struggling with asthma:
1. Optimize these two minerals.
Magnesium helps your lung airways relax so you can breathe easier. Studies show3 almost half of Americans consume less than adequate amounts of this crucial mineral, and I believe that number is much higher. Whole-food magnesium sources include nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. I also recommend supplementing. Aim for 400 mg of magnesium daily, preferably as magnesium glycinate. Zinc is another important mineral for your immune system, and people with deficiencies are at a higher risk for asthma. Zinc-rich foods include beans, nuts, and high-quality animal protein. Aim for 15 mg of zinc daily in your food and supplements.
2. Do a three-week elimination diet.
That means completely eliminate gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, and other frequent offenders. Even a bite can set off a reaction. I find that keeping a food journal becomes a helpful way to track whether these foods slip into your diet (be aware that they “hide” in many processed foods), and I also recommend working with a nutritionist to design an eating plan that works for you.
3. Fix your gut.
An elimination diet goes a long way toward healing gut problems, but I still saw signs of leaky gut with Amanda. I incorporated a gut-healing nutrient protocol including prebiotics, probiotics, and anti-inflammatory quercetin. Chronic stress can also affect your gut. Amanda learned to balance her rigorous athletic schedule with calming yin yoga and found ways to actively relax and de-stress.
4. Boost your anti-inflammatory foods.
Wild-caught fish, flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds are among the foods loaded with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Even if you eat fish regularly (most people don’t), a fish oil supplement can help you get those omega-3s, which studies show can benefit patients with asthma. I recommend daily taking 1,000 to 2,000 mg of EPA and DHA, the two active omega-3s in fish oil.
Just 15 minutes of deep breathing exercises daily can help your lungs—and you—calm down. Amanda would set her iPhone to remind her every hour at work to take a one-minute breather. It helped her productivity and her asthma.
Confused and frustrated by your health problems? You need to know this.
Elizabeth Boham, M.D., M.S., R.D. is board certified in family medicine from Albany Medical College, and is Institute for Functional Medicine certified. She is also the medical director of The UltraWellness Center.
Boham lives in Valatie, NY, and lectures on a variety of topics, including women’s health and breast cancer prevention, insulin resistance, heart health, weight control, and allergies. She is on the faculty of the Institute for Functional Medicine.