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These days, a lot of children suffer from asthma, allergies, or frequent colds or sinus infections. I can barely scroll through Facebook each day without seeing that someone’s child has one of these issues. The usual treatment for these issues is the use of corticosteroids, which some children end up using quite frequently, depending on their situation.
This scares me, frankly.
Steroids are serious drugs with serious side effects and their use should be very carefully considered, the benefits and risks carefully weighed. A lot of parents aren’t fully aware of the potential side effects — and they also don’t know about other alternatives. I believe that drugs can have their place, but generally we are too cavalier in their use. I also believe that if parents were aware of safer, effective alternatives, that they would turn to those first when possible.
Let’s explore this!
What Are Asthma and Allergies?
Both asthma and allergies are autoimmune conditions, meaning that the body is attacking itself by overreacting to some outside stimulus. In asthma, different “triggers” cause the airways to constrict (due to inflammation), making breathing difficult. People who experience this may cough, wheeze, or gasp for air. Allergies can trigger an asthma attack, as can cold air, exercise, or any other sort of “stress” on the lungs.
The normal treatment for allergies is to avoid whatever the allergen is, and to take antihistamine drugs.
The normal treatment for asthma is corticosteroids, like albuterol, used in inhalers. This is the most effective way to use the drug, and allows the lowest use of the drug (compared to older methods, like injections and oral prescriptions, which required much higher doses since the drug didn’t get directly to the lungs). Most people use a “rescue” inhaler if they are struggling to breathe, but also are prescribed one or two doses per day as “maintenance.”
There is a link between vaccination and asthma. Up to 20% of children who are vaccinated develop asthma these days, while very few children who are not vaccinated develop asthma. In this study, 18% of vaccinated children had asthma, while just over 2% of unvaccinated children did. It is theorized that the DTaP vaccine is responsible for this, but also that the toxic load from vaccines in general “sensitizes” the immune system. (If this is true, it can be addressed with the GAPS diet, which I mention later.) In that second study, 23% of vaccinated children had allergies, compared to 10.5% of unvaccinated (more than double).
Genetics plays a role, too — children born to parents with asthma have a 6-fold increase in the risk of developing it themselves. This increases even further if both parents have asthma.
Poor diet and the stress this creates within the body has been linked to asthma, as well. Asthma is rare in isolated, non-Western cultures, but rates rise as soon as they are exposed to Western foods. (Industrial foods are not ever healthy for you!)
What are Steroids? Why are They Used?
Corticosteroids are a class of drugs that are used to treat inflammation. The body produces its own steroid hormones to heal and combat inflammation, but sometimes it doesn’t produce enough or do it quickly enough, and so steroid drugs are prescribed. This is what is in inhalers, or what is used through nebulizers in the case of persistent cough or difficulty breathing. Albuterol is the most commonly prescribed drug, although there are others.
The list of side effects for these steroids is long:
- Trouble sleeping
- Sore/dry throat
- Sinus inflammation
- Chest pain
- Ear pain
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Increased difficulty breathing
- Muscle cramps
- Delayed/stunted growth
- Low blood pressure
- Low potassium levels
- High blood sugar
- Auditory hallucinations (at high doses)
- “Withdrawal” spasms after use
- Yeast infections
Most of these are not very common, but the less severe side effects (like dizziness, headache, sore throat) are more common. In clinical trials, some side effects were experienced by up to 25% of individuals, with tremors and nervousness topping the list. Oral and nebulizer use were associated with more side effects than inhaler use. ”Tolerance” to these side effects sometimes developed (which means the patient no longer feels bad, but damage is still being caused to the body).
Albuterol has also been shown to increase the likelihood of asthma attacks by 30%, according to one source.
It is not unusual for people to experience trouble breathing after use, because the synthetic corticosteroid replaces the body’s natural steroids and reduces production, meaning levels are lower (too low) for awhile, leading to increased trouble breathing.
Treating Asthma and Allergies Naturally
All of this is pretty serious stuff. The choice to treat asthma with a steroid prescription should be a serious one, even though it is currently considered “the gold standard” in modern medicine.
The goal in treating asthma needs to be addressing the root causes, which are not completely known. Some believe that poor gut flora plays a role (the gut flora is crucial for a strong immune system, and weak immune systems can allow the body to become sensitized to the environment, leading to allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune conditions). Others believe that weak adrenals play a role. Low levels of vitamin D have been shown to play a role. Natural treatment starts with addressing these areas.
There is some research now to show that both of these conditions, especially asthma, would be helped by increased vitamin D levels. This makes sense, because vitamin D is a pre-hormone, which helps the body to make and use hormones properly. In asthma, the adrenal glands don’t function properly, and they don’t make enough corticosteroid hormone naturally to keep inflammation at bay in the presence of the “triggers.” With allergies, vitamin D does a similar thing — calms the inflammation in the body. Vitamin D can also prevent the hardening of the bronchials in the lungs, too, preventing worsening asthma.
Most people are now deficient in vitamin D, which is unfortunate because it plays such a huge role in the body. Taking high doses of fermented cod liver oil (up to 2 tbsp. per day, depending on one’s vitamin D levels; 2 tbsp. will provide about 6000 IU of vitamin D) can raise a person’s vitamin D levels.
Vitamin A, a nutrient that has been seriously vilified in our culture, is also a primary player in the immune system. Low vitamin A levels are also associated with increased asthma risks and more frequent attacks. Fermented cod liver oil also supplies a large dose of well-absorbed vitamin A, which can decrease the amount of attacks by 50% or more.
B vitamins are also critical. Deficiencies in certain B vitamins (including B6, B9 — folate, B12, and B3) can increase the risk of asthma up to 4 times. Try an herbal multivitamin to increase your B vitamin intake.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important, as well. Adding fish oil to your diet can increase these levels, as well as consuming fatty fish on a regular basis. Proper nutrition is absolutely key, as deficiencies in all of these nutrients sharply increase both the risk of developing asthma, and of asthma becoming more severe!
Optimal adrenal function can be addressed by making sure you are not deficient in magnesium or potassium. Certain herbs, like nettle, milk thistle, ashwagandha, and others that are considered “adaptogenic” can help to boost adrenal function. Consider drinking a homemade electrolyte drink, using potassium chloride (“diet” salt) in place of sodium chloride.
Addressing gut health is not an easy matter. If one does not have ideal gut health, then the best solution is the GAPS diet. We have done this on and off for two years, and it is not a simple, quick solution at all. It requires cutting all grains, sugars, and dairy completely for several months, and focusing on fat, meat, bone broth, and fermented foods in order to heal and seal the “holes” in the gut. It is a huge lifestyle shift for many, but it can permanently alleviate allergies and asthma (as well as autism, MS, and other autoimmune conditions).
It is also important to get rid of any “junk” in the diet and the environment. Switch to more natural cleaning products (like vinegar and baking soda), natural laundry detergent (like soap nuts), and natural personal care products. Don’t eat fast food or buy any food in a package or with a label.
Do not use over-the-counter or prescription medications unless absolutely necessary. Common pain killers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen (Tylenol) increase the likelihood of asthma attacks. Antibiotics damage the gut, and also increase the likelihood.
For short-term fixes with asthma (helping symptoms immediately), try these remedies:
- Lobelia tincture (just a few drops)
- Mullein tea — inhale the steam
- Slippery elm + fenugreek tea (helps to loosen and eliminate mucus)
- Raw honey (to calm coughs)