Foods and Asthma

Asthma is a condition that involves sensitive airways and it affects people of all ages.  Various triggers can cause the airways to become inflamed or filled with excess mucus, or the muscles around the airways can spasm, causing bronchoconstriction.  One in ten people in Australia have been diagnosed with asthma.

Managing your asthma requires a total lifestyle approach that includes almost all aspects of your life.  While there is no special asthma diet, regular exercise and a healthy, nutritious diet can help to control symptoms of asthma.  It’s important to be aware of foods that trigger asthma attacks and avoid them, and also consume anti-inflammatory foods that promote respiratory health.

Foods that trigger an asthma attack can vary from common allergens like dairy products, eggs and peanuts to various food additives, or the sufferer could have a food allergy or intolerance.  While food allergies and chemical intolerances are rare, the reactions could be life threatening so it’s crucial to be aware of trigger foods.

Food colourings have also been known to set off asthma attacks, particularly the yellow food dye tartrazine.  If a person is reactive to one food colouring, they should make sure they avoid all of them and examine the ingredients list for the following additives – 102, 107, 110, 122–129, 132, 133, 142, 151 and 155.

Another food additive that can trigger asthma attacks is sulphite, a preservative that stops the growth of mould, but also releases sulphur dioxide, a respiratory irritant.  It is usually added to dried fruit, condiments, wine, canned vegetables and other processed foods.  Numbers to look out for on the ingredients list include 220 and 228. The most infamous food additive, monosodium glutamate (MSG) can also activate asthma, and is often found in stock cubes, soy sauce and packet soups.  It is listed on the ingredients list as 621.

While some foods can trigger asthma, others can soothe or prevent an attack.  The main foods to look for are ones that reduce inflammation.  Omega-3 fatty acid has excellent anti-inflammatory properties and is found in fatty fish like tuna, sardines and salmon, while the vitamin C in oranges can reduce wheezing while boosting your immune system.

Another group of asthma-friendly foods are those that contain flavonoids.  These compounds fight inflammation by protecting the lining of your lungs and bronchial tubes from pollutants.  Blueberries and onions are packed with flavonoids, as are apples.  Studies have shown that people who eat at least 5 apples a week, flesh and skin, have better lung function than those who don’t.

Coffee can also help with asthma because the caffeine causes the bronchial tubes to dilate, in some cases for up to 4 hours.  Another way to control asthma symptoms is to watch your waistline.  Obesity has been associated with severe asthma symptoms, presenting another reason to eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise.

Advice about how food can affect your asthma is available from your doctor, dietitian or allergy specialist.  The Asthma Foundation has set up a hotline for anyone with questions or concerns about their asthma and the number is 1800 645 130, or alternatively you can contact the Dietitians Association of Australia on 1800 812 942.