Asthma and complementary therapies

Asthma is a chronic (ongoing) condition that affects the airways and breathing. Most people are able to control their asthma symptoms by avoiding asthma triggers (things that aggravate asthma symptoms) and using conventional, prescribed medicines.

While researchers, scientists and doctors continue to look for new treatments, and hopefully a cure, for asthma by conducting scientific research, many people look to complementary therapies for the answer. However, there is currently insufficient evidence from clinical trials to support the use of any complementary therapies in the treatment of asthma.

The National Asthma Council recommends that the use of complementary therapies should not take the place of conventional treatments for asthma. In addition, like conventional treatments, complementary therapies are associated with possible risks and side effects, and should not be assumed to be safe.

The National Asthma Council also recommends speaking with your doctor before trialling a complementary therapy for your asthma. In this way you can monitor your asthma with your doctor before, during and after the trial, to best assess whether the complementary therapy has helped, harmed or had no effect on your asthma control.

Complementary therapies and asthma

Caffeine

There is some evidence that caffeine can improve lung function, as measured by lung function tests used to monitor asthma control. However, it is not known whether caffeine improves asthma symptoms. Also, caffeine (especially when taken in large doses) can cause adverse effects such as gastrointestinal upsets, agitation and raised blood pressure.

Herbal medicines and supplements

A variety of different herbal remedies have been used, many as part of traditional medicine, for the treatment of asthma.

More evidence is needed to recommend the use of any herbs or supplements as effective treatments for asthma. In addition, some herbal treatments can in fact cause serious adverse effects and interact with other medicines, so you should always check with your doctor whether a herbal medicine is likely to be safe for you.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an ancient healing system that involves the insertion of a number of thin needles into particular parts of the body to influence the flow of energy along meridians, or channels, in the body.

There is a lack of evidence for the effectiveness of the acupuncture in the treatment of asthma. However, acupuncture is considered to be a relatively safe treatment when administered by properly trained acupuncturists.

Breathing exercises

Breathing exercises for asthma, including the Buteyko breathing method, aim to regulate breathing. They may involve training to breathe more slowly, breathe through your nose rather than your mouth, and take deep breaths using your abdominal muscles.

There is a lack of evidence for the effectiveness of breathing exercises in the treatment of asthma. This is in part due to the different types of breathing exercises used, leading to variable and inconsistent evidence.

Relaxation therapy

There is a lack of evidence for the effectiveness of relaxation therapy, including hypnosis and meditation, in the treatment of asthma. However, these treatments seem to reduce stress and improve general well-being.

Dietary elimination

The removal of certain foods or food groups from your diet should only ever be done under the advice and supervision of a doctor and/or dietitian. It should be remembered that, in general, food and food allergies are not common triggers for asthma.

Other than where there is a known allergy, there is no evidence that elimination of certain foods (such as dairy foods) is of benefit in the treatment of asthma. Also, there is evidence that in some cases it can cause harm by negatively affecting growth and nutrition, especially in children.

Adverse reactions

While some complementary therapies are naturally-occurring, that does not necessarily mean that they are safe to use and without side effects. You should always check with your doctor before using any complementary therapy.

People with asthma and allergies should be aware that bee products, including royal jelly, propolis and bee pollen have caused breathing difficulties, asthma attacks, severe allergic reactions and even death.

Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has issued a warning to people with asthma and allergies about the possible effects of royal jelly.

Other complementary medicines that have caused serious allergic reactions and asthma symptoms include echinacea, garlic supplements and products containing aspirin.

Last Reviewed: 3 June 2014
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References

1. Complementary therapies and asthma. In: National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Website. Available from: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/complementary-therapies (accessed Apr 2014).
2. National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Asthma and complementary health approaches (updated Apr 2013). http://nccam.nih.gov/health/asthma/facts (accessed Apr 2014).
3. MayoClinic.com. Asthma treatment: Do complementary and alternative approaches work? (updated 29 Sep 2011). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asthma/in-depth/asthma-treatment/art-20044554 (accessed Apr 2014).
4. National Asthma Council Australia. Asthma and complementary therapies (updated Jan 2014). http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/publication/asthma-complementary-therapies (accessed Apr 2014).
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