With winter setting in and pollution levels soaring, people with lived experiences and health professionals tell us what foods may work and what may not, to help you breathe better
Like most kids his age, Aryaman, a teen living in Delhi, loves junk food. “My son plays sport, but after a game he’ll pick up some packaged food from the shop in our society,” says his mother . “Within 15 minutes, he’ll start to wheeze or get a rash.”
When it comes to asthma and wheezing, different people have different triggers. For Gurugram-based school teacher Lubna Seth, who developed asthma after moving to Delhi from Shimla a decade ago, it’s maida-based foods and anything cold. When she’s very tempted, “I microwave my bowl of curd or ice cream for 10-15 seconds before eating and follow it up with kadha chai or coffee.”
Kalpana Balhara, a Delhi-based consultant with a child rights group knows she must avoid oily and spicy food, sweets, curd, and anything cold. Having developed asthma a few years ago and contracting COVID-19 recently, she values every breath she takes. But, as Lubna says, “It is not always easy to give up certain foods.”
Young woman using an asthma inhaler outdoors
Asthma is a lung condition in which the tubes that carry air to and from the lungs swell up or become narrow and cause breathlessness. The lining of the airways is always in a hypersensitive state characterised by redness and is easily affected by different types of allergens that can harm the lungs. Allopathic doctors say there is no cure, but treatment (medication) can help control the symptoms that worsen due to allergies to dust, pollution, pollen, tobacco smoke, chemical irritants and cold air. Emotional stress, obesity, and anxiety also trigger asthma in some people.
While people with a lived experience say that certain foods trigger reactions, research has so far only confirmed that artificial food colouring causes symptoms to escalate. Pune-based pulmonologist Dr Sundeep Salvi admits that research on lung health has not seen long-term studies. But those with asthma should definitely avoid all canned, processed and packaged foods as they contain preservatives, emulsifiers and food colouring agents. “These are all chemicals and have a cumulative effect on the lungs and trigger wheezing,” he says. Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables (such as aamla, blue berries, apple, papaya, guava, melons, oranges, grapes) can provide some protection, he says, but based on his clinical experience, Dr Salvi advises people to avoid certain fruits such as pineapple, banana, mango, , in order to control the symptoms and reduce suffering.
The water and lung connection
Dr Salvi advocates high water intake for healthy lungs. According to him, human beings require 10,000 litres of air every 24 hours to survive. “When we breathe in air through the nose for it to reach the alveoli (the tiny air sacs in the lungs), the passageway needs to be 100% saturated with water. Those with asthma suffer from dry lungs and always need moist air for air passages to function without hindrance. Otherwise dry air can be an irritant and trigger not only a dry cough but also dry skin,” he says. Asthma and eczema are related and in severe cases, if you suppress one, the other manifests.
The traditional forms of healing hold more answers for asthma though. Ramesh R Varier, senior physician at AVN Arogya Ayurvedic Hospital, Madurai, says, “In Ayurveda, tamaka swasha (the equivalent of bronchial asthma) is related to indigestion caused by excessive kapha dosha aggravating foods. He agrees sweet fruits like mangoes and bananas are better avoided much like sour foods, both of which are considered good for the vata and not kapha dosha.
The time of eating is also important. “Any dairy product or cold item had early in the morning or late in the evening may trigger respiratory distress,” he says and also advises limited intake of black gram, beans, sesame and meat to avoid gas build up in the abdomen. Varier explains that food allergies and intolerances lead to the build-up of air or foodstuff causing bloating and shortness of breath. That is why Ayurveda recommends a diet that helps to reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and also treat eczema, through foods that help in elimination. “Never overeat but follow your hunger because appetite is the appropriate precursor to nourishment,” he says.
Pune-based Abhishek Devikar who practises naturopathy says mucus formation is the most important trigger for asthma. Pepper, ginger, basil, turmeric, jaggery are good immuno-stimulators for chronic diseases like asthma and when consumed with hot water or milk especially in winter, provide relief, he says.
Those with asthma have a hypersensitive mucus membrane (inner lining of the airways). Any allergen entering the body can cause the membrane to become dense, precipitating mucus production. This causes clogging of the air passage, leading to wheezing as the lungs go into spasms. In winter months especially, the mucus formation is more dense and consumption of anything cold, sour, starchy aggravates it. It starts with an immediate itchiness in throat, the first sign of allergic reaction, he says.
What nutritionists say
Overall, a diet rich in calcium, iron, iodine, protein, vitamin A, B, C and E, potassium, zinc are anti-inflammatory. “They benefit the immune system and may help protect the lungs from damage due to smoking and air pollution,” says Manjari Chandra, a functional nutritionist and author of the book Eat Up, Clean Up: Your Personal Journey to a Healthy Life.
People are now waking up to improving the quality of their lives because treating asthma is also largely individual-specific. You need to understand how your body reacts to environmental changes and takes to different foods. “By trial and error, and by a process of elimination in the diet or otherwise, people are following what suits them the best,” says Manjari.
She adds that everyone can make their own list of foods that heal (including fibrous green leafy vegetables, white and red radish, turnips, leeks, ginger, spring onions and bitter gourd, onion, sweet potatoes, unpolished millets like jowar and bajra, ferments such as idli, dosa and appam, nuts and seeds). Foods that hurt include all forms of white sugar, salt, refined foods like flour, oil, white rice, bread, cheese, pasta, potato and yam.
If you have asthma, you know cold, dry weather can be troublesome, especially as you may be susceptible to secondary infections. So you up the intake of your immunity boosters with antioxidant rich foods.