Suffering from asthma usually means a concoction of medications. The latest is an injected antibody drug recommended as an add-on therapy for anyone over the age of six with severe allergic asthma, which has not been adequately controlled by inhaled corticosteroids (Cochrane Database Syst. Rev., 2014).

However, following a review of a five-year safety study, the US drugs watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), announced that it is updating the drug’s label to include information about an increased risk of serious side effects involving the heart and brain.

The FDA review revealed a slightly higher rate of heart and brain blood vessel problems in patients treated with this drug when compared with patients not taking the same drug.

The health issues included transient ischaemic attacks, or ‘mini strokes’, heart attacks, sudden unexpected chest pain, high blood pressure in arteries in the lungs and blood clots in the lungs and veins.

These warnings are not new. They are updates coming a few years after this drug was given a warning altering patients to the risk of anaphylaxis, which could happen after treatment of one day or one year. According to the manufacturer’s own trials, about one in 1,000 suffers this side effect. (N. Engl. J. Med., 2006).

The good news is that a variety of non-drug treatments are showing great promise for sufferers of asthma and allowing many patients to reduce their dependence on medication or even to come off their drugs altogether.

Obviously, this should not be carried out without the supervision and support of a qualified medical practitioner. However, the non-drug treatments may help with the control of asthma and to gain a better quality of life.

• Buteyko Breathing – this is well established as a complementary therapy for asthma. I have written about it before and even interviewed a qualified practitioner in Malta. The technique is based on the theory that certain disorders, including asthma, are caused by over-breathing or hyperventilation, which reduces carbon dioxide levels in the blood and, as a consequence, reduces blood flow to the brain.

At the heart of the method is a series of reduced breathing exercises that focus on nasal breathing, breath holding and relaxation, all of which are beneficial to asthma sufferers. Practitioners of the method claim that around a third of asthma patients are completely cured of their symptoms, while a further third enjoy a vast improvement (NZ Med. J., 2003).

• Diet – According to the evidence, the right diet can help with asthma management. Here are some general pointers:

A variety of non-drug treatments are showing great promise for sufferers of asthma

Investigate food allergies. Asthma solely induced by food is rare. However, some foods may trigger symptoms and make asthma worse (Paediatr. Drugs, 2007). Finding an allergy specialist will help discover foods and additives that should be avoided. Going vegan: A vegan diet followed for a year in conjunction with specific dietary changes, such as avoiding caffeine, sugar, salt and chlorinated tap water, while at the same time introducing herbs and supplements, led to a significant improvement in a group of asthma sufferers (J. Asthma, 2010).

Upping the antioxidants in the diet: oxidative stress appears to be involved in asthma, so eating plenty of antioxidants may help. These are found in fresh fruit and vegetables. In a trial of 137 asthma sufferers, those eating a high antioxidant diet (five servings of vegetables, two servings of fruit daily) all improved more than those on a low antioxidant diet (Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 2012).

• Yoga – This discipline involves both breathing exercises and relaxation techniques. Yoga can help asthma by improving lung function and the quality of life, as well as reducing the amount of medication needed to control symptoms.

It has even been found to bring about measurable biochemical changes in the body, such as increased levels of haemoglobin and antioxidant superoxide dismutase, which may explain its beneficial effects.

• Acupuncture – This traditional Chinese technique has been used for thousands of years to correct the underlying imbalances that cause asthma symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing. A recent review has confirmed its effectiveness. The use of acupuncture and moxibustion (the application of heat as a result of burning a small bundle of tightly bound herbs, or moxa, on target acupoints) was significantly more effective than a control technique in a pooled analysis of 22 published trials involving more than 3,000 people with asthma.

• Supplements – There are many supplements which may be useful for asthmatics, especially antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C can reduce the severity and frequency of asthma attacks in adults and might also be of benefit for people with exercise induced asthma (Trop. Geogr. Med., 1980).

Selenium can improve asthma symptoms, according to one small trial. Taking a form called sodium selenite for about three months resulted in clinical improvements in six out of 11 patients compared with only one out of 10 taking a placebo (Allergy, 1993).

Fish oil, a well-known anti-inflammatory, can improve asthma symptoms in children. Combining it with antioxidants vitamin C and zinc may be even better (Eur. Respir. J., 2000).

Vitamin D deficiency has recently been linked to asthma, so supplementing with the ‘sunshine vitamin’ may also be of benefit.

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