The Link Between Asthma and Dairy


When sport or play turns into a full-blown, hands-on-the knees wheezing episode, you want to just reach out and breathe for your child. More than 1.8 million people in the U.S. visit emergency rooms each year because of asthma, but a possible link between asthma and dairy products yields hope for sufferers and those who love them.

Dairy Sensitivity in the Lungs

Some integrative medical practitioners suggest reducing or avoiding milk and dairy products to support asthma and the more non-specific clinical entity reactive airway disease (RAD). Dairy is known to thicken mucous and too much mucous in the lungs can cause attacks. However, in the last decade, more attention has been paid to dietary dairy sensitivity. This is different than lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy. Lactose intolerance occurs when a particular enzyme, lactase is not functional, and therefore cannot break down the sugar lactose in dairy products. Lactose intolerance can be side-stepped by enzyme replacement as seen in products such as Lactaid®. Milk allergies refer to a positive immunoglobulin E (IgE).

An allergy typically creates symptoms quite quickly, often within minutes or hours of exposure. Dietary dairy sensitivity is likely a delayed hypersensitivity reaction to a protein or proteins in milk: casein and whey. Sensitivity is a positive test for immunoglobulin G (IgG) a related complex to IgE but with symptoms coming much later, often many hours to even days following exposure. So the challenge for the RAD-sufferer is getting the right tests done and the appropriate label given. Integrative and conventional practitioners alike have access to both tests.

When reactive airway disease is a working diagnosis, either inhaled albuterol or albuterol in syrup and anti-inflammatory corticosteroid medications are often given to open up airway constriction and relieve inflammation. Both in asthma and in reactive airway disease, airway constriction and inflammation are the cardinal characteristics with inflammation causing the airway constriction. However, the missing question is “what is causing the inflammation?”

Allergic asthma is too-often thought to be induced only by an inhaled allergen such as dust mites, pet dander, pollen, or mold. However, any allergen whether inhaled or ingested that has the ability to cause systemic inflammation can cause the airway to react. Dairy is not implicated as a primary dietary allergen in reactive airway disease.

Fighting Asthma With Diet

In order to maintain dilated airways and keep inflammation to a minimum, significant magnesium levels should be maintained. All kinds of nuts, seeds, and beans contain magnesium. Almonds, Brazil nuts, pine nuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, navy beans, black beans, and kidney beans all contain high levels. Also spinach, fish, and some unrefined grains are also good sources. Supplemental magnesium is also a prudent approach if these foods are not eaten in abundance on a daily basis.

Several products and foods can reduce inflammation once it is started. Spices such as turmeric and rosemary are favorites, but deep sea, cold-water fish such as mackerel, sardines, anchovies, salmon and tuna are healthy sources of inflammation-fighting fish oil. Again supplemental fish oil is appropriate for most people as the human body does not make its own source of omega-3 fatty acids. It must be consumed. However, fish oil and magnesium are not suitable replacements for fast-acting emergency medicines if the source of inflammation and airway constriction is not identified and avoided. Every effort should be made to determine the cause of the inflammation as asthma can be a life-threatening medical emergency.

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