As an asthmatic, I’ve been through many different medications in an attempt to alleviate the symptoms. My allergies have worsened with age, and now I find myself suffering whenever I’m around animals, dust, mold, or pollen. Hanging out in a crowded, smoky bar? Forget it. I was on Advair for two years until I noticed that a side effect of the drug was vocal chord damage. And as a singer, that was certainly a problematic side effect.
Frustrated by some of these side effects, I started researching lifestyle alternatives that could possibly supplant the pharmaceuticals. While I won’t claim any medical background or expertise, I have stumbled upon some incredible research that convinces me of the value of non-pharmaceutical possibilities. Often, very simple lifestyle choices can potentially alter our need for medication. Here are some of the more interesting findings I’ve uncovered.
Breathe Easier with Diet
A German study examined data from 524 children and found that asthma was more prevalent in children with high levels of arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is found in egg yolks, shellfish, and meat. Decreasing intake of these types of food is thought to decrease inflammation and asthmatic symptoms. Also, research conducted at the University of Cambridge revealed that asthma is more common for people whose diets are low in fruit, vitamin C, and manganese.
Another dietary asthma improvement, according to a study published in the March 2009 edition of Clinical Immunology, is the chemical sulforaphane. Abundant in broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables, the study found that sulfrophane triggers an increase of antioxidant enzymes in the human airway that might protect against the free radicals we breathe in every day. These free radicals cause tissue damage that often leads to respiratory conditions.
While I’m not ready to throw away my inhaler anytime soon, it was insightful to realize that better choices in my diet could result in reduced symptoms, especially when I admit to myself how little fruit I normally ingest. I’ve started eating more broccoli and vitamin C in the hopes that these lifestyle choices might affect how often I turn to medication.
Elevate Mood with Elevated Heart Rate
According to the results of a Duke University Medical Center study, a thirty-minute walk or jog three times a week may be as effective as medications in relieving symptoms of major depression. In a study of 156 elderly patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder, the patients were assigned to three groups: exercise, medication, or a combination of exercise and medication. The researchers were surprised that after sixteen weeks all three groups showed improvement in measurements of depression that were significant and similar.
Lead researcher and Duke psychologist James Blumenthal concluded, “Exercise can be just as effective as medication and may be a better alternative for certain patients … (it) should be considered a viable option.” Although the study focused on elderly patients, the results may be considered conclusive for the general population and may be especially pertinent to people who don’t respond well to medication or have unwanted side effects. He added, “Patients who exercised may have felt a greater sense of mastery over their condition and gained a greater sense of accomplishment [than those on medication].”
Reduce Cholesterol with Diet
New results published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association show that working with a dietitian can lower cholesterol levels and help people lose weight.
Based on data from 377 patients with high cholesterol who were counseled by registered dietitians, University of Michigan Health System researchers were able to show that medical nutrition therapy helps to educate patients on “cardioprotective foods,” enabling them to reduce the fat in their diets to less than 30 percent.
Lead author Kathy Rhodes, PhD, RD, manager of Nutrition Services with the U-M Cardiovascular Medicine program at Domino’s Farms and the U-M Cardiovascular Center states, “This is the first national study to show what happens when high-risk patients work with RDs to follow nutrition guidelines grounded in the best evidence.”
This may allow people with high cholesterol to avoid taking medication altogether, or at the very least, help keep them from increasing their dose.
Ease Pain with Meditation
As a regular practitioner of meditation, I can certainly attest to the fact that I am more equipped to deal with everyday stressors if I take the time to meditate even ten minutes a day. But a study in the 2009 January edition of Psychosomatic Medicine concludes that Zen meditators with 1,000 hours of meditation under their belt actually have lower pain sensitivity, regardless of whether they are in or out of a meditative space, compared to those who do not practice meditation.
Joshua A. Grant and Pierre Rainville, both associated with the Universite de Montreal, created the study to see if trained meditators perceived pain differently than non-meditators. They wanted to go beyond the already accepted notion that meditation helps patients in chronic pain and determine if meditators actually have a different relationship to their pain itself.
In the study, thirteen Zen meditators and thirteen non-meditators were subjected to a thermal heat source pressed against their calves at various increasing temperatures, with the maximum temperature at fifty-three degrees Celsius. Several Zen meditators were able to withstand the maximum temperature, while no one in the control group was able to tolerate heat near the maximum level.
“Slower breathing certainly coincided with reduced pain and may influence pain by keeping the body in a relaxed state,” says Grant. “While previous studies have found that the emotional aspects of pain are influenced by meditation, we found that the sensation itself, as well as the emotional response, is different in meditators … (i)f meditation can change the way someone feels pain, thereby reducing the amount of pain medication required for an ailment, that would be clearly beneficial,” says Grant. Zen meditators experienced an 18 percent reduction in pain intensity. It is worth taking the time to learn more about meditation if it can have such a beneficial impact in the way we experience and respond to pain.
Exercise for Arthritis
Arthritis affects nearly 70 million Americans and many people rely on medications to treat their symptoms. But studies suggest that exercise is a valid way to “treat arthritis,” according to Nancy Gyurcsik, a physical activity specialist with Kansas State University’s Office of Community Health. Gyurcsik points out that exercise not only reduces pain, but helps counter the feelings of depression and loneliness sometimes associated with arthritis. “When people with arthritis exercise, they should expect some stiffness initially, but that’s natural for anyone who begins an exercise program. One of the key things is for people to stick with the exercise program for at least six months. That’s a key goal to have, because most that make it that long are able to stick with that exercise program over their lifetime.”
Gyurcsik adds that “exercise” can include anything from running, riding a bike, and lifting weights to walking and doing yard work. Any type of physical movement that keeps the body moving can combat the symptoms of arthritis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages people to exercise at least five times a week for thirty minutes or more at a moderately intense level. Gyurcsik encourages people to stretch their muscles regularly and work with their doctors to create an exercise routine best suited to the patient’s needs.
Even if a healthful diet, exercise, and mediation won’t free everyone from the confines of a drug regime, they might be able to reduce the amount of pills we have to take, or at least prevent us from having to take more in the future. And that makes walking, meditating, and eating broccoli that much more enjoyable.