Complementary therapies for asthma

Asthma knocks the wind out of you. Turning to complementary medicine could offer more than just symptomatic relief

Asthamatic young manBreathing is the most natural thing and is a totally unconscious act. Unfortunately, for some, this is not so. When they get an attack, those with asthma are painfully aware of each breath they take. According to WHO [World Health Organization] estimates, 300 million people suffer from asthma and 255,000 people died of asthma in 2005. There is no cure for asthma in allopathy, but complementary medicine promises to offer long-term relief.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of airways characterised by a widespread narrowing of the air passages, leading to breathlessness and suffocation in extreme cases. Cough and wheezing often accompany an attack, which aggravates breathlessness. Attacks are short-lived, lasting from minutes to hours. In cases of chronic asthma, the attack can come more than once daily. Severe attacks result in increased morbidity and have an adverse effect on the quality of life. In general, symptom-free phases alternate with periods of acute attacks.

Asthma is of allergic origin and often patients or family members have a history of other allergic disorders such as rhinitis[running nose] or urticaria[also called hives, a kind of skin rash notable for dark red, raised, itchy bumps].

Potent anti-inflammatory agents like corticosteroids and bronchodilator provide instant symptomatic relief but may be habit forming, often requiring the dose to be increased. For long-term remissions, limited options are available.

Asthma and ayurveda

Ayurveda describes this chronic disease with accuracy under the title, Shwasa and prescribes purification methods [Shodhan Chikitsa] and drug therapy [Shaman Chikitsa]. It also states preventive measures.

As per the Tridosha theory, distortion of Vata Doshaand <em, triggered due to various intrinsic and extrinsic factors, causes asthma.

Ayurveda describes five types of shwasas.

  • Mahashwasa is a serious stage characterised by continuous episode of breathlessness.
  • Urdhva Shwasa is a severe attack of asthma in which the air pipe is choked due to presence of excess mucus.
  • Chchinna Shwasa is more like cardiac asthma, caused in later stages of diseases like cardiac or hepatic failure.
  • Tamak Shwasa represents the symptoms of bronchial asthma.
  • Pratamak Shwasa is asthma caused as a reflex to the diseases of the viscera.

In Ayurveda, the diagnosis of asthma is based on following factors:

Causes of asthma

    These could be extrinsic or intrinsic.

  • Extrinsic factors include allergy due to dust, smog and smoke, excessive consumption of cold water, inhalation of pollens, dry and spicy food like mustard and chillies, oily food, excessive exercise and emotional stress.
  • Intrinsic factors include vitiation of the Vata Dosha and Kapha Dosha, caused mainly by improper diet [cold food, cold drinks, and very spicy, pungent, dry and oily food]. The vitiated Vata Dosha corrupts the avalambaka kapha, which gets thickened, and blocks the air passages, giving rise to dyspnoea[shortness of breath] and other symptoms. Chronic diseases, such as cardiac failure, or allergic disorders also can precipitate asthma.

Indications of onset

This unique feature of Ayurvedic diagnostics describes symptoms that signal the onset of an attack or a disease. The prodromal symptoms[early non-specific symptoms that might indicate the start of a disease before specific symptoms occur] include heaviness and pain in chest, gastrointestinal upset or flatulence, anorexia and headache.

Ayurvedic treatments

  • Sesame oil and Saindhava [type of salt] applied on chest, followed by hot fomentation help relieve breathlessness. This liquefies the mucus and helps expel it, giving partial relief. It also pacifies the vitiated vata and helps restore its normal functioning. For chronic cases, Ayurveda advises a combination of Panchakarma [cleansing procedures] and drug therapy. The drug therapy effectively reduces the severity of symptoms, while Panchakarma provides long-lasting relief and longer remissions.
  • Panchakarma: A massage with medicated oils, followed by hot fomentation [diaphoresis] provides relief. Induced vomiting [Vaman] with the help of decoctions prepared from medicinal herbs comes next. Vaman helps eliminate mucus and other accumulated toxins from the system for long-term relief. Panchakarma procedures should be performed by qualified Ayurvedic physicians only.
  • Treatment of acute cases may also involve smoking of cigars prepared from medicinal herbs like turmeric, long pepper, spike nut and purified mineral ores or compounds. Nasal administration of medicated oils or decoctions too is sometimes prescribed.
  • Drug therapy: This involves preparations made from herbal and mineralo-metallic combinations. Some of the popular generic prescriptions, to be taken on the advice of an ayurvedic physician are:
    • Decoction of Dashmool group [roots of ten medicinal herbs]
    • Sitopaladi Churna, a well-praised combination of sugar, cinnamon bark, long pepper, cardamom powder and bamboosa manna
    • Mrigashringa bhasma made from purified and incinerated animal horns
    • Kanakasav, a decoction mainly comprising Datura metel, ShwasKuthar Rasa, Dashamularishta, and Chyavanprashavaleha.
  • Other remedies: For mild cases, hot decoctions made from Tulsi [holy basil], black pepper, turmeric, long pepper, raisins, ginger, coriander seeds, licorice, gooseberry and fennel are effective in relieving symptoms and associated cough. Proprietary preparations available over-the-counter too provide symptomatic relief.
  • Diet: Diet plays a major role in treatment. Soups prepared from green grams, drumstick or raddish, chicken or meat; rice porridge; and hot milk provide nourishment and relief. Adding Trikatu powder made from black pepper, long pepper, ginger and salt and ghrita to these recipes helps liquefy mucus and soothe the throat.
  • Food should be eaten when hot and fresh. Avoid spicy, oily, very pungent, deep fried, cold and allergy-triggering food and cold drinks.

—Shefali Thanawala

Asthma and homoeopathy

Allergy is the immediate cause of asthma. It is an indication of lowered resistance and internal disharmony caused by faulty eating and bad habits.

Homoeopathy improves the body's natural immunity, thus reducing the response to allergens. It reduces both intensity and frequency of attacks. Also, homoeopathy usually eliminates the need to use inhalers. In addition, it does not have side effects. Homeopathy can cure mild to moderate cases and even remove hereditary asthma.

The homoeopathic approach

A qualified homoeopathic physician takes a detailed case and prescribes a constitutional remedy. S/he considers:

  • Onset of symptoms
  • Associated symptoms
  • Aggravations and ameliorations
  • Duration of symptoms
  • Family history
  • Personal history [diet, thirst, urine, stools, habits, sweat, sleep, dreams, mental condition].

These details help find the trigger and determine the best remedy to enhance the immunity and reduce the intensity of the asthmatic attacks.

Homoeopathic treatment

Homoeopathy has a vast repertoire of medicines for bronchial asthma. Treatment differs from individual to individual depending on trigger factors, climatic effects, inheritance, aggravating causes and ameliorations. A few popular homeopathic remedies as per symptoms are mentioned below.

  • Apis: This is prescribed when there is intense suffocation. The sufferer wants to be fanned, does not want anything to touch the neck, cannot stay in a warm room on account of the heat and has a headache.
  • Antimonium tartaricum: This is prescribed when there is fine mucus in the chest. When the individual coughs, it seems as if there is a great accumulation of mucus, but nothing comes up.
  • Arsenicum: This is effective in treating chronic cases where the individual is aged, and has habitual and dry dyspnoea. Typically, the attacks start just after midnight. There is a great deal of anguish and restlessness; individuals fear lying down because of suffocation. There is anxiety and sweating and a burning pain and soreness in the chest, awakens the person.
  • Arnica: This helps treat asthma from fatty degeneration of the heart. There is suffocation with the desire to move about. Face is red, head is hot and body is cold.
  • Argentum nitricum: This is for nervous asthma, where the patient experiences spasm of respiratory muscles and when leaning forward provides relief. The affected person craves the cold wind blowing in his face. In such cases, asthma worsens with bodily exertion, in a crowded room and at night when the windows are closed.
  • Aurum triph: This is for Hay asthma. Symptoms include: nasal block, forcing breathing through the mouth; excessive sneezing in the morning; burning and constriction of throat; sleepiness; tickling cough due to mucus in the trachea; heavy mucus expectoration.
  • Grindelia rob: This treats Mucus asthma. Symptoms include: difficulty in throwing out mucus; relief with expectoration; easy inhalation but difficulty in exhalation; fear of falling asleep as it causes breathlessness.
  • Ipecac: This is a remedy for the spasmodic variety, where the symptoms include feeling of great weight and anxiety around the chest; sudden wheezing, dyspnoea, threatening suffocation aggravated by motion; gagging and vomiting due to cough. Constant cough, the chest seems full of phlegm, yet none comes out, and extremities get covered with cold perspiration.
  • Lobelia: It adviced when symptoms include: oppressed feeling and weak sensation in the chest, which seems to come from the epigastrium, where there is a feeling of a lump; nausea; profuse salivation; pricking sensation through the whole system before the attack. Lobelia is effective in bronchial and septic asthmas where breathing is exceedingly difficult, and is relieved by moving about; pain extending around the forehead from one temple to other; and pain in the back at the last dorsal vertebra.
  • Natrum sulph: This helps treat inherited asthma. Symptoms include: vomiting after eating; aggravation at 4-5 am and during damp rainy weather or after eating watery fruits.
  • Pothos fetid: This treats asthma from dust inhalation, which gets ameliorated by bowel movements.

—Beena Wagle

Sign board

Watch out for these symptoms.

  • Spasmodic coughing usually more at night
  • Cough yielding to mucus [in early stages]
  • Breathlessness and whistling sound at mouth during expiration, sometimes even intense feeling of suffocation
  • Audibly harsh and fast respiration
  • Profuse sweating
  • Restlessness
  • Dryness of mouth
  • Chest congestion
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to lie down.

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Beena Wagle
Beena Wagle is a practising homoeopath with a fellowship in applied nutrition. Her profession is her passion. Her hobbies include interactive workshops and talks. She is based in Mumbai and can be contacted at dr.beenawagle@gmail.com.
Shefali Thanawala
Shefali Thanawala is an Ayurvedic physician with 16 years of experience in the field of clinical practice and Ayurveda.