Action Plan for Asthma

Action Plan for Asthma

Julian Whitaker, MD

Breathing is such a natural, unconscious activity that you take it for granted—unless you have a chronic respiratory disorder such as asthma. Then it’s another story. Acute asthma attacks have been likened to “breathing through a straw.” This is an apt description because asthma causes the airways (the bronchi and smaller bronchioles) to inflame and constrict, resulting in serious breathing difficulties.

Preventive and “rescue” medications for acute attacks can be lifesaving, but in addition to being a windfall for Big Pharma (see sidebar), asthma drugs have potentially significant adverse effects. Extended use of oral corticosteroids (prednisone) is associated with cataracts, osteoporosis, and immune suppression; long-acting beta agonists (Serevent, Advair, Symbicort, Foradil) increase risk of severe exacerbations and death; and leukotriene-modifying drugs (Singulair, Accolate, Zyflo) carry label warnings linking them with anxiety, aggression, depression, and suicide.

I am not suggesting you throw out your meds. Asthma is a serious condition that affects 26 million Americans, including almost 10 percent of our children. Every year, it is responsible for 17 million visits to doctors’ offices or emergency rooms, half a million hospitalizations, and nearly 3,500 deaths. Scientists are perplexed about asthma’s rapid rise in recent years, particularly in kids, and have postulated causal links with everything from increased use of acetaminophen and lower vitamin D levels to all the vaccines that are forced on our children.

Nevertheless, embracing a handful of natural therapies can help prevent and almost certainly minimize severe episodes and reduce reliance on drugs.

Triggers and Nutrients

First, know your triggers. This may take some sleuthing because everybody’s are different. For some, it’s exercise, weather changes, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), dehydration, or even laughter; for others, it’s irritants such as smoke, strong odors, or air pollution. Flare-ups can also be caused by an allergic response, most commonly to airborne pollen, pet dander, dust mites, etc., but food allergies can also cause exacerbations.

Second, beef up your nutritional regimen. Harvard researchers found that children with a low vitamin D blood level were 50 percent more likely to suffer severe attacks than those with normal levels. Antioxidants, including vitamin C, selenium, and zinc, are also often depleted in people with asthma. And because inflammation is a primary underlying mechanism, I recommend taking high doses of fish oil in addition to supplementing with these vitamins and minerals.

But of all the nutritional supplements that help patients with asthma, one stands out like a searchlight in the desert at night: magnesium. Magnesium helps keep the airways open by decreasing bronchial reactivity and relaxing the smooth muscles of the bronchioles. Deficiencies in this mineral are extremely common in asthmatics, and studies suggest that the lower the level, the greater the risk of exacerbations.

Hello, Magnesium; Goodbye, Drugs

Intravenous magnesium sulfate can stop an asthma attack in its tracks, although use of this natural, non-drug therapy is routinely ignored in emergency rooms. Fortunately, oral magnesium is also an excellent therapy for preventing asthma flare-ups, as illustrated by Health & Healing subscriber K.M.’s story.

“I have had asthma since I was a child, and for much of my adult life I was on large doses of oral asthma medications, two inhalers, and, at times, steroids. Despite all these drugs, I was unable to stem the attacks and would sometimes have more than 20 a day! Between attacks, things should return to normal, but when you have such a severe problem, you’re always worried about it coming back.

“I am an RN and was a nursing administrator in a large HMO, a job I loved and was successful in. I had access to every type of specialist, but despite very good care, I was unable to break the asthmatic grip, and I ultimately had to retire early.

“Then I started following advice I read about in your newsletter: I began using magnesium. Over time, my wheezing, tightness in the chest, and shortness of breath began to disappear, and for the past two and a half years, I have been completely free of any asthma symptoms. I still take an allergy pill, but I no longer need oral asthma medications or inhalers. I feel like God has given me a reprieve.”

Raise Your CO2 Level

One of the best things about magnesium is its availability and cost: You can find it in any health food store for pennies a day. But here’s another therapy that’s even less expensive.

Anytime you feel an asthma episode coming on, hold your breath for five to 10 seconds. This causes an increase in levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the body’s most powerful bronchodilators. When CO2 levels are low, the airways constrict, causing shortness of breath and other symptoms of asthma. Raising CO2 in this way relaxes the airways and often nips attacks in the bud. Repeat this breath-holding exercise until you’re breathing freely again.

In my opinion, these natural therapies are far superior to any of the medications currently used. But don’t hold your breath waiting for your doctor to tell you about them—they’re not drugs.


  • Make a concerted effort to identify and avoid asthma triggers such as airborne and food allergens, pollutants, dehydration, and GERD.
  • Take 500–1,000 mg of magnesium per day. Have your vitamin D blood level checked, and supplement with enough D3 to bring it into the optimal range of 50–80 ng/mL. I also recommend a good daily multivitamin and 6–8 g of fish oil, 30 mg of zinc, 200 mcg of selenium, and 2–5 g of vitamin C. Look for these supplements in health food stores, online, or order by calling (800) 810-6655.
  • When you feel an asthma attack coming on, hold your breath for 5–10 seconds (after inhaling or exhaling, whichever is more comfortable for you). Repeat as needed.
  • To schedule an appointment at the Whitaker Wellness Institute, call (866) 944-8253 or click here.


  • Brehm JM, et al. Serum vitamin D levels and severe asthma exacerbations in the Childhood Asthma Management Program study. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010 Jul;126(1):52–58.
  • Gaby AR. Nutritional Medicine. 2011. Fritz Perlberg Publishing, Concord, NH. 362–374.
  • Mohammed S, et al. Intravenous and nebulised magnesium sulphate for acute asthma: systematic review and meta-analysis. Emerg Med J. 2007 Dec;24(12):823–830.

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.

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