Asthma and Gut Health: What's the Connection?
If you're wondering what a disease of the lungs would have to do with your gut, you're not alone. But recent studies are finding that there might indeed be a strong connection between asthma and your gut health.
I'm a retired registered nurse (RN) who was educated in the 70s. Back then, there was no talk of gut health or even much about our immune system. But in the past 15 to 20 years, experts have become much more aware of how important our gut really is to our overall health.
Gut health and immune systems
Your digestive tract, also known as your gut, is home to trillions of tiny microorganisms, including:
- Fungi, i.e., yeast
These tiny organisms are known as your microbiome. Some of them play a beneficial role in your health, while others are more harmful and interfere with the functioning of your immune system. That can affect how well your body fights illness and disease.
You're probably familiar with the role your gut plays in the digestion of the food you eat. But there is more and more evidence that gut microbes may also influence our health in other ways too. Poor gut health has been linked in studies to such diverse health issues as:
Research is also being done to examine the role of gut health in a variety of autoimmune diseases. Finally, studies have also linked the risk for developing allergy and asthma to gut health.
We still do not know for sure what causes asthma, but experts have identified a number of factors that seem to put a child at greater risk for developing asthma. These include:
- Family history of allergy and asthma
- Respiratory infections, especially if treated with antibiotics
- Maternal smoking while pregnant
- Poor or unstable asthma control in the mother while pregnant
- Cesarean birth (i.e., c-section)
- Presence of eczema (skin allergy) or other allergic conditions
The Hygiene Hypothesis connects gut health to asthma risk. It theorizes that exposure to certain germs early in life actually conditions the gut to know what are "good" bacteria vs. "bad" bacteria and to react accordingly.
This is why children born by c-section who are not exposed to bacteria in the birth canal might be at greater risk for asthma. Taking antibiotics, which kill off all bacteria, not just the bad germs might also predispose infants to asthma.
However, this hypothesis remains to be definitely proven.
Another school of thought points to the fact that the role of our gut bacteria in the development of our immune systems has been well-documented by numerous studies. Since asthma, by definition, is a disease with a hyper-responsive immune system, it follows that if poor gut health affects the immune system, then it might also lead to asthma.
Research is still limited in this area, but suggests that if we do not develop the right bacteria early in life to sensitize our bodies correctly, this may set up an "asthma-friendly" body. More research is needed, but this is an area to keep a watch on, for sure.
Asthma treatment approaches
So, you might be wondering if improving your own gut health (or that of your children) can make a difference in your asthma?
This is an interesting question, and unfortunately, there are no definite answers as yet. You'll find many claims on the Internet that taking daily probiotic supplements will treat, or even cure, asthma. Probiotics are also known as "friendly bacteria." They do occur naturally in the body, but can also be boosted by taking a supplement.
Before you get too excited, there is no proof that taking a probiotic supplement will improve your asthma. Early research may show some promising results, but it is far from conclusive. Still, improving your gut health can be beneficial to your overall health. That's something we do know. And when you're healthier overall, there's a better chance of keeping your asthma under control too.
Tips for better gut health
- Improve your diet. Eating a diverse range of foods, which includes raw fruits and vegetables, legumes (beans) and fermented foods can help boost the friendly bacteria in your gut.
- Reduce your sugar intake. Eating lots of sweets and other types of carbohydrates can increase the amount of yeast in your gut. Yeast inhibits the good bacteria. Artificial sweeteners are not your friend either. Best to work on that sweet tooth altogether!
- Limit antibiotic usage. Don't get me wrong -- antibiotics serve an important role in treating bacterial infection. Unfortunately, they are often over-used. Don't neglect your symptoms, but you also don't need to take antibiotics every time you have a cough or a sniffle. And antibiotics cannot treat a viral infection.
It seems likely there is a connection between gut health and the risk of developing asthma in infants. There may also be a link between gut health and your level of asthma control. Taking care of your gut makes good sense in terms of overall health.
More research is needed, however, before we can be certain of the connection between asthma and your gut.
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