Many people with asthma are interested in trying treatments and therapies that may help their asthma rather than just relying on prescribed medicines.
Treatments and therapies such as yoga, acupuncture, homeopathy, hypnosis and Buteyko and other breathing techniques, are usually referred to as complementary therapies.
Because they haven’t been studied as much as conventional medicines, there is little scientific evidence to show that complementary therapies are effective especially when used on their own. That's why it's better to see them as 'complementary' and working alongside conventional medicines rather than as 'alternative' therapies. If you’re interested in trying one of the many complementary therapies available, it's a good idea to speak to your GP or asthma nurse first.
Complementary therapies and treatments should only ever be used alongside your prescribed medicines so it's very important that you don't stop taking your normal asthma medicines unless your GP advises you to. This is because suddenly stopping your asthma medicines can lead to your asthma symptoms getting worse and increase your risk of having an asthma attack.
Breathing and relaxation techniques
Breathing exercise programmes, such as the Papworth Method or the Buteyko Method, can be used alongside your regular asthma medicine to help reduce symptoms, reduce reliever use and improve quality of life.
The Papworth Method
Taught by physiotherapists to patients with asthma since the 1960s, The Papworth Method is a breathing and relaxation technique. It involves specific breathing using the diaphragm, emphasising nose breathing, and the development of a breathing pattern to suit current activity. It is accompanised by relaxation training and education to help people include the exercises into their daily activities. At least five hours of training are recommended.
The Buteyko Breathing Technique
- The Buteyko Breathing Technique (BBT), named after the Russian professor who developed it, is a system of breathing exercises and recommendations around exercise, nutrition and sleeping aimed at reducing asthma symptoms by teaching people to breathe more slowly and gently through the nose rather than the mouth.
- It is widely believed that many people with asthma breathe too fast and that this can make asthma symptoms worse.
- The Buteyko breathing association believe the BBT works by teaching people how to breathe correctly, including how to control breathing and avoid harsh mouth breathing, which can dry the airways out and make them more sensitive. Some Buteyko teachers believe that the BBT works solely by raising carbon dioxide levels, which they believe can be low in people with asthma; however there is no conclusive evidence to support this.
- The British Thorasic Society/Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (BTS/SIGN) Guideline on the Management of Asthma is a set of nationally agreed recommendations on how asthma should be treated, and they are based on up-to-date research and evidence. The Buteyko Breathing Technique is included in the asthma guidelines as a technique that may be used to help control asthma symptoms when used alongside conventional medicine.
Research into the Buteyko Breathing Technique
There has been little research published in medical journals about the Buteyko technique. This makes detailed comment difficult.
- A Cochrane Review of breathing exercises found no improvement in lung function. However, four clinical trials have suggested that breathing exercises can lead to a reduction in asthma symptoms and reduced use of a reliever inhaler.
- In 2003 (Cooper et al) Asthma UK funded research into the clinical effectiveness of the BBT as a complementary addition to conventional asthma treatment. This study showed that for some people with asthma, the use of the BBT helped to reduce their asthma symptoms and to reduce their use of a reliever inhaler; although no effect on the underlying asthma itself was found.
- The BBT may help people with asthma to feel more in control of their breathing and may be worth trying for those who are willing to commit the time required to learn the technique.
- More research is needed to identify if certain people with asthma benefit more than others.
- BBT can be expensive and this should be taken into account when considering it as an option.
- The Buteyko Breathing Assocation is a non-profit organisation committed to improving the health of people with asthma and other breathing related problems. See www.buteykobreathing.org for more details.
- Yoga is an ancient Hindu discipline that uses a variety of postures and breathing techniques to help to increase fitness and aid relaxation.
- One aspect of yoga, Pranayama, uses breathing exercises and has been studied with regard to asthma. These breathing exercises were found to be beneficial, with participants showing fewer asthma attacks and a higher tolerance to certain triggers.
- Simple relaxation techniques, which do not incorporate the philosophical aspects of yoga, have also been shown to have some benefit.
- It's uncertain whether yoga and breathing exercises help asthma by reducing stress (which can be a trigger) or by other physical effects. More research is needed to establish this.
- There’s currently not enough evidence on yoga breathing techniques to recommend them.
- Hypnosis involves creating a state of decreased general awareness that enables a person to concentrate exclusively on one thing or idea.
- Hypnosis has been shown to be beneficial in some cases, but not everyone is susceptible to hypnosis.
- Hypnosis may reduce stress, but it's not clear if it has other benefits.
- Acupuncture is a method of treatment that involves putting very fine needles in specific points on the body, based on Chinese theories of balancing the body's natural energies.
- Some studies have shown that acupuncture can be helpful for people with asthma in the short term. However, no long-term benefits have yet been shown and more research is needed before it can be recommended.
- It has been suggested that acupuncture may be effective for people with mild to moderate asthma.
- Acupuncture can sometimes cause some harmful effects. There are documented cases of people becoming very ill after acupuncture treatment usually as a result of infected needles or puncture injuries. To help protect yourself if you attend an acupuncturist, make sure they’re registered with the British Acupuncture Council.
Salt Pipes & Speleotherapy
- Several companies produce salt pipes, and each of them provides information about how they believe salt pipes work, but any 'research' they quote to back up their products is likely to have been done by the manufacturers themselves, so should be treated with caution.
- Speleotherapy involves spending time in a salt mine or specially built salt room. The claims made about how the therapy works are very similar to those made about salt pipes.
- As an independent charity, Asthma UK doesn't recommend particular products or services unless there is independent, objective, scientific research to back them up.
- The current British Thoracic Society/Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (BTS/SIGN) Guidelines on asthma management (2014) doesn't mention salt pipes or speleotherapy.
- At the moment there isn't scientific evidence to suggest that salt pipes or speleotherapy may help asthma.
- If you want to use these therapies we advise you to speak to your GP or asthma nurse first, and make sure that you continue with your usual prescribed asthma medicines.
- Homeopathy aims to trigger the body's self-healing response using very small doses of things that cause symptoms.
- In the case of asthma, homeopathic treatments are made from things that sometimes trigger an asthma attack, like pollen or weeds.
- The things that trigger symptoms are used in such tiny amounts that they're unlikely to cause an asthma attack.
- There isn't enough evidence to show that the usual forms of homeopathy for asthma are effective.
- If you want to use homeopathic treatments, we advise you to speak to your GP or asthma nurse first, and make sure that you continue with your usual prescribed asthma medicines.
Food avoidance and food supplements
A well balanced diet is best for everyone, including people with asthma.
- There is no convincing evidence that children or adults who already have asthma but no clear food allergy, will benefit from specialised diets that exclude specific foods. A balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables is most likely to improve your health, while excluding specific foods or food groups can be harmful. If you are thinking about trying this it's a good idea to speak to your GP or asthma nurse first.
- There is not enough evidence to recommend taking extra vitamins (especially vitamin C), magnesium and fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids) to help asthma.
- In herbal medicine, plants or parts of plants are used to treat illness.
- Although it is the most ancient form of medicine in the world, there are few studies published in medical journals showing benefits of using herbal medicines for asthma.
- Herbal medicines that have been suggested as potentially beneficial include coleus forskholii, ginkgo biloba, tylophora asthmatica and saiboku-to. But although these herbs have been suggested as worth further investigation, their effects are not fully understood and cannot be recommended without caution.
- It's very important to seek your GP’s advice before trying a herbal medicine because some herbal medicines have been shown to have serious side effects ranging from nausea to serious poisoning. Also, a herbal medicine called St John's Wort should not be used by people taking theophylline tablets (a long-acting reliever treatment prescribed for some people with asthma) as it can reduce the effectiveness of the medicine leading to asthma symptoms getting worse.
- Royal Jelly and propolis (sometimes referred to as bee glue) are products from bees.
- There is evidence that taking Royal Jelly has caused very serious side effects in some people with asthma and other allergies. These have included asthma attacks, breathing difficulties, anaphylactic shock (a life-threatening allergic reaction) and even death. Although serious side effects from propolis have not been documented in the same way as for Royal Jelly, caution is advised because they are both from bees.
- Asthma UK recommends that people with asthma and allergies should not take Royal Jelly or propolis. If you are thinking about taking them we strongly suggest you discuss it with your GP or asthma nurse first.
Air ionisers are not recommended for the treatment of asthma.
You can find some useful information about complementary therapies at www.nhs.uk/livewell
The British Complementary Medicine Association (BCMA) provides information about the Buteyko technique and other areas of complementary therapy.