If you've used a complementary treatment for your asthma, or if you fancy giving one a go, you're joining a growing number of people who have an interest in this area. Maybe you've read about various remedies for asthma on the internet or you know someone who swears by a treatment they've tried. But how do you know what's worth trying for your asthma and what's not? Here's the latest information...
Treatments such as the Buteyko Breathing Technique, yoga, acupuncture, homeopathy and hypnotherapy are usually referred to as complementary therapies not alternative therapies. This is because it's always best to use them alongside (to complement) your prescribed medicines not instead of them (as an alternative).
The trouble is, complementary therapies haven't been studied as much as conventional medicines, so there's not very much scientific evidence to show they work or that they're even safe.
Always check with your GP or asthma nurse before trying a new complementary therapy.
Never stop taking your usual asthma medicines unless your GP or asthma nurse advises you to do so. This is because stopping your asthma medicines can cause your asthma symptoms to get worse and increase your risk of having an asthma attack.
The latest guidelines used by many healthcare professionals (BTS/SIGN 2014) for the management of asthma say that using breathing exercise programmes, such as the Buteyko Method or the Papworth Method, alongside your usual prescribed medicine may help to reduce asthma symptoms, reduce the amount of medicines needed and improve quality of life for some people.
The Buteyko Breathing Technique
The Buteyko Breathing Technique (BBT), named after the Russian professor who developed it, is a system of breathing exercises and lifestyle recommendations about exercise, nutrition and sleeping. The Buteyko Breathing Association says BBT aims to reduce asthma symptoms by teaching people how to breathe slowly and gently through the nose rather than the mouth, which can dry out the airways and make them more sensitive. Some Buteyko teachers believe BBT works by raising carbon dioxide levels, which they believe can be low in people with asthma. There's no conclusive evidence to support this idea.
"The biggest difference for me is that I get fewer respiratory infections, and when I do get them they are usually less severe." Sandra Morison
The Buteyko Breathing Association 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.
The Papworth Method
Taught by physiotherapists to patients with asthma since the 1960s, The Papworth Method is a breathing and relaxation technique. It involves learning to breathe in a certain way using the nose and diaphragm (the main muscle you use to breathe you can feel it under your ribcage when you take breaths in and out) and developing breathing patterns to suit whatever activity you're doing. The teaching includes relaxation training and suggestions to help you fit the exercises into every life. At least five hours of training are recommended. Ask your GP or asthma nurse for details of what's available in your area.
There are lots of different holistic therapies around - in leisure centres, gyms, health clubs, wellbeing centres and spas. If you're planning to try any of them, speak to your GP or asthma nurse first.
Yoga uses a variety of postures and breathing techniques to help increase flexibility and fitness, and to aid relaxation. An ancient Hindu practice, yoga is now popular with many Hollywood stars as well as millions of people all over the world.
Many yoga teachers teach breathing exercises. The latest BTS/SIGN guidelines on the management of asthma say there's currently not enough evidence on yoga breathing techniques to recommend them. But some studies have found that these exercises help people with asthma have fewer asthma attacks and to react less to certain triggers. It's also thought that practicing yoga helps people with asthma by reducing stress (which can be a trigger for asthma symptoms), but more research is needed to confirm this.
Hypnotherapy, also known as hypnosis, works by helping someone reach a very relaxed state where they are open to positive suggestions about how to think, feel or behave differently. Trials have shown that hypnotherapy may help muscle relaxation, which could help people with asthma. The latest BTS/SIGN guidelines on the management of asthma conclude that more research is needed, though.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation, or mental training, where you focus on what’s happening inside your mind and body in the present moment. In theory it can be practised anywhere, at any time but the simplest way is to find a quiet place and sit with your eyes shut so you can pay full attention to your thoughts, feelings and the sensations in your body, including your breathing.
By taking time out to focus on yourself, regular mindfulness is thought to calm the mind and improve concentration. And it’s been found that regular practice might be good for people with asthma because of the stress-relieving benefits. If you choose to try mindfulness to complement your asthma care, the Mental Health Foundation offers an online learning course that you can do at your own pace.
Based on ancient Chinese theories, acupuncture involves putting very fine needles into specific points on the body. This aims to encourage a healthy flow of the person's natural energy, or 'life force' around pathways in the body.
The latest BTS/SIGN guidelines on the management of asthma say that no long-term benefits have been proven and that more research is needed before acupuncture can be recommended.
If you choose to have acupuncture, make sure your acupuncturist is properly qualified and practises the treatment under safe and hygienic conditions. You can also check that they're registered with the British Acupuncture Council.
Salt rooms (speleotherapy) and salt pipes
Speleotherapy involves spending time in a salt mine or specially built salt room. Salt pipes are gadgets you use at home. Various claims have been made to explain why using these therapies to breathe in tiny salt particles can improve the symptoms of asthma. The latest BTS/SIGN guidelines on the management of asthma don't mention salt pipes or speleotherapy as there isn't any scientific evidence to show that either may help asthma.
Homeopathy aims to trigger the body's self-healing response using very small doses of things that cause symptoms. Some studies have shown that homeopathy can be helpful for people with asthma, but the latest BTS/SIGN guidelines on the management of asthma says there isn't enough evidence to recommend homeopathy for people with asthma.
There are various small studies and theories to show that taking extra dietary supplements can help to reduce asthma symptoms. Vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids have all been under the spotlight, but the latest BTS/SIGN guidelines on the management of asthma says there isn't enough evidence to recommend any of them for people with asthma.
In herbal medicine, plants or parts of plants that contain active ingredients or chemicals are used to treat illness. Some studies have found that some herbal medicines can help reduce asthma symptoms. Although some herbs may be worth further investigation, the latest BTS/SIGN guidelines on the management of asthma says their effects are not yet fully understood and cannot be recommended for people with asthma.
If you're planning to try herbal medicine, it's very important to seek advice from your GP or asthma nurse first because some herbs have been shown to have serious side effects. The herbal medicine St John's Wort, for example, must not be used by anyone taking theophylline (a long-acting reliever treatment prescribed for some people with asthma) as it can reduce the effectiveness of the medicine and cause asthma symptoms to get worse.
A word of caution about royal jelly...
Royal jelly and propolis are both made by bees. There is evidence that taking royal jelly has caused very serious side effects in some people with asthma who have 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're thinking about taking them we strongly suggest you discuss it with your GP or asthma nurse first.
The latest BTS/SIGN guidelines on the management of asthma states very clearly that air ionisers are not recommended for the treatment of asthma.
You can find more useful information about complementary therapies at www.nhs.uk/livewell
Last updated April 2016
Next review due April 2019