Complementary therapies and asthma

Which complementary therapies are worth trying for your asthma and which aren’t?

Complementary therapies are therapies you may decide to try alongside your usual asthma treatments.  

Although there hasn’t been a huge amount of research into complementary therapies and asthma, there are some therapies that can help with your asthma, and others that can help with stress.

“We know some people with asthma are keen to try different therapies, to see if they can help with their symptoms. Just be aware that everyone can have different experiences with different therapies,” says Dr Andy Whittamore, Asthma UK’s in-house GP. “Something that works for a friend with asthma may not work for you.”

Complementary therapies and asthma: 4 essential tips

If you fancy trying a complementary therapy to help your asthma or manage triggers like anxiety or stress, make sure you cut any risks by:

  1. Taking your asthma medicines alongside any therapy you choose
  2. Being open with your GP or asthma nurse about anything you’re trying or thinking of trying, so you can check if the therapy is suitable for you or your medicines
  3. Choosing a practitioner with recognised qualifications and professional membership
  4. Letting the practitioner know you have asthma before you start.

“Complementary therapies should only ever be an ‘add on’ to your existing asthma treatment,” says Dr Andy Whittamore. “Taking your preventer inhaler as prescribed – even if you feel well – keeps down the inflammation in your airways. And it means you’re less at risk of symptoms and an attack when you come across different triggers.”

Breathing techniques to help your asthma

There’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that doing breathing exercises like Buteyko can mean fewer asthma symptoms and not needing to use your reliever inhaler as often.

You still need to take your preventer medicine as prescribed to help with inflammation in your airways.

The Buteyko method aims to reduce asthma symptoms by teaching you how to breathe slowly and gently through your nose rather than your mouth. This keeps the air warm and moist and your airways less sensitive.

The Papworth method teaches you how to breathe using your nose and diaphragm (the muscle under your ribs). It’s taught by physiotherapists and includes relaxation training and how to develop breathing patterns to suit whatever activity you’re doing.  

Getting started on breathing exercises

Breathing retraining is not a quick fix: it takes a bit of time and commitment to learn the techniques and put them into practice.

You can ask your GP or asthma nurse about what’s available in your area. Also, research has shown that following a programme of breathing exercises at home can work just as well for some people with asthma as going to see a physiotherapist. Check out the Breathing Freely website

Therapies to help manage stress

Stress is a common asthma trigger. As well as talking therapies, there are quite a few different treatments to choose from to help you deal with stress and anxiety.

Yoga

There’s good evidence to say that yoga can help with stress and flexibility and could improve quality of life. Because of this there’s a good chance it could benefit your asthma indirectly, bringing down stress levels which can bring on symptoms. 

There have been some studies on yoga breathing too (known as pranayama), which suggest it might be helpful for asthma symptoms. But more research is needed to confirm this, and at the moment asthma guidelines feel there’s not enough to recommend it.

Yoga teacher Julia explains how yoga is helpful for asthma

After losing her sister to asthma and being diagnosed herself, Julia White began practising yoga to help manage her symptoms.

Video: Yoga teacher Julia explains how yoga is helpful for asthma

After losing her sister to asthma and being diagnosed herself, Julia White began practising yoga to help manage her symptoms.
Transcript for ‘Yoga teacher Julia explains how yoga is helpful for asthma’

0:00 I’m Julia White. I’m a yoga teacher and aromatherapist, and I specialise in teaching yoga to people with asthma.

0:06 When I was younger, growing up, my younger sister had asthma and it was managed,

0:11 but she used to get quite bad asthma attacks so either the doctor would be called out or she would be hospitalised.

0:17 And then, one day, she had an asthma attack. She was at home alone and she had to call the ambulance.

0:23 The ambulance came, they tried to revive her and they couldn’t so she died of an asthma attack at the age of seventeen.

0:28 At the age of thirty, I was then diagnosed with asthma myself.

0:33 Obviously, went to the doctor, got diagnosed, was given various inhalers, managed it that way,

0:39 but then realised I had to do something about it myself, as well as taking my medications.

0:46 And that’s when I decided to take a really hard look at my life and decided to train to become a yoga teacher.

0:54 The good thing about yoga is that anyone can do yoga. You know, yoga isn’t just an exercise.

0:59 The most important part for me is the breathing.

1:01 If you can connect with your breath, and move with your breath, then that’s essentially what yoga is.

1:09 And the other thing is the posture; because when we have asthma attacks, and you hunch and obviously,

1:16 if you are like this, it’s really hard to breathe properly because your chest and your diaphragm are really hunched over.

1:23 So, the other thing with yoga is the posture, so it helps open up the chest, which helps to open up the breathing.

1:30 So, if you’ve got asthma and you want to do yoga, then the first thing you need to do is, one, go to your GP and make sure your medications are up to date.

1:40 And then, the other thing you need to do is, wherever you do yoga, whether it’s at home or whether you’re going to a studio or class or whatever,

1:46 just make sure you have your blue reliever inhaler right next to you on your yoga mat.

1:50 And, lastly, you need to make sure that your written asthma action plan is up to date as well.

1:55 Five, ten minutes a day - it’s your space to become calm, to become relaxed, to practise some breathing, practise a few postures.

2:05 And just those five, ten minutes a day can make such a big difference to how you manage your asthma, and to your daily life.

Massage therapy

Not only do lots of people use and enjoy massage therapy, studies say it’s great for reducing stress. This makes it a good choice for you if you’ve noticed stress or anxiety triggering your asthma symptoms.

There are lots of different types of massage therapy, so pick the one that suits you. But whatever type you choose remember to let the practitioner know you have asthma.

This is especially important if they’re using a massage oil with essential oils in. These contain VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) which can trigger asthma symptoms for some people with asthma who are sensitive to strong scents and perfumes.

If you’re sensitive to scents and perfumes ask the practitioner to use an unperfumed base massage oil and to avoid using scented oil burners, candles or incense in the room. It’s a good idea to mention this when you arrange your appointment.

Mindfulness

There are quite a few studies showing that people with long term conditions, including asthma, benefit from improved wellbeing and reduced stress using regular mindfulness techniques.

Mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment and what you're doing right now. 

The Mental Health Foundation offers an online learning course that you can do at your own pace.

Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy can be an effective relaxation treatment for anxiety and panic disorder, which are asthma triggers.

It’s also a treatment some people choose to help them quit smoking.

“Giving up smoking is one of the most important things you can do to manage your asthma well and hypnotherapy works well for some people,” says Dr Andy Whittamore. “But current advice says the quickest and most effective way to quit is with stop smoking medicines and stop smoking support services.”

Therapies where more evidence is needed

You may have come across chats or claims online that talk about vitamins, salt therapies and CBD oil being the answer for asthma. However, there’s not always enough convincing evidence to recommend them. 

Vitamin D 

Low levels of Vitamin D have been linked to asthma attacks in both adults and children. There’s been some interesting research looking at the effects of Vitamin D on asthma control, with one study finding that taking it reduced the risk of asthma attacks.

However, this was a small study, and more research is needed to know who might benefit most, and what dose of Vitamin D can make a difference to people with asthma.

There's also more research needed into how Vitamin D supports the immune system. This could mean fewer colds and infections making asthma symptoms worse. 

Asthma UK is funding more research into vitamin D to see if it can help people with steroid-resistant asthma get more benefits from their steroid treatments.

“People with difficult to control asthma can consider asking their GP for a blood test to check their Vitamin D levels. If Vitamin D is low they can get advice on replacing it,”  says Dr Andy Whittamore.

“Vitamin D (along with calcium) is also important for keeping bones healthy,” says Dr Andy Whittamore. “Since women with asthma are more likely to develop osteoporosis, your GP may talk to you about taking a supplement if you’re at risk.”

Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves putting very fine needles into specific points on the body.

More research is needed to show any direct benefits to asthma.

Homeopathy

Homeopathy aims to trigger the body’s self-healing response using very small doses of things that cause symptoms.

The latest guidelines on the management of asthma say there isn’t enough evidence to recommend homeopathy for people with asthma.

Salt pipes and salt caves

Salt therapies involve breathing in tiny salt particles, either through salt pipes or in salt health resorts.  

“There’s very little evidence to support the use of salt pipes or saline therapy to treat asthma. There hasn’t been a lot of quality research in this area, and what there has been doesn’t recommend it.” says Dr Andy Whittamore. “And there’s also the risk that salt caves could trigger tightening of the airways.”

CBD oils

There’s been quite a lot of interest in cannabis products recently, particularly CBD oils.

There are some very early studies around medicinal cannabis and asthma which suggest it might be able to reduce inflammation, but it will be some time before research is clear enough for experts to make any recommendations for asthma.

“CBD oils, which are sold in health food shops as supplements, are unlikely to have any benefits to your asthma,” says Dr Andy Whittamore. “And there is a risk that they could be ‘impure’ and contain THC which is the chemical in cannabis that gets you high.”

Risk alerts – watch out for these if you have asthma

Royal jelly and propolis – risk of asthma attacks

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, we still advise caution and recommend 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.

Herbal remedies

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.

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.

Need more advice?

Talk to our friendly Helpline nurses about your asthma on 0300 222 5800 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm). Or you can WhatsApp them on 07378 606 728 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm).

 

Last updated June 2019

Next review due June 2022