Air Pollution, Asthma & Fish

A former co-worker of mine had fairly severe asthma and carried an inhaler with him everywhere he went. He had to be careful about physical exertion of any kind, which was a downer for him as he loved sports, hiking and yard work. Over the years, as his asthma grew worse, he had to give up his sports and hiking and then limit his yard work to minor tasks.

One day at work he had an asthma attack which required medical attention. Afterwards he described it as when you get hit in the stomach, knocking out all of your air and you find it very difficult to breathe. However, unlike getting hit in the stomach, the ability to breathe again doesn’t readily come back after a few moments and without medical attention, one could pass out due to lack of oxygen.

Asthma is a lung disease that is best described as the swelling or inflammation of the airways in and out of the lungs. In severe cases, the swelling and inflammation is constant, but with many people, it is triggered by various things such as cold air, dust, certain chemicals, smoke, pet dander and air pollution.

I have mild asthma but for the most part, it is not problematic. However, I cannot walk through the soap and detergent aisle in a store without finding myself short of breath. The same thing happens in a candle store or when someone near me wears a certain perfume or too much of a perfume. Over the past decade, pet dander also takes my breath away. At this time of year, I look forward to warmer weather that will allow us to open up our windows and bring in some fresh air. However, this is also the time of year that people in the area begin burning their tree and yard trimmings from the winter and I find that the smoke also leaves me a little short of breath.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America:

  • There is no cure for asthma, but it can be managed with proper prevention of asthma attacks and treatment.
  • More Americans than ever before have asthma. It is one of this country’s most common and costly diseases.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 13 people have asthma.
  • More than 26 million Americans have asthma. This is 8.3 percent of adults and 8.3 percent of children. Asthma has been increasing since the early 1980s in all ages, sex and racial groups.
  • Asthma is more common in adult women than adult men.
  • African-Americans in the U.S. die from asthma at a higher rate than people of other races or ethnicities.
  • Asthma is the leading chronic disease in children.
  • Asthma is more common in children than adults.
  • Asthma is more common in boys than girls.
  • Currently, there are about 6 million children under the age of 18 with asthma.
  • In 2015, 1 in 12 children had asthma.
  • It is the top reason for missed school days. In 2013, about 13.8 million missed school days were reported due to asthma.
  • In 2015, 47.5 percent of children age 18 and younger who had asthma reported having one or more asthma attacks in the past year.
  • According to the CDC, asthma episodes have declined in children from all races and ethnicities from 2001 through 2016.
  • In 2016, about 50 percent of children under the age of 5 with asthma had an episode.
  • Emergency department and urgent care center visits are highest among Black children under 4 years old.
  • Asthma accounts for 14.2 million doctor’s office visits, 439,000 discharges from hospital inpatient care and 1.8 million emergency department visits each year.
  • Asthma is the third-ranking cause of hospitalization among children younger than 15.
  • Each day, ten Americans die from asthma, and in 2015, 3,615 people died from asthma. Many of these deaths are avoidable with proper treatment and care.
  • Adults are four times more likely to die from asthma than children.
  • Women are more likely to die from asthma than men and boys are more likely than girls.
  • African-Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma.
  • African-Americans are three times more likely to be hospitalized from asthma.

Depending on the severity and type of asthma one has, treatment can range from just an inhaler to oral medications and supplemental oxygen.

Some experts believe that the rise in asthma cases could be due to diet, lack of activity and increased air pollution. The aspect of air pollution led one group of researchers at Johns Hopkins University to look at various ways to reduce the impact of air pollution on asthma sufferers. Through their research, they found a simple dietary key – fish. Not just any fish, but those rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, trout and sardines. Additionally, there are several plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnuts and flaxseed.

As we eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, our bodies break the fatty acids down, producing a byproduct known as ‘pro-resolving mediators’. The mediators find their way to the lungs where they help reduce the inflammation and swelling of the airways, thus helping to reduce the effects of asthma.

How does this relate to air pollution? According to this report:

“Given this anti-inflammatory effect, Brigham and her colleagues had a hunch that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help attenuate the effects of air pollution on kids’ symptoms. To study this, they tracked the diets and indoor air pollution levels (from sources including smoke, dust and allergens) in the homes of 135 children, mostly African-American and all with asthma, in Baltimore, Md.”

“They measured two types of indoor air pollution, made up of different sizes of particulate matter: PM2.5 (fine inhalable particles that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller), and the somewhat larger PM10. These particulates are all too small for us to see, but they can make their way into our airways, and the smaller size — PM2.5 — can lodge deeply inside our lungs.”

“‘What we found was that higher reported-intake of omega-3 was linked to reduced effects of indoor particulate matter on symptoms,’ Brigham says. ‘Kids who were eating more omega-3’s seemed to be more resilient to the effects of PM’.”

“Brigham and her team also assessed the intake of omega-6 fatty acids that are found in vegetables oils, and are abundant in many processed foods that contain oil. Typically, Americans eat far more omega-6 acids compared to omega-3’s, and this was true of all the kids in the Baltimore study, too. And, the study found that children who consumed the most omega 6 fatty acids had more severe asthma symptoms.”

For your information, foods higher in omega-6 fatty acids, that appear to worsen asthma, include: most vegetable oils, whole-grain bread, durum wheat, nuts, eggs, poultry, hulled sesame seeds and many cereals.

If you or someone in your family suffers from asthma, you many want to increase the amount of salmon, trout, sardines, walnuts and flaxseeds you consume and cut back on those foods with omega-6 fatty acids.

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