Despite the best efforts of doctors and scientists, statistics show that some medical conditions continue to grow more common and troublesome. One such ailment is childhood asthma; rates of this condition have roughly doubled over the last decade, and it now affects about one in five children in the UK. With such statistics in mind, I am ever vigilant for any new understanding about what causes asthma in children. Recently, I was interested to learn of research suggesting that two thirds of childhood asthma attacks are brought on by laughing fits, tickling or excitement. It has long been known that asthma may be triggered by factors such as exercise, cold air and allergies. However, the apparent link between asthma and merriment is a new one on me. It appears, for young asthmatics at least, that laughter turns out not to be the best medicine at all.
Interesting though it is, knowledge of a relationship between asthma and laughter is unlikely to be of much practical help for children afflicted by this condition. The good news is that work in the field of nutritional medicine appears to be offering useful strategies in this respect. There is increasing evidence that the consumption of certain fats in the diet may an important causative factor in asthma. The fats being viewed with some suspicion in this respect are the so-called omega-6 fats found in many fast foods, baked goods, vegetable oils and margarines. The processing and heating of omega-6 fats can damage them, leading to the development of what are known as partially hydrogenated or ‘trans’ fats. Within the body, omega-6 and trans fats have the ability to encourage inflammation; itself a key underlying process in the lung constriction that is characteristic of asthma.
Several studies have suggested a link between omega-6 and trans fats and asthma. A German study published in 1999 found that the higher the intake of trans fat, the greater the risk of asthma. Other research has shown that increasing consumption of omega-6 fat in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Sates and the UK has been accompanied by substantial rise in the prevalence of asthma in children. Some researchers are speculating that the trans fats pervading so much of Western diet are helping to fuel the epidemic of asthma witnessed in recent years.
Happily, it appears that not all fats increase the risk of asthma. Fats of what is known as the omega-3 class (found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring and sardines) actually have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, and may therefore help to keep asthma symptoms at bay. Interestingly, countries where consumption of omega-3 oils is high and omega-6 fats is low (such as Mediterranean and Scandinavian nations) also enjoy low rates of asthma. Plus, research has also found that asthma symptoms appear to be better controlled in children who eat oily fish. Including some oily fish in the diet therefore seems a good ploy for children affected by asthma. At the same time, it makes sense to limit consumption of foods rich in omega-6 and trans fats including fast, processed and convenience foods.
Another factor that appears to be of significance in asthma is food sensitivity. Research has shown that unwanted reactions to specific foods may be an underlying factor in a significant proportion of cases of childhood asthma. While any food can create problems in this respect, my experience tells me that the most common culprits are dairy products (particularly milk and cheese) and wheat. Alternative foods include rice milk (this comes in a calcium fortified version), oatcakes and oat and corn-based breakfast cereals. In clinical practice, I often find a diet free of dairy product and wheat often helps to control asthma symptoms within a few weeks.