Ask ten different allergists about the cause of asthma and you may get twenty different explanations. A nearly mind-boggling number of causes have been proposed: dust, dust mites, cockroaches, house mice, wall-to-wall carpeting, central heating, gas stoves, overly sealed (insulated) buildings, candida yeast infections, pollen, and food allergies. In addition, some people blame urban air pollution. While air pollution certainly can trigger asthmatic attacks, urban air pollution has generally declined, while the number of people with asthma has increased. The same pattern is true with secondhand cigarette smoke, which can increase the risk of asthma in children—but fewer people are smoking, and the rate of asthma continues to rise. Others point the finger at the widespread use of antibacterial cleansers or antibiotics, both of which might reduce routine expo sures to bacteria and interfere with the normal programming of immune systems.
All of the above factors can trigger asthmatic reactions in sensitive people. So can a host of other factors, including exercise, cold air, aspirin, sulfites (a preservative used in wines, beers, and some salad bars), and tar-trazine (a yellow coloring used in some foods and drugs). In addition, emotional stress can induce asthmatic reactions in some people, and being overweight predisposes some people to asthma.
Like a fish that does not realize it is living in polluted waters, many people with asthma and many allergists don't understand that they are essentially swimming in a polluted diet. The modern diet, which is high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 and trans fatty acids and low in antioxidants, sets the stage for asthmatic reactions. In effect, asthma is one of many diseases of modern civilization and modern eating habits.
People with asthma tend to have higher than normal levels of free radicals, which stimulate inflammatory reactions and also indicate low intakes of antioxidant nutrients. Several studies have found that both children and adults have better lung function and are less likely to wheeze when they eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, the main dietary sources of an-tioxidants. Breast-feeding also may reduce the risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. J. Stewart Forsyth, M.D., of Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, Scotland, noted in the British Medical Journal that "nutritional deficiencies at critical periods of fetal and infant growth may induce permanent changes in physiological function."
Other research points to inadequate levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fish oils in the diet. A study of almost six hundred children by Ann J. Woolcock, M.D., of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Australia, found that those who regularly ate fresh fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids had one-fourth the risk of asthma, compared with children who ate little or no fish. In a separate article, Jennifer K. Peat, Ph.D., a colleague of Woolcock's, noted that the increase of childhood asthma corresponded with a fivefold increase in the use of vegetable oils (rich in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids) and a shift to using margarine instead of butter. Similar changes have occured in New Zealand, England, and the United States.
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