Many people try complementary and alternative asthma treatments ranging from herbs to yoga. Discover which home remedies for asthma are most likely to work.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) asthma treatment ranges from breathing exercises to herbal remedies. Unfortunately, a lack of well-designed clinical trials makes it difficult to assess the safety and efficacy of these treatments. If you're considering CAM treatments for asthma, here's what you should know.

Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles into your skin at specific points on your body. Some studies suggest that asthma symptoms may improve with acupuncture, but more definitive studies are needed to fully assess the usefulness of acupuncture for treatment of asthma.

If you decide to try acupuncture, work with an experienced, licensed acupuncturist, preferably one who is also a medical doctor.

Breathing techniques used for asthma, including the Buteyko breathing technique and yoga breathing (pranayama), are aimed at reducing hyperventilation and regulating breathing. They don't seem to improve the underlying allergic reaction that causes asthma symptoms. In some studies, however, people who did breathing exercises reported improvement in symptoms.

Herbal remedies have been used for thousands of years to treat lung problems in Asia. Some have shown promise in research, but more studies are needed.

Traditional Chinese, Indian and Japanese medicine usually involves using blends of herbs. Taking certain herbs in combination may be more effective than taking only one herb.

Use caution with herbal remedies and always discuss the use of herbs or dietary supplements with your doctor. Consider these concerns before taking any herbal remedy:

  • Quality and dose. The content of herbal remedies is often not standardized and may vary in quality and potency. Herbal remedies may contain ingredients that aren't listed, and they may contain contaminants.
  • Side effects. Side effects caused by herbal supplements can range from minor to severe, and depend on the herb and the dose you take. Be especially cautious of herbal asthma remedies that contain ephedra or ephedra-like substances, which may cause high blood pressure and have been linked to heart attack and stroke. Examples include ma-huang (banned in the United States) and bitter orange.
  • Drug interactions. Certain herbal remedies can interact with other medications.

These concerns don't necessarily mean trying an herbal treatment is a bad idea — you just need to be careful. Talk to your doctor before taking an herbal remedy to make sure it's safe for you.

Besides massage, relaxation therapy techniques include meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis and progressive muscle relaxation. It's unclear whether any of these techniques directly help with asthma, but they do seem to reduce stress and promote a sense of well-being.

With regular exercise, incorporating relaxation techniques into your life can help you feel better overall.

More research is needed to determine whether vitamins or other nutrients may help ease asthma symptoms in people who have a deficiency. Three that seem promising include:

  • Antioxidants. People with severe asthma appear to have decreased levels of these protective nutrients found in fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants such as magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin E may have some effect on asthma, but more study is needed.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Found in several types of fish, healthy oils containing omega-3s may reduce the inflammation that leads to asthma symptoms. They also appear to have a number of other health benefits. It isn't clear whether omega-3s from vegetable sources, such as flaxseed and canola oil, have the same beneficial effects as omega-3s found in fish.
  • Vitamin D. Some people with severe asthma have a vitamin D deficiency. Researchers are exploring whether vitamin D may reduce asthma symptoms in some people.

A multivitamin or supplement pill may help you get nutrients, but the best way to make sure you're getting adequate nutrition is to eat a varied diet rich in fresh, unprocessed foods. There's no downside to increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as cold-water fish, nuts, greens and ground flaxseed.

More well-designed studies are needed before researchers can make a clear judgment about which complementary and alternative asthma therapies are likely to help. Talk to your doctor before trying any complementary or alternative asthma treatments, and don't stop prescribed medications or other medical treatment.

Aug. 29, 2014