Asthma treatment: Do complementary and alternative approaches work?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) asthma treatments range from breathing exercises to herbal remedies. Discover which CAM remedies for asthma are most likely to work.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) asthma treatments range from breathing exercises to herbal remedies. However, a lack of well-designed clinical trials makes it difficult to determine the safety and effectiveness of these therapies.

A recent survey of allergists found that most people who used CAM did so because they thought the treatments were safer than traditional medicines. Yet, the doctors observed a link between greater CAM use and increased symptom flares and emergency room visits.

If you're considering CAM treatments for asthma, here's what you should know.


During acupuncture, the practitioner inserts very thin needles into your skin at specific points on your body. There is little evidence to support this therapy as an effective asthma treatment. Several uncontrolled studies have been done, with mixed or disappointing results. Some research suggests that acupuncture may reduce the need for inhaled steroids, particularly in children, but more definitive studies are needed. If you decide to try acupuncture, work with an experienced, licensed acupuncturist, preferably one who is also a medical doctor.

Breathing exercises

Breathing exercises used for asthma include the Buteyko technique, Papworth method and yoga breathing (pranayama). You take slow, deep, even breaths to change your breathing pattern and prevent rapid breathing (hyperventilation). The exercises don't seem to improve the allergic reaction that triggers asthma symptoms. A comprehensive review of research on asthma breathing methods found there is not enough evidence to say whether or not this CAM treatment really works. However, they are easy to do and may help you relax. Some people who have tried them said they felt better.

Chiropractic manipulation

A few studies have hinted that spinal manipulation may help reduce the number of asthma attacks and the need for medication, particularly in children. However, a comprehensive review of chiropractic asthma studies found there is not enough evidence to support its use as an effective asthma treatment.

Diet, vitamins and supplements

A nutritious diet helps you stay healthy. And, more and more studies show that certain vitamins and nutrients found in foods may help relieve asthma symptoms in some people. Three that seem promising include:

  • Antioxidants. People with severe asthma appear to have lower levels of these protective nutrients found in fruits and vegetables. Hospitals commonly give the antioxidant magnesium through a vein for severe asthma attacks. Studies have hinted that eating foods rich in the antioxidants vitamin C and E may ease asthma symptoms, but a recent, well-conducted review shows they do not.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy oils found in several types of fish may reduce the inflammation that leads to asthma symptoms. Small studies suggest fish oil supplements also offer a modest benefit. It's unclear whether omega-3s from flaxseed and canola oil have the same beneficial effects as omega-3s found in fish. Omega-3s also appear to have a number of other health benefits.
  • Vitamin D. Some people with severe asthma have low levels of vitamin D. Researchers are exploring whether vitamin D may reduce asthma symptoms in some people. Ask a doctor how much vitamin D is best. Too much can cause kidney damage.

A multivitamin or supplement pill may help you get nutrients, but the best way to make sure you're getting proper 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.

Aug. 23, 2017 See more In-depth