National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)

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What You Need To Know About Asthma and Complementary Health Practices

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that affects people of all ages. It causes episodes of wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Although there is no cure, most people are able to control their asthma with conventional therapies and by avoiding the substances that can set off asthma attacks. Even so, some people turn to complementary health practices such as acupuncture, breathing exercises, and herbal supplements in their efforts to relieve symptoms.

If you’re thinking about complementary health practices for asthma, here’s what you need to know: There is not enough evidence to support the use of any complementary health practices for the relief of asthma symptoms.

Acupuncture

  • At this point, there is little evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for asthma. Although a few studies showed some reduction in medication use and improvements in symptoms and quality of life, most of the research showed no difference between real acupuncture and sham (fake) acupuncture on asthma symptoms.

Breathing Exercises or Retraining

  • A review of research on specific breathing techniques—the Papworth Method and Buteyko Breathing Technique—found a trend toward improvement in asthma symptoms but not enough evidence to draw reliable conclusions. In spite of increasing patient interest in certain breathing exercises to help with symptoms like hyperventilation and to regulate breathing, there isn’t solid evidence to support its use.

Herbs and Other Dietary Supplements

  • There is little or no evidence to support the use of herbs or dietary supplements for asthma. Some conventional treatments for asthma have their roots in herbal preparations: for example, the bronchodilator theophylline is found in tea leaves, and ephedrine (also a bronchodilator) is a compound in the traditional Chinese herb ma huang (ephedra*).
     
    Researchers have found little or no evidence of benefit for the relief of asthma symptoms when they studied other herbs and dietary supplements such as boswellia, tylophora indica, magnesium supplements, omega-3 fatty acids, Radix glycyrrhizae, vitamin C, and butterbur.

 

* In 2004, the FDA banned the U.S. sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra. The FDA found that these supplements had an unreasonable risk of injury or illness—particularly cardiovascular complications—and a risk of death.