A Pediatrician on Herbs to Support Children (and Adults) with Asthma
Written by: the Editors of goop
Updated: November 14, 2022
Parents of children with asthma know that treatment can be a difficult process that involves reducing various triggers at home—and managing an attack when the warning signs show up. That’s why pediatrician and herbalist Maya Shetreat takes a holistic approach with her patients: She works to identify their individual triggers and support their lungs with both conventional and herbal medicines.
While inhalers and allergy medications are essential, Shetreat says, herbs can act as a complement to those interventions by helping to nourish and support lungs.
A Q&A with Maya Shetreat, MD
Childhood asthma is a significant problem—asthma is the most common chronic condition among children. Children can develop asthma as babies or later in their childhood. Children can outgrow asthma, or it can be lifelong chronic condition. In rare cases, it can lead to a severe threat and disruption to the child’s life, requiring frequent emergency room visits, hospital visits, and treatment with steroids and antibiotics.
Increased asthma incidence over the years may be due to the fact that we live a much more sanitary life than we used to. Studies have shown that children who grow up on farms are far less likely to develop asthma than children who grow up in urban or suburban environments, and that the bacteria found in farm dust triggers an immune response that may be protective against asthma. Children raised on farms are exposed to a diverse set of organisms that are very healthy for the immune system, especially the developing immune systems of children.
Many people imagine the immune system as an army of fighting soldiers. This is one role of the immune system, but it also has the job of meeting and greeting many different organisms, compounds, and exposures. It’s a very social system. And the greater the variety of organisms it meets, the more educated it can be on what is a danger and what isn’t. Thus, part of the reason why children develop asthma is that their immune systems aren’t as social as they need to be, which causes their immune systems to think that things are dangerous when they really aren’t. This is how allergy and autoimmunity show up in the body.
For chronic conditions like asthma, it’s important to take a whole-person approach and investigate all the different factors that play into it. Prognosis varies depending on variables such as exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution, having other allergies, living in close proximity to allergens such as cockroaches or dust, and having associated gastrointestinal issues, like acid reflux, which can all increase someone’s risk of developing asthma or worsening existing asthma.
Air pollution is a primary driver of asthma, which is particularly problematic for poor households, which are more likely to live near busy roads and highways, as this has been associated with an increased risk of asthma.
One of the most important approaches in treating a child with asthma is to first determine what environmental triggers are in their home and then remove as many of them as possible. It could be stuffed animals, rugs, carpeting, mattresses, or pillows covered in dust or dust mites causing allergies. Allergies and asthma tend to go hand in hand, and allergies can worsen asthma. Bringing air purifiers into the home can help.
Looking into the diet to see if a child is allergic or sensitive to certain foods can also be helpful. Several child patients of mine saw a big difference in their asthma after removing dairy from their diet. I also check to see if children are nutrient sufficient, particularly in vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc. If not, a good daily multivitamin can help.
The traditional treatment for asthma is inhalers. There are bronchodilator medications that open the airway so that children can breathe easier. Asthma can also be called reactive airway disease, because bronchioles tend to be inflamed. Another treatment is inhaled steroids, which are used to suppress the inflammatory response in the airways so that they don’t constrict excessively. Also, a lot of children take allergy medications to help them become less reactive to the various triggers in their environment.
Herbs serve a role that no other medication can for children with asthma and people with any kind of chronic lung issue. Plants are very complex: We’ve evolved with them since the beginning of time, and our bodies respond in complex ways to the nutrients, phytonutrients, and compounds that they contain. Biomedicine is not always good at looking for the root cause of why something is happening in the body. Herbs can make a profound difference in children’s short-term and long-term health. In the case of asthma, you want to calm down the immune system, balance it, and bolster support for the lungs.
An herbal protocol should always be discussed with a health care provider and created alongside an herbalist. In general, a protocol for asthma, pneumonia, or general lung support should be nourishing to the lungs and support them in the way that we think of nourishing skin. Our skin is the protective coating on the outside, but our lungs on the inside also have their own protective lining, and if there’s inflammation or infection, the lungs need support as well.
To be clear, herbs don’t preclude the mainstream medications and care for health conditions. Rather, they should go hand in hand in treatment. Herbs can serve a role in helping the lungs recover by reducing inflammation, healing the lungs, and building up strong lungs again. Herbal protocols focus on both recovery and prevention of any type of lung exacerbation in the future.
As a physician, I aim to help get patients through any lung exacerbations without hospitalization. I work with the family and evaluate the child to see if they are recovering or if they need to move on to pharmaceuticals interventions. In other cases, when someone has exhausted multiple treatment options and been through the wringer in terms of their health, I do the detective work to figure out what the triggers are and use herbs to try to help the lungs recover so that there is not long-term damage from chronic lung issues. The ideal situation is exploring possible triggers using a whole-person approach and finding a combination of herbs that can be used to support the lungs.
I have a few favorite lung-supportive herbs that have been used by herbalists for centuries. Their safety and efficacy for most people with asthma is supported by some animal studies (although not necessarily clinical studies), too.
Nettles: Nettles have strong antihistamine properties that are very good for mitigating or reducing the allergic response and reactive airways, which is what makes nettles particularly useful during allergy season. Nettles are also a very nutritive tonic that is dense with vitamins and minerals. They are generally very safe and can be taken as a tea, a tincture, or a pill.
Reishi: Reishi is a medicinal mushroom that is different from other mushrooms in that it is not eaten as a food, although some people are now incorporating it into hot chocolate and coffee in powder form. Reishi has interesting properties because on one hand, it reduces allergy and autoimmunity, and on the other, it stimulates nonspecific immunity. This means that reishi doesn’t suppress the immune system the way that steroids do; it reduces reactivity and allergy in a complex way that pharmaceuticals are rarely able to. Reishi also has powerful antibacterial and antiviral properties. It supports mitochondrial function, which is important for anyone with chronic illness because inflammation can be harmful to mitochondria. Reishi and nettles can be used together (as always, consult your health care practitioner first). If you have a mushroom allergy, don’t take reishi.
Olive leaf extract: Olive leaf extract has been shown to be particularly beneficial against pneumonia in cell studies. Olive leaf extract shouldn’t replace pharmaceutical treatment and acute health care for pneumonia, but supplementation may make the difference between someone being in an intensive care setting and someone being on the road to recovery.
Elecampane: Elecampane is a wonderful herb that is in the same family as sunflowers. It is helpful for asthma, any kind of cough, and general lung support because it is very nourishing to the lungs.
Dr. Maya Shetreat, MD, is a New York City–based pediatric neurologist and herbalist. She is the author of The Dirt Cure: Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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