Spring Clouds Study by John ConstableAsthma is a chronic inflammatory condition involving the air passages in the lungs. These air passages—also known as bronchial tubes—facilitate inhalation and exhalation of the air into and out of the lungs respectively. Shortness of breath followed by whistling or wheezy sound in the chest during the breathing process is a characteristic symptom of asthma. The disease is associated with inflammation of the air passages. This triggers swelling around the air passages, and the muscles around the airways tighten and narrow the bronchial passage. This makes it difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs, resulting in coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and/or chest tightness.
There are two types of asthma: allergic (exposure to any potential irritant/allergen) and non-allergic (caused by stress, exercise, illnesses, extreme weather, or some medications). People with a family history of allergies or asthma are more prone to developing asthma. According to the World Health Organization, about 50% of the asthma cases are hereditary and the rest from occupational/environmental factors. Interestingly, the pollen season manifested by high levels of airborne pollens in the air especially during spring can affect the respiratory system and trigger an asthmatic reaction. In this regard, the same triggers for some allergies can be important to asthma sufferers, including weather forecasts, allergy forecasts, and pollen counts. An allergist/immunologist will help in the diagnosis and identifying the potential triggers to put a treatment plan in place. Triggers include external irritants (pollen dust, leaves, flowers), indoor allergens (dust, mold, mites, dander), certain drugs and food additives, pollutants (smoke, chemical fumes, and strong odors), sickness (colds, flu), weather (cold air, dry, windy), exercise (though certain exercises will actually relieve asthma), and stressful conditions.
While there is no cure for asthma, it can be managed. However, if left un-managed, it can be fatal. In the US alone, asthma is among the most common chronic childhood illnesses. And each year, nearly 14 million people seek a doctor for asthma. Researchers estimate that asthma-related costs (health care plus indirect costs, such as decreased worker productivity) are at around $60 billion annually. While prevention is the best strategy, an individual with asthma needs to recognize what triggers an attack and avoid triggers whenever possible. Doctors also recommend that all asthma patients develop their own personalized treatment plans. Many people with this condition manage it well and live a healthy and productive life by avoiding triggers. Asthma flare-ups can be controlled by steroids, bronchodilators, and mast cell stabilizers, although long-term use of these drugs carries a risk of adverse effects.
One of the main recommendations is that regular physical exercise should be practiced in order to improve lung fitness and increase the respiratory capacity. Many asthma sufferers also look to complementary therapies, such as yoga and pranayama, to help relieve their symptoms. Doctors play it safe by not recommending yoga to asthma sufferers as a treatment per se, but to consider it as an alternative to breathing exercises to strengthen the respiratory system.
Several research reports have reported conflicting data on the practice of yoga for relieving asthma symptoms (see Yoga for asthma). Researchers agree that the conflicting data may be due to lack of control on the degree of asthma in the sufferers (whether the patients had early, moderate, or severe asthma). Several researchers noticed some reductions in symptoms and use of medication. Some noted significant improvements in quality of life among yoga practitioners compared with non-practitioners. In general researchers do agree that there is a benefit from practicing yoga (see Yoga may improve asthma symptoms- Cochrane reviews).
Most of the research studies employed specific yoga asanas and deep yogic breathing so as to stimulate and strengthen the lungs and respiratory capacity and also teach the patients to learn breathing correctly (see Nina’s excellent article on calming breath practices). In several of these research studies, asana poses commonly included are: forward bending poses (Uttanasana), Supported Bridge pose (Setu Bandhasana), Downward-Facing Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana), Upward Plank pose (Purvottanasana), Supported Fish pose (Matsyasana), and Reclined Hero pose (Supta Virasana) followed by gentle alternate nostril pranayama (see Breath Practices for Balance). The unanimous opinion among researchers was that back bending postures are very good to open the chest to improve the condition of the heart and lungs, upper back bends and chest opening postures helps in exhaling and forward bends help in inhaling. Taken together, the above-mentioned poses together with the regulated breathing technique improves the respiratory system, stimulates and strengthens the sinuses, thyroid gland, and the diaphragm, and helps in calming the mind. To help in achieving comfort and maximum effectiveness, I recommend suitable props while doing some of these asanas.
If spring is here, can the allergy be far behind? With the pollen/allergy season fast approaching, consider having a steady yoga practice!
Cautions: If you have a severe lung disease, such COPD (emphysema), only after your doctor says it is safe to have a yoga practice, you should focus on supported poses and a gentle breath work. In general, if you become suddenly short of breath, stop whatever yoga practice you are doing, sit down with some support, in a chair or against a wall, until all the symptoms subside. If not, seek prompt medical attention. Reclined poses (supine or prone) could make breathing more difficult for a person with lung disease so you try supporting your torso and head in supine poses. Adapt prone poses by finding more space for the belly for example, by widening your knees. If these adaptations do not improve your breathing, skip these poses and practice meditation or breath practices in a seated position.
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