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Using Diet to Treat Asthma and Eczema

Written by: Michael Greger M.D. on July 9th, 2015

I previously discussed the power of fruits and vegetables to help prevent and treat asthma and allergies. If adding a few more servings of fruits and vegetables may help asthma, what about a diet centered around plants? Twenty patients with allergic eczema were placed on a vegetarian diet.  At the end of two months, their disease scores, which covered both subjective and objective signs and symptoms, were cut in half, similar to what we might see using one of our most powerful drugs. The drug works much quicker, within about two weeks, but since drugs can often include dangerous side effects the dietary option is more attractive. This was no ordinary vegetarian diet, however. This was an in-patient study using an extremely calorically-restricted diet—the subjects were practically half fasting. Therefore, we don’t know which component was responsible for the therapeutic effect.

What about using a more conventional plant-based diet against a different allergic disease, asthma? In Sweden, there was an active health movement that claimed that a vegan diet could improve or cure asthma. This was a bold claim, so in order to test this, a group of orthopedic surgeons at Linköping University Hospital followed a series of patients who were treated with a vegan regimen for one year. (This study is highlighted in my video, Treating Asthma and Eczema with Plant-Based Diets.) Participants had to be willing to go completely plant-based, and they had to have physician-verified asthma of at least a year’s duration that wasn’t getting better or was getting worse despite the best medical therapies available.

The researchers found quite a sick group to follow. The thirty-five patients had long-established, hospital-verified bronchial asthma for an average duration of a dozen years. Of the 35 patients, 20 had been admitted to the hospital for acute asthmatic attacks during the last two years. Of these, one patient had received acute infusion therapy (emergency IV drugs) a total of 23 times during this period and another patient claimed he had been to the hospital 100 times during his disease and on every occasion had evidently required such treatments. One patient even had a cardiac arrest during an asthma attack and had been brought back to life on a ventilator. These were some pretty serious cases.

The patients were on up to eight different asthma medicines when they started, with an average of four and a half drugs, and were still not getting better. Twenty of the 35 were constantly using cortisone, which is a powerful steroid used in serious cases. These were all fairly advanced cases of the disease, more severe than the vegan practitioners were used to.

Eleven couldn’t stick to the diet for a year, but of the 24 that did, 71% reported improvement at four months and 92% at one year. These were folks that had not improved at all over the previous year. Concurrently with this improvement, the patients greatly reduced their consumption of medicine. Four had completely given up their medication altogether, and only two weren’t able to at least drop their dose. They went from an average of 4.5 drugs down to 1.2, and some were able to get off cortisone.

Some subjects said that their improvement was so considerable they felt like “they had a new life.” One nurse had difficulty at work because most of her co-workers were smokers, but after the plant-based regimen she could withstand the secondhand smoke without getting an attack and could tolerate other asthma triggers. Others reported the same thing. Whereas previously they could only live in a clean environment and felt more or less isolated in their homes, they could now go out without getting asthmatic attacks.

The researchers didn’t find only subjective improvements. They also found a significant improvement in a number of clinical variables, most importantly in measures of lung function, vital capacity, forced expiratory volume, and physical working capacity, as well as significant drops in sed rate (a marker of inflammation) and IgE (allergy associated antibodies).

The study started out with 35 patients who had suffered from serious asthma for an average of 12 years, all receiving long-term medication, with 20 using cortisone, who were “subjected to vegan food for a year,” and, in almost all cases, medication was withdrawn or reduced, and asthma symptoms were significantly reduced.

Despite the improved lung function tests and lab values, the placebo effect can’t be discounted since there was no blinded control group. However, the nice thing about a healthy diet is that there are only good side effects. The subjects’ cholesterol significantly improved, their blood pressures got better, and they lost 18 pounds. From a medical standpoint, I say why not give it a try?

If you missed the first three videos of this 4-part series here are the links:

More on eczema and diet can be found in my videos:

There are a number of other conditions plant-based diets have been found to be effective in treating:

-Michael Greger, M.D.