Easing Asthma Herbally

Traditional Chinese formulas may help kids breathe better.

By Shana Scott

April 2008


At only four months old, Joshua was hospitalized in his Atlanta, Georgia, hometown with mild bronchitis; he was diagnosed with asthma just months later. Now four, Joshua takes medication every day to help prevent attacks of wheezing and breathlessness, along with more drugs as needed to provide quick relief during an acute episode or to control mild, intermittent asthma symptoms. These treatments aren’t cures, however, and even with great medical insurance, they cost hundreds of dollars for just a month’s supply.

Joshua isn’t alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asthma—one of the most common chronic diseases—affects more than 23 million people, many of them young children. There is no cure, and the experts are still not sure why some people get it and others don’t.

Homer Boushey, MD, of the Uni­versity of California, San Francisco asthma lab says this disorder can “often times be caused by a common cold virus that upsets the immune systems and thereby leaves kids vulnerable to allergens that otherwise would not have fazed them.”

It can be difficult caring for a child with asthma, especially with the rising costs of doctor visits and drugs. So parents and providers are now looking to alterative therapies, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), to help provide relief.

The TCM Approach
    While Western medicine sees the body as a collection of organs, TCM’s understanding of the human body is more holistic: Everything is suffused with qi, or life energy, and illness is caused by blockages in qi and by excesses or deficiencies in elements such as heat and dampness. Inflammation is a good example of the differences between these two systems. In the West, doctors describe this common bodily reaction in terms of an immune system response, while TCM practitioners would see it in terms of excess heat affecting a specific part of the body. According to TCM precepts, asthma represents stagnation of qi in the lungs.

  Since the incidence of asthma has increased over the last 50 years, including the rates among children, scientists are now studying ways that TCM can be used to provide more effective treatment options. In China, research on the efficacy of acupuncture and herbal medicine in the treatment of asthma has shown that TCM compares favorably with standard Western treatments; TCM also provides an alternative approach for those who want to strengthen their bodies’ natural defenses and avoid the long-term usage of asthma drugs. A September 2004 study published in Allergy found that TCM can be a safe and effective treatment option for patients with seasonal allergies related to asthma.

Traditional Help
    Xiu Min Li, MD, director of the Center for Excellence for Research in Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, believes that TCM’s herbal formulas can be used to treat asthma under a trained practitioner’s supervision. Some TCM formulas that have been shown to be safe and effective for asthma include:

Antiasthma Herbal Medicine Intervention (ASHMI): ASHMI is an extract of three herbs: Ling-Zhi (red reishi mushroom), Ku-Shen (sophora root) and Gang-Cao (Chinese licorice root). In one trial, ASHMI significantly reduced symptoms, increased lung function and reduced the use of prescription medications.

modified Mai Men Dong Tang (mMMDT): mMMDT is compounded from five herbs, including Gang-Cao, Mai-Men-Dong (mondo grass), Xi-Yang-Shen (American ginseng) and Ban-Xia (pinellia rhizome). It has been evaluated for treatment of persistent, mild-to-moderate asthma. A study involving 100 patients showed that this combination of herbs can increase lung function and significantly reduce symptoms.

Ding Chuan Tang (DCT): This contains nine herbs such as coltsfoot and mulberry root bark. The formula of herbs has been proven to calm inflammation within the airways of stabilized asthmatic children.

STA-1: This formula contains 10 herbs in powder form such as mountain root bark, Asiatic Cornelian cherry fruit and China root. Individuals using STA-1 have reported changes in their pulmonary function as well as a decrease in side effects associated with previously prescribed asthma medications. These results suggest that STA-1 may be helpful for the treatment of mild-to-moderate chronic asthma.

These formulas have been studied extensively by Li and her colleagues, as cited in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (7/07). “Many patients with chronic allergic conditions are seeking complementary and alternative medicine therapies including TCM,” says Li, noting that mainstream scientists are starting to investigate these ancient options. “This effort may lead to improved therapies, and better healthcare and patient outcomes in the future.” That may make breathing easier for kids like Joshua.

For help in using Chinese formulas, find a TCM practitioner by contacting the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine: 866-455-7999, www.aaaomonline.org.

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