By Dr Sandra Cabot

Since history was recorded people have died suddenly and unexpectedly from asthma; but in the second decade of the 21st century one would expect the death rate from asthma attacks to be getting lower. Unfortunately the number of children dying from asthma attacks has soared over the last 2 years.

Why is this?

  • Inadequate control of the asthma caused by lack of adherence to prescribed medications which is very common. Failing to take preventative medications and puffers is a common theme in asthma deaths.
  • A complacent attitude – This stems from a lack of education that an asthma attack can kill you within 10 minutes.
  • Lack of an action plan to follow if an acute severe asthma attack occurs. The Asthma Foundation urges asthmatics to conduct an asthma control test – this can be found at
  • Lack of recognition of the signs and symptoms that an asthma attack is becoming severe – these signs include restlessness, anxiety, pale skin colour with blue lips, sweating and shortness of breath with rapid breathing. At this stage air is not getting into the lungs so there may not be much wheezing or coughing occurring.

Asthma is caused by a faulty immune system, which is usually inherited. Asthmatics have a fault with their immune system, which causes them to over react to allergens such as cigarette smoke, pollens, animal hair or chemicals. This over reaction causes a release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine, which causes the air ways to narrow to critical levels. Asthmatics need to realize that their immune system is faulty or fragile if you like. Preventative treatments prevent the overreaction and thus the release of these dangerous inflammatory chemicals. If preventative treatment is stopped suddenly, their immune system is much more fragile than a normal healthy immune system.

It is logical and very wise to treat the cause of asthma whilst at the same time using preventative therapies. How can we balance the immune system so that asthmatics are less likely to suffer dangerous inflammation and infections that cause a severe attack? This is vitally important, as most asthmatics have suffered some degree of immune damage from steroids and antibiotics and this damage needs to be repaired. We can balance and repair the immune system and make it more robust by using nutritional medicine that is holistic in its approach.

The immune system can be balanced by the following strategies –

Improve the amount of good bacteria (probiotics) in the gut. This can be achieved by using a good quality probiotic supplement and eating a diet plentiful in fruits and vegetables. Children do not always want to eat these types of foods, so supplements become increasingly important. Raw juices made from fruits and vegetables can be frozen and presented as treats to children, so this can be a way around it for parents or time poor people. Gut health has a huge effect on the immune system and we need to be aware that a healthy gut can reduce asthma attacks. For more information see my book Healthy Bowel healthy Body

Taking a daily supplement of vitamin C which has anti-inflammatory and anti-viral effects
Ensuring adequate levels of vitamin D in the body, especially during the colder months
Avoiding the over use of antibiotic drugs, as most cases of respiratory infections that cause an asthma attack are due to viruses and these do not respond to antibiotics. Antibiotics wipe out the good bacteria in the gut thus weakening the immune system further

The minerals selenium and iodine are vital for immune competence and help to reduce viral infections. Many people are deficient in these minerals leading to a weak immune system

N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (also known as NAC) is a modified amino acid. The body uses NAC along with selenium to make the protective anti-oxidant called glutathione. NAC is a precursor to Glutathione, which is the strongest free radical destroyer in the body.

When exposed to pollutants, smoke, allergens, chemicals, viruses or bacteria, our lungs become depleted in glutathione. Once glutathione is low, we become more susceptible to infection, asthma attacks and other illnesses.
Taking oral N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (NAC) will greatly replenish glutathione in your lungs. For many people, N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine has been shown to greatly improve the health of lungs and decrease the duration or severity of lung associated conditions. If you have lung congestion and are coughing, N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine will greatly liquify the mucous, thus allowing you to cough it up more easily.

Talk to you doctor about the dosage of NAC, although be aware that your naturopath is likely to know more about NAC than your doctor. The recommended daily allowance, however, has not been set for NAC as the body makes its own NAC. But in those with lung problems, and also liver problems, the body cannot keep up with the demand to make glutathione. Doses vary from 50 to 2,000 mg daily taken orally with the average around 1,000mg, but get advice before self medicating.

Take N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine in the morning and afternoon if you have a cough; not late at night. NAC works well so be prepared to get rid of that sticky mucous that has been residing in your lungs. Combine it with some physiotherapy and deep breathing and coughing exercises and clear up that mucus.
ensure you are taking N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (this is the active form) and plain cysteine will not have the same effect. Also ensure that you take it away from food in order to get the greatest absorption.

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The above statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease.

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Stav D. Effect of N-acetylcysteine on air trapping in COPD: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Chest. 2009;136:381-386.