Asthma

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Finding a good herbalist

Most of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

Introduction

Asthma is a huge and growing problem in New Zealand as it is in other countries and all of what follows is based on positive, first-hand experience with actual patients.

Asthma is a complex, multi-faceted condition, from the perspective of holistic medicine, you simply must approach it from more than one angle to work towards a cure.

However, you can't do everything at once, you just need to know which is the first step. Begin by reading through what follows to get an overview, then come back to the key area or areas that you need to give your initial attention to and start from there.

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Conventional drugs & the natural approach

I much prefer my patients to stay alive vs. the alternative. Therefore, when a drug is literally able to help someone keep breathing I certainly want them to have that medication available whenever needed and it must be understood that conventional medicine and traditional herbal medicine are not in opposition to each other but can be safely and wisely used alongside each other.

That said, many people are concerned about the long-term dangers of steroids, they worry that nothing is being done to try to work out what is causing their asthma and they become increasingly worried when their bad patches get worse or harder to resolve despite using ever stronger medications.

There is also a growing concern that the widespread use of Paracetamol in children over the last 20 years has been having an adverse effect on immune health development and may be a contributor to rising asthma rates. This exact subject is currently being researched but it will be quite some time before any certain conclusions can be drawn...

If you will adopt the kind of natural approach outlined below then there is every likelihood that you will receive a great deal of benefit from it but, especially if you have been unwell for some time, you must be prepared to be patient. As with many conditions that become chronic, the longer a person has had the problem the longer they may require treatment to become truly better.

I want my patients to have made significant and lasting improvements in their health before they consider reducing any of their prescribed medications. Also, if it is at all possible, I encourage them to talk with their physician about how they are trying to use herbal medicines and a natural approach to improve their condition and that they want to eventually be less reliant or even not at all reliant on drugs.

I have seen that most doctors are very open to their asthmatic patients seeking better outcomes in these ways; they are only too aware of how slippery a slope it can be to be overly dependent on the very drugs they are prescribing, especially over the long term...

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Herbs for asthma

Used wisely, herbs are fantastic at helping people with asthma. The way they work is entirely differently to inhalers and steroids and you should not think of them as alternatives to those drugs but rather as medicines that help your body to regulate and eventually heal itself.

Dennis Stewart, my main herbal teacher in Australia in the 80s, said "you will build your practice on helping people with skin and lung problems." I've often thought about what he said, it's been true, not because people with chronic eczema or asthma get fast or easy cures, but because they can get genuine, lasting improvements in conditions they were stuck with for years.

Much of my work in this area has been with the tough cases; people who have used incredible amounts of steroids and just aren't responding well to them any longer. To get a good result in such instances is a real testimony to the effectiveness of a natural, traditional approach.

That said, there is no one right formula of herbs to cure asthma, what I will do is show some remedies below, by way of example, that I have often had positive experiences with.


Inula helenium (Elecampane)

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Catarrhal asthma

Catarrh is basically a medical word for mucus or phlegm. Catarrhal asthma is especially common in young children but can certainly affect adults too.

Catarrhal asthma tends to especially afffect people from one of the 'damper' constitutions as introduced fruther at the very end. Catarrhal asthma is characterised by

1) rattly sounds when breathing, especially when lying down
2) plenty of mucus felt in the lungs and being coughed up
3) other signs of excessive 'damp' secretions from the body; e.g. nose, ears, bowel
4) the 'allergy bucket' described below likely including food allergies or intolerances

Respiratory herbs that have been found to be especially help with catarrhal asthma include Elder flower, Elecampane, Ginger, Golden Seal, Licorice root, Mullein, Thyme & White Horehound.

By way of an example of how these herbs might be used together, here is a sample formula:

Elder flower 30mls
Elecampane root 30mls
Ginger root 30mls
Golden Seal 10mls
Licorice root 30mls
Mullein leaf 30mls
Thyme leaf 20mls
White Horehound 30mls

To make 210mls of Fluid Extracts or Tinctures - the typical adult dose of this formula could be 4 or 5mls three times daily until things have significantly improved then drop to twice daily. We would then usually sustain the dose there at twice a day for some time and then eventually drop down to just 4 or 5mls once a day as a maintenance dosage for as long as required.

For longer term use it can be a lot easier for the patient to use these kinds of concentrated extracts but these exact same herbs can also be most beneficially used in tea form and I will often start with using teas when I want to convey a particularly strong dose of the herbs and I am confident that the patient will be compliant with the somewhat harder process of drinking several cups of strong tasting herbal tea each day for a few weeks!

The sample formula above shows how all these cleansing herbs for excess damp in the lungs can be used together. Note also, that this kind of medicine is not fixed in one 'right way', there are endless variations on how you can blend herbs together and how you can increase or decrease the dosage in order to focus on one or more remedies to give an emphasis on a desired action e.g. Thyme is particularly good at helping with infection in the lungs or bronchial tubes whereas Mullein and White Horehound are especially helpful at simply helping a person to cough out the mucus!

If you want to get to know these old and great health allies much more closely then; a) read about them in the herbal A-Z here and b) just start using them! They are very safe and will soon show you how they work and how much they can help.


Verbascum thapsus (Mullein)

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Constricted asthma

Constricted asthma, by comparison, has much less mucus involved and nowhere near so much tends to come out. In fact, they usually have to do a great deal of coughing without a lot to show for it!

The main issue in constricted asthma is that the smooth muscles of the respiratory system have become tighter, tenser and narrower, with a significantly reduced amount of room for the air to flow in and out as a result.

Constricted asthma tends to especially afffect people from one of the 'dryerr' constitutions as you can read further about from a link at the end. Constricted asthma is characterised by

1) dry cough and wheezing
2) dry mouth and skin along with heightened thirst
3) muscles that are clearly tight and constricted in the upper back and diaphragm
4) the 'allergy bucket' especially including airborne pollens, animal danders, mould etc.

The respiratory herbs that have been found to especially help with constricted asthma are Aniseed, Chamomile, Cramp bark, Elecampane, Hyssop leaf, Licorice root, Lobelia herb, Marshmallow root

Here is a sample formula to show how these herbs could be used in combination

Aniseed 15mls
Chamomile 30mls
Cramp bark 25mls
Elecampane 30mls
Hyssop leaf 30mls
Licorice root 30mls
Lobelia herb 5-10mls
Marshmallow root 40mls

To make 205-210mls of Fluid Extracts or Tinctures - the typical adult dose could be 4 or 5mls three times daily until things have significantly improved then drop to twice daily, sustain there for some time and then eventually stay at 4 or 5mls once a day as a maintenance dosage for as long as required.

Again, the same kinds of herbs can be used with great benefit as a tea and again I urge you not to get caught up in this particular formula as being the 'right one', it is only here as an example. If you can only obtain some of those herbs, or if you are advised to use others, then you should still certainly go ahead and try another way!

These are all potent medicines but you will note that the range of dose given for the herb Lobelia is not set but rather put as between 5-10mls. The reason for this is that too much of this herb will make you feel quite nauseous and much too much of it will make you vomit! You must get the dose of this herb right and you are better to start too low than too high.

That said, the ability of Lobelia to relax constricted bronchial tubes is remarkable and I would always want to treat constricted asthma with at least some Lobelia in the mixture; one of its old names was 'Asthma-weed!'


Lobelia inflata

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Allergic asthma

One or more allergies are almost always involved in the underlying cause of asthma but, like asthma itself, the subject of allergy is a complex one; more than one kind of reaction happens with more than one kind of substance.

Allergic complexity is like a bucket that, when it overflows, equals asthmatic symptoms. There is always more than one ingredient that fills that bucket and, whilst you can't stop everything that goes into it, you can usually remove at least some of it. Two of the biggest bucket-fillers are air-borne allergies and food-based allergies.

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Air-borne allergies

Many people with asthma have allergies to air-borne substances. The main culprits being animal dander, mould and dust-mite.

Here, we must firstly focus on the air of the bedroom environment because, whilst it is a lot harder to change the air we are breathing during the day we can make a big difference to the air we breathe at night and this is the time that our immune systems are most active, and most vulnerable.

Animal dander

This will be hard advice for some people but, as animal dander is such a major allergy for so many, at least until you are better and so can then see if allowing their presence back into your bedroom makes you get worse again, your bedroom simply must be a dog or cat free-zone, day and night.

This can be difficult for everyone involved but you simply must put your health first and if they understood this then they would want you to do that too.

Mould

Mould spores especially come out at night and are a major cause of allergy. Even if you do not see any obvious patches of mould anywhere in your bedroom they may still be there but invisible to the eye.

What follows will no doubt seem like strange advice from a nature-loving herbalist but one of the first things you must do in the holistic approach to asthma is to bleach your bedroom! Bleach, in whatever form you use it, is the deadliest method to destroy mould and fungi and you should not be shy in using plenty of it to rid your bedroom of every trace of organisms that may be threatening your ability to breathe!

As early in the day as you can, so there is plenty of time to for the smell to clear before bed-time, put a mask on, open all the windows, and clean everything, the walls, the ceiling, behind the bed and any other furniture as best as you can, be ruthless, kill any mould or fungi that might be lurking, visible or not, it will be impairing your ability to breathe.

How often a person suffering from asthma should have to repeat this kind of deep-cleaning, mould eradication, entirely depends on their climate along with the amount of sun, age and humidity vs. dryness of their home. As a rough guide, once every 3 months as a safe average for people living in temperate zones, less in colder, dryer regions, maybe more often if you live in a warmer, damper environment or an older house.

Dust-mite

Dust-mite is now well recognised as a major issue for the health of many people, especially those suffering allergic asthma.

In New Zealand and other countries, the incidence of asthma before the widespread uptake of carpets within residential homes in the 1970s was a fraction of what it is today. There are other compelling theories about this, such as the hygiene hypotheses but, even if carpet is only a contributing factor, do not underestimate the power of the droppings of the tiny dust-mite to cause or contribute to asthma!

If you have carpet in your bedroom, this will be the number one source of any dust-mites that may be coming out at night and filling up your allergy bucket, in this case:

a) investigate products or services that can eradicate or at least greatly reduce dust-mite in your carpet

b) think hard about getting someone to get rid of your bedroom carpet, or only consider pulling it up yourself whilst using a high-grade mask, and instead use cleanable rugs on hard surfaces

c) thirdly, this will sound most odd but It won't stain anything, it's cheap and it's immediately available. It is very effective to use the binding tannins in black tea to suppress the ability of dust-mite to migrate from your carpet into the bedroom atmosphere. The method is to prepare some undrinkably strong black tea by putting a few bags or tsps. of tea into hot water and leaving the mixture to literally 'stew' until it cools. You then strain the liquid into the kind of spray bottles that are used to mist the leaves of indoor plants and then, before going to bed, you spray a fine mist of it over your carpet. This step can make a surprisingly large difference to reducing the allergy bucket as reported back by people who've done it.

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Food-based allergies

Undiagnosed food allergies and intolerances are, in many experienced practitioner's views, often involved in chronic asthma to at least some degree but 'how much of a problem is it?' and 'what exactly is it?' are tricky to work out.

The only way to truly answer the 'how much of a problem is it' question is to take out the suspected substances and see how much things improve. If a person has a history of asthma or eczema going back into childhood, then this may be one of the most important areas you can work with. In such 'early-onset' cases, making the correct changes to the diet may result in dramatic improvements over time.

Working out 'what exactly is it?' when it comes to food allergy and intolerance is one of the most treacherously confusing areas to delve into in the health world because there are so many conflicting opinions as well as many highly dubious methods of testing for food allergies or intolerances!

That said, just because it's hard doesn't mean it should be seen as too hard. This work requires time and effort but if it helps a person to breathe easy and live normally then any amount of trouble will be worth it. Without seeing you in person, the following pointers and suggestions are to help as much as possible ...

Immediate reactions

if you or your child have had rapid allergic reactions to foods that have affected your breathing then you almost certainly have classical food allergies. You may be able to get a clearer idea of what you are reactive to by doing some conventional skin-prick or IgE blood tests however, if these are unavailable or seem inconsistent in their results, then you may be wise to exclude a certain group of foods for at least one week and then carefully re-introduce each of them one at a time to see if any of them make any difference to your overall health and breathing.

Virtually any food has the potential to be regarded as an invader by the immune system but, in order of frequency, the list of what foods cause the most immediate reactions are as follows:

Eggs
Fish
Shellfish
Tree Nuts
Peanuts

Delayed reactions

If you or your child do not seem to have any rapid reactions to foods, there is still every possibility that you or they are experiencing delayed reactions to foods that are being mediated by a different part of the immune system (chiefly IgG white blood cells). This is called food intolerance, as distinct from food allergy. Food intolerances are much harder to diagnose and consequently they are frequently missed, even when they are a known major contributor to such allergic-based diseases as asthma and eczema.

If there is any reason to suspect food intolerance, and if you or your child have asthma then it certainly should be suspected, it may be recommended to go through the following steps:

Dairy

Avoid all dairy products for 7-10 days and then deliberately re-challenge the system by eating dairy and observe how you react when you avoid it as well as what happens when you eat it again. This process is discussed in further detail here

Gluten

Remove all gluten containing products for 7-10 days and again perform a controlled challenge to observe the results. A page on this process, including a PDF chart at the bottom to see which foods are safe and which must be avoided, is found here.

Note:
It is normally recommended to do a trial of first dairy and then gluten, based on the statistical likelihood of which is more likely to be an issue but, as many case-histories have shown, there are plenty of people who are reactive to both, so if the asthma is quite bad then it may be wise to avoid both dairy and gluten at the same time and then carefully re-challenging one after the other.

Testing

If one or both dairy and/or gluten are found to be an issue, then stop there and give at least one month but no more than three months, to see what kind of difference it makes to completely remove them from the diet. The longer a person avoids the foods they are reactive to, the better they usually get.

However, if neither dairy or gluten show any obvious signs of reactivity, or if they have done and the person has avoided them for a good amount of time but not made any significant clinical gains, then the final step in this area is to do some bona fide IgG blood testing with a reputable laboratory or home-detective kit.

Further information about this, along with a more detailed discussion on food allergy and intolerance is found here.

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Treating infections

Excess mucus production, especially as happens in catarrhal asthma, creates a perfect breeding ground for bacterial and fungal micro-organisms. Whatever the organism involved, Infections throughout the respiratory system, from the sinuses all the way down to the lower lungs, are a huge complication in asthma. They are also often a major part of its ongoing cause, as inflammation subsequent to infection leads to further airway constriction....

There are two approaches that should always be used when chronic or recurring infections are a part of the asthma condition. The first is simply to regularly and effectively clean the airways, the second is to strengthen and support the immune system.

Cleaning the airways

Chronic infections, especially in the sinuses, can cause a chain reaction of inflammation with subsequent constriction that can reach all the way down into the lungs and bronchial tubes.

If you are prone to sinus infections, or you get a lot of blocked-up mucus in your nose, then patiently work with one or both of the following to turn things around

Nasal douching

If you do an online search for 'neti pots' you should be inexpensively and easily able to get the required device for this ancient and effective method to clean the passageways.

The concept of nasal douching, i.e. putting warm salt water up one side of your nose, so it goes up through your sinus passageways and then comes out the other nostril, is rather off-putting, until you actually just do it, whereupon you realise that a) it doesn't hurt and b) it's very easy to do

Steam cleaning

Secondly, consider doing medicated steams to clean the airways.

The warm, moist air of the steam gets everywhere it needs to go whilst the essential oils in the steam help to break down the 'biofilms' that can make for extremely resistant infections.

'Olbas oil', pictured below, is very good for this, as is Eucalyptus oil. The simple techniques for this process is ideal and very easy to do, it is described in further detail here.


Oils for medicated steam inhalations

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Building immunity

If a person with asthma knows that they have a chronic infection, e.g. from getting a laboratory culture done from a sputum sample, or they are obviously getting recurrent acute infections, then there can be no doubt that their immune system will need support, if so start with herbal medicines.

Certain herbs are superb at building immune health, there are many potential allies, one of the most important and reliable being Echinacea however this herb's popularity has seen it become the victim of some pernicious myths, including one that it is 'bad for people with asthma', but this is simply not true. One in about a thousand people will have an allergy to the pollen of the Echinacea flower but there is zero pollen in the medicine when it is made from the root of the plant. More about Echinacea here.

Another great, and highly reliable immune tonics is Astragalus, from Traditional Chinese Medicine, more here, and a third is the unique mushroom medicine called Cordyceps, marvellous for strengthening the lungs at the same time as the immune system, potentially a true Asthma tonic, more here.

Sometimes, a vital step to turn around a weakened immunity is to get the vitamin D levels right up. In an ideal world, everyone with asthma would have at least one blood test to check their levels of this crucial, immune-moderating vitamin but it is an expensive test and not always readily available. If a person has asthma and a low immunity, plus they have not been getting good amounts of mid-day sunlight, it may be helpful, and it would be safe, to give a course of Vitamin D for 2 or 3 months at a dose range of around 10-20 thousand ius per day (easily do-able with just 10-20 drops of a concentrate)

Those are some key points, if immunity is one of the areas you need to focus on, read more here.


Astragalus racemosa

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Clean air

Another compelling reason for the rapid rise in asthma rates is the increase in air-borne pollution in our increasingly industrialised world. How you might know that this was a key issue would be by how much worse your breathing was on smoggy days or when you have been exposed to bad air whilst in heavy traffic or other intensely populated environments.

We cannot change the world, at least not by ourselves, but there are several practical methods to improve the quality and cleanliness of our personal airspace.

Plants

Plants are essential and beneficial to us in so many ways, including how well- proven they are to reduce air pollution. However much you can, in your home or place of work, have plenty of plants growing around you.

Location

if and when you do have some choice about where to live then, if at all possible, get near an ocean, a desert, up on a mountain, or any place that has less pollen, less pollution and cleaner air!

Essential oils

Essential oils are what give plants their characteristic smell. There are many ways that can help our health, including by dispersing them into the air we breathe where, as well as making the air smell more pleasant, they simultaneously bind to and render harmless airborne particles and pollutants.

One of the simplest and most effective ways of utilising essential oils in this way is to fill some kind of spray bottle with water and some drops of essential oils (e.g. 10-20 drops of oils to 100mls of water) and simply regularly spray this into your environment.

Another popular way is to use an oil-burner, the advantage of that method being that it will disperse the oils into the atmosphere in a more gradual manner. Essential oil burners and the candles that keep them going are readily available online and elsewhere.

A few of the essential oils that may be especially good to help with asthma are listed below but don't forget to 'follow your nose!' The ones you but most instinctively like the smell of are the ones that are most likely to help.

Eucalyptus
Lavender
Rosemary
Chamomile
Ginger
Frankincense
Bergamot
Peppermint

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Movement & Exercise

For many people, especially youths, the greatest challenge from their asthma is in how it adversely effects their ability to move and exercise.

It's noticeable, when such a person is getting good results, that is this aspect of their lives that they will point to as the measure and the proof that they are actually getting better.

Movement and exercise are essential to the health of all living things. How much and what kind are so depending on each individual case but sometimes the best place to start is by working on getting a more full and fluid movement of the breath itself.

Breathing exercises

Many people find that they can greatly improve their asthma by working on their breathing, there are many different techniques, and the Buteyko method is one excellent example, but the key points in common are to move the diaphragm and to fully exhale.

Move the diaphragm
The diaphragm is the strong, wide muscle under our ribs. It is meant to easily do the work of breathing for us but it typically becomes stiff, unmoving, in a person with asthma. Instead, the intercostal muscles of the ribs take over and breathing becomes shallower and more laboured.

Fully exhale
People with asthma tend to retain a lot of stale air in the base of their lungs by not fully exhaling, this in turn increases the tendency of the upper respiratory tract to overwork and shallow-breathe.

Two of the best ways to move the diaphragm and fully exhale are via singing or swimming! Anyone with asthma, or any other kind of chronic breathing difficulty, will strengthen and improve their breathing with one or both, plus they can be fun!

Who cannot find at least one song they like that they can learn the words to and sing-along with, making sure they hold the long notes? Likewise, swimming doesn't in the least have to be back and forth, over and over, for it to work. Even just swimming one lap with your head down, fully exhaling the air before you come up for an in-breath will correct the shallow breathing, it doesn't matter how small the start so long as you begin somewhere.

Of course, it's understood that singing or swimming is not for everyone, that's ok, any kind of movement will help your body to oxygenate your blood and strengthen your heart and lungs.

If you can exercise to the point that your heart is pumping harder, which you can know is happening if you must breathe deeper and faster to keep up with it, then you are on the right track.

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Physical therapy

It seems to be universal that all people with asthma get that 'too-stiff' diaphragm as mentioned above and, at the same time, also get a characteristic tightness in the thoracic region of their upper back.

Releasing tension in the diaphragm and upper back can make a big difference to healing asthma because the more relaxed your diaphragm and back, the easier it is to breathe.


Working on the diaphragm at the top of the belly and under the ribs is an intimate area to be touched but if people are willing to work on it or be worked on then it will most certainly help.

Massage was just as much our 'first medicine' as herbs were. Ideally, someone you live with and who cares about you can learn how to work on your diaphragm and upper back.

There are many ways, including online resources, to learn simple and effective techniques to release tension but, however you do it, the key to great massage is feedback.

You must talk because only you can feel what you feel and so only you can say things like "up a bit, down a bit, go to the left, go to the right, go a little harder, no do it a bit softer, go slower, go faster, go deeper, make it less pointy, make it more pointed, yes right there!" etc. etc. until they are getting it just exactly right, at which point you must let them know in some manner that they have got the spot and are doing it right. For example, even simply going "mmmmm" as you breathe out is as easy as breathing itself and will tell them that they are doing it just right.

When you give feedback, you will see that the whole process takes a fraction of the time that it would otherwise and making it easy and effective means it is possible to repeat as needed.

Of course, it may simply not be possible to get physical treatment from someone near to you, in which case it is still highly recommended to visit with a skilled and experienced physical therapist to get treatment on your back and, if possible, to help release constriction in your diaphragm.

A good sign that you have found the right person is that they will also want to give you some tips or exercises to help you keep your back and breathing apparatus open and relaxed, in other words they will be trying to do themselves out of a job by helping you to get better enough not to need to come back!

It may take some asking around or research to find the best physical therapist for you but it will be worth the effort, the note at the top about finding a good herbalist may also help in this area, again it's here

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Relaxation

Anyone who has not experienced what it is like to have trouble with their breathing may also have trouble understanding just how much tension and anxiety asthma can create. A reduced capacity to breathe may not cause the outright panic of not being able to breathe at all but it will always create at least some residual tension in its wake. This residual tension becomes particularly difficult because an increase in tension causes an increased tendency for the bronchial tubes to tighten up.

In other words, asthma causes increased anxiety and tension and increased anxiety and tension causes the asthma to get worse...

You are the best person to know for yourself or you child whether this is a minor side-issue or whether it should be given a high treatment priority. If it is important, then do not expect too much help from pharmaceutical mind-altering medicines, everything has its place but these drugs are not seen to help people get well in the long term. There are better ways and this important subject is written up in detail in the article on anxiety here

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Constitutional health note

You might want to learn about your constitution to help better understand yourself as well as your problems. All types of people can respond to the general approaches described above but each constitution has certain herbs and other areas of knowledge that work especially well for them.

For example, I mentioned earlier about damp people being more likely to need help with catarrhal asthma and dry people being more likely to need help with constrictive asthma. There is a brief introduction to this great subject here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here.

Putting it all together

I do understand how, especially for a person whose only experience has been the conventional medical system where they are given some drugs to inhale and pretty much no other lifestyle or other advice to work on, that the above notes may seem like a daunting amount of effort is required with this natural approach.

Remember that we are not trying to simply manage the condition with this kind of treatment, we are trying to address the key factors that are causing asthma and to help the body heal itself. Yes, this approach does require a commitment of time and energy but the rewards are deep, and lasting.

If you are ready to begin with this then remember that 'a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step'. You don't have to do everything at once, your job right now is to work out what is the most important first step for you to take and then just start from there. Have patience, be positive, and do not shrink at having faith in your ability to get better!

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd