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Breathing Lessons

Focuses on how to help control asthma. How asthma can disturb and derail the functions of a family; Loneliness of teens who suffer from asthma; Information on the program Breath of Life in Bronx, New York.


Imagine suddenly being unable to breathe, as if something invisible were suffocating you. Or what if you were severely allergic to pollen, and inhaling a warm spring breeze might threaten your life? Or think of yourself as a child whose parents monitor your every breath in an effort to keep you out of the emergency room. Welcome to the lives of the 20 million Americans now suffering from asthma.

There was a time when asthma was thought to be primarily a psychological disorder, the result of dysfunctional relationships between parents and children. Asthma is not, in tact, psychological in origin. However, there is a supremely important mind-body connection. Asthma is a chronic condition, trotting such a stranglehold on daily life that it often produces profound, lasting psychological damage.

Asthma, particularly when it starts in childhood, can disturb and derail families' normal functioning as well as deeply undercut patients' belief in their capabilities and safety. When my asthmatic patients recall trips to the emergency room as children, they often say these visits were the start of seeing life as a series of health crises and reprieves from crises.

Asthmatics live in a world that constantly seems to challenge them. A 1997 study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology shows that young adults with a history of asthma perceive stress more than their non-asthmatic counterparts. A study in the Journal of Asthma found that in southwestern Australia, where nearly 18% of teens suffer from asthma, patients reported feeling lonely more often than their healthy peers. Another study in the same journal found that asthmatic children scored much higher in depression and lower on self-esteem than children with diabetes or cancer.

Asthma's toll extends beyond patients to families. A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics judged that 52% of families with asthmatic children were dysfunctional; their levels of intimacy and their ability to adapt to stress were significantly below average. Only 12% of families with healthy kids were considered dysfunctional.

But this cloud has a silver lining. Asthma teaches resilience. Patients find themselves drawn to challenging situations and ultimately accomplish a great deal. Witness the triumphs of Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who has battled asthma all her life.

To help control asthma, use stress-reducing techniques like meditation, visualization and biofeedback. Special breathing exercises can also increase your respiratory function, as will regular aerobic exercise.

Sound nutrition can also be useful. I recommend foods like fish, vegetables and fruits, and supplements such as magnesium, vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids as natural treatments for asthma. Various antioxidants may also be helpful.

The success of such measures can be seen in Breath of Life, a program I created in a school in the Bronx, New York, that has one of the highest rates of asthma in the country. We taught 30 children simple breathing exercises, visualization and meditation as well as good nutrition. Over a period of two years, there has been a 70% reduction in their days missed from school, along with improvement in their respiratory function, reduced use of medication and increased self-esteem and confidence.

In sum, asthma may not be psychological in its origins, but it teaches us a great deal about the mysterious dialogue between mind and body--and the necessity of an integrated approach to healing.

Adapted by Dr.

Dr. Richard Firshein is founder of the Firshein Center for Comprehensive Medicine in New York City and author of The Nutraceutical Revolution, to be published in January by Riverhead Books.