Post written by Susan Lacke.
“Are you okay?”
If I had a nickel for every time I heard that while training with a friend or teammate, I’d be rich. When I’m active, I cough. A lot. Every time I run or ride my bike, you’d think I spend my free time chain-smoking Pall Malls.
For the past few years, I’ve tried to pinpoint the cause of this cough. It’s rarely debilitating – only a nuisance. In slow, easy workouts, it’s actually not that bad. But during interval workouts or tempo runs, the cough is a constant, annoying companion who I wish would just go the hell away.
Only recently have I gained an official diagnosis: exercise-induced asthma.
Could asthma be linked to dairy products?
In discussing this diagnosis with other vegetarian athletes, I’ve found there are two standard responses among people who have dealt with it:
- “Oh, my gosh! That sounds exactly like what I have when I run!”
- “I used to have asthma, but then I gave up dairy products and it went away.”
For the former, I was shocked at how widespread this seemed to be. Then I learned that over 15 million people in the United States experience exercise-induced asthma. Though it’s a common condition, it often goes unrecognized by patients and physicians, usually misdiagnosed as a cold.
The latter piqued my curiosity. Dairy? Really? Could going vegan be a way of bypassing medicine and inhalers to treat asthma?
I recruited the help of two experts to dive further into the topic: Dr. Nathanael Horne, Clinical Assistant Professor at NYU School of Medicine, and Dr. Todd Rambasek of ENT and Allergy Health Services in Ohio (and fellow vegetarian).
How do I know if I have asthma?
According to Dr. Horne and Dr. Rambasek, asthma is a condition characterized by inflammation of the airways, which makes it more difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs. As a result of this inflammation, several symptoms appear, including:
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath
These symptoms can be triggered by many factors, but what distinguishes exercise-induced asthma is that it’s brought on by exercise.
Of course, the surest way to know if you have asthma, and what your triggers are, is to talk to a pulmonologist or allergist.
Over 20% of elite athletes have exercise-induced asthma
“Asthma occurs in over 20% of elite athletes, reaching 35-50% in some sports,” says Dr. Horne. “After the 1998 Winter Olympics, 23% of the Olympians were shown to have exercise-induced asthma by sensitive lung function tests. Athletes with exercise-induced asthma can successfully compete at the international level, with appropriate diagnosis and treatment.”
The emphasis here is on appropriate diagnosis and treatment. Even if you think you have asthma, it’s important to visit a professional who can analyze your symptoms and rule out other, more severe conditions.
The good news is that asthma is fairly easy to manage. For some, it may be as simple as modifying the environment – cold and dry environments usually result in more symptoms than a warm and humid environment. That said, an athlete may be able to reduce symptoms by running indoors on a treadmill during the winter months. A difference in intensity can also help alleviate symptoms, as long and slow runs tend to produce less symptoms than shorter, more intense workouts (like speed intervals).
There are also a variety of medications available, from medications to manage conditions further aggravating the asthma (for example, allergy serums, or pills to reduce airway inflammation) to quick-acting inhalers that step in when symptoms manifest themselves during exercise.
How giving up dairy helped Ironman champion Hillary Biscay
Professional triathlete and Ironman champion Hillary Biscay has had exercise-induced asthma for as long as she can remember.
“While I was only diagnosed at age 11, I have very traumatic memories of years of playing soccer growing up, getting yelled at because I couldn’t keep up running,” says Biscay. “I always thought I was just a wimp, but I have vivid memories of this feeling like I was breathing through a coffee stirrer–of course I now know that was asthma.”
After using countless treatments over the years, including nebulizer treatments and, at one point, four inhalers at one time, she accidentally stumbled onto a method that provided relief.
Though her decision to become vegan was motivated by ethics, she was surprised to see how quickly her asthma symptoms were alleviated:
“I noticed a change very quickly; I wish I could remember exactly now, but it was within days. I used to constantly have junk in my throat and lungs–like I was constantly clearing my throat and sometimes, just sitting there, would be fighting this stuff to try to get a deep breath. Turns out this stuff was happening when I ate dairy products; but my diet was so heavy in dairy that I never recognized the correlation.”
Is veganism a cure?
It’s hard to say. Dr. Rambasek cites a few research studies which have been done on vegetarian and vegan athletes. In one study being a vegetarian was actually associated with a higher rate of having asthma, but the association, Dr. Rambasek points out, is weak. In another study, patients on a vegan diet required less asthma meds; however, the study was limited in its scope.
Dr. Horne has seen milk allergies (in which specific antibodies in milk proteins trigger allergic reactions in a person – this is different from lactose intolerance or general aversion to milk products) cause asthma-like symptoms. In these circumstances, eliminating milk and milk products did, in fact, cause the asthma symptoms to cease. But these patients didn’t have asthma – they had an allergy. This reinforces the important of going to a trained medical professional to get a correct diagnosis.
There are many doctors who make claims that asthma can be alleviated by eliminating dairy products, but they’re often anecdotal, and haven’t been researched to provide scientific proof. So really, there isn’t enough information from a medical standpoint to say if the claims of going vegan can alleviate asthma symptoms.
However, because the anecdotal information is strong, both doctors say it can’t hurt to at least try.
“I would support it,” says Dr. Horne, “lots of my patients dabble with complementary and alternative medications, like herbs and acupuncture. Sometimes they seemed to help, sometimes not. Just because there’s not a lot of data on something doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. However, the healthcare provider should be kept in the loop, as some alternative therapies are dangerous.”
Do you have exercise-induced asthma? What do you use to manage your symptoms while running? Has veganism alleviated your asthma symptoms?