10 Ways Your Pantry Can Help Combat Asthma – and just generally improve your life

by Eliza Ward

On NPR I heard about a doctor in Norfolk, VA who administered Vitamin C (along with Thiamine and hydrocortisone) as a “cure” for Sepsis, and it made me start to think about the nutrients in our foods here in the US, and how our bodies – if we fed them right - might respond to infection or auto-immune conditions, like asthma. Of course, we’ve been talking about the health benefits of RealFood for a long time. And, if ever you had the pleasure of take one of our cooking class here in Seattle, you would have already gotten an earful about flavor and healthiness and quality, the importance of paying attention to our pantries, and how all three things are important to make cooking easy and delicious.  But, most of our discussions come from the perspective of the specific ingredient – like my article on the Health Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar.  This time, I did a little research and tried to tackle it from the more practical angle of the ailment – in this case, asthma. 

Everyone knows someone with asthma.  That’s because asthma is now so common it’s considered an epidemic of global proportion; over 300 million people suffer from asthma worldwide, with over 25 million of them in the US alone.*  Most of the cases are a result of allergies of one sort or another, many of which are allergic responses to airborne particles or poisons, like mites or dander or dust.  But a large percentage of asthma attacks are triggered by ingested food allergies as well. But just as important, the lack of certain whole foods in our diet might be leaving us more susceptible.  And, although I could write an article about what foods are most likely to trigger asthma attacks and how to avoid those foods, instead I decided to focus on which foods we could keep in our pantry to help calm down our asthma-related autoimmune responses and help either prevent or control asthma before an attack happens. Of course, I'm no doctor so be sure to do your own reseach. But, here are ten things to think about...
1. Stock Your Pantry (not just your refigerator) with Colorful Foods

You’ve heard it before; “Eat your vegetables!” Our mothers told us that all the time.  Well …. it turns out Mom was right; “People who consuming diets rich in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables have a lower incidence of asthma compared to those eating a typical Western diet.”* Although most of us know this already, the sad thing about this statement is that the “typical” Western diet – which is what most American’s apparently eat - seems to be devoid of fruits and vegetables … What?!?!? 

Colorful foods are rich in Polyphenol compounds called Flavonoids.  And, if you’d read any of my articles on olive oil, you would know all about Polyphenols and how amazing these compounds are for our bodies. (But, if you missed it, here you go: The Inconvenient Truth about Extra Virgin Olive Oil - Part I) The important thing to understand is that color (and flavor) is an indication of the presents of flavonoids in our foods. But, although fresh fruits and veggies are clearly packed with the stuff, why stop there?

Colorful grains, like Black Rice and Black Nile Barley, and seeds, like Red Quinoa and Black Quinoa, can also be rich in the same color-related anti-oxidants, as are many other real ingredients made from colorful and nutrient-rich fruits and grains – like Real Balsamic Vinegar, Real (unpasteurized) Red Wine Vinegar and Real Fermented Shoyu – and colorful spices - like Curry Powder (made with turmeric), Red Pepper Paprika and Red Pepper Flakes and Powder.  And, although we don’t sell many fresh items rich in Flavonoids (except Fresh Cherries and Gigantic Reed Avocados – yum!), you can find dried or preserved items that are naturally rich in Flavonoids, like Dried Tart Cherries and Dried Mission Figs. So, beyond fresh fruits and vegetables you can greatly increase the flavonoids you get from your pantry by making a few choice substitutions and making sure you are buying the real thing.

2. Use Rice Bran Oil, Avocado Oil or Coconut Oil when you COOK

The problem we have in America is that we consume too much of one particular fatty acid called omega-6. The over-abundance of omega-6 fatty acids in the American diet makes us susceptible to inflammation and therefore auto-immune reactions, like asthma (see #3 below). The key to controlling our omega-6 consumption is to cook more (and eat out less), and educate ourselves more about what's goes into your bodies. Specifically, choose higher quality, pasture-raise meats, eggs and dairy whenever possible (see #3 below), and switch to a more omega-balanced cooking oil – ideally one that is NOT Olive Oil (For details about why I’m not fond of using Olive Oil when you COOK, read my EVOO article here).

My favorite three cooking oils are Rice Bran Oil, Avocado Oil and unrefined extra virgin Coconut Oil. All three possess fewer (or no) omega-6 fatty acids than your standard commercial cooking oils. Of these three, Rice Bran Oil is by far my favorite as has more balanced omega fatty acids than almost all other all-purpose cooking oils on the market, it has a high-smoke-point (485-degress – avocado oil is about 350-degrees) so it's less succeptable to oxidation, and it naturally contains a high amount of good Vitamin E - which is not only beneficial for us (see #4 below) but is what helps prevent the oxidation of the oil when exposed to air, giving it a nice, long shelf-life. It’s also inexpensive and has almost no flavor making it good for almost every cooking application, from sautéing to deep frying to baking.

Many nut oils are also naturally higher in omega-3s fatty acids, especially Black Walnut Oil which has that amazing, lightly nutty flavor. Good walnut oil can be quite pricey though, and I highly recommend you store your walnut oil in the fridge, as it’s very susceptible to oxidation - making it not the best cooking oil, but a great oil to use in low-heat and raw applications - like salad dressings.

3. Eat Your Fish: Anchovies, Tuna, Sardines and Macheral

For all the reasons noted above, it's good to eat more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s, by eating omega-3-rich fish at least twice a week. Canned Tuna, Mackerel, Sardines, Sockeye Salmon and Anchovies are all high in omega-3 fatty acids, as are fresh Wild Salmon and fresh wild Black Cod. Although there’s a lot of discussion about heavy metals in tuna and many recommend you eat it sparingly, the other four canned fish are fair game, as are the fresh fish. Due to the different canning methods in Europe, when I have a choice I much prefer the taste and texture of European canned fish over domestically canned fish – but that’s just me. I find it moister and the texture to be far better.

Pasture-raised meat and dairy and eggs are also naturally higher in omega-3s, lower in omega-6s, and contain more other benefitial nutrients than their commercially raised brethren because they eat grass not corn or soy - which are packed with omega-6's. Grass-raised milk also contains no added hormones, making it a better choice if you can afford it.  I, personally, consume about a gallon of pasture-raised milk a week, because I’m absolutely addicted to my Jaipur Chai, to which I add high-quality, grass-fed milk (I have my own “bullet-proof” chai recipe.)

4.  Bone Up on Vitamin E – with Rice Bran Oil and Camelina Oil

A study at Northwestern* found that high levels of one type of Vitamin E – alpha-tocopheral – was highly anti-inflammatory and blocked airway hyperactivity in asthmatics. There are some oils, like Rice Bran Oil and Camelina Oil, that are naturally high in the Vitamin E – especially the most beneficial form of Vitamin E, alpha-tocopherols. However, not all vitamin-E are created equal; soybean oil is naturally high in gamma-tocopheral, the type of Vitamin E that has the opposite effect. The vitamin E in Rice Bran Oil and Camelina Oil also helps protect the oil from oxidation, and oxidized oil is higher in trans-fats which directly contributed to inflammation (See #5 below)

5. Bake with Lard (or Rice Bran Oil)

Avoid hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats (like what you find in margarine), most commercially-produced cooking oils and pre-processed foods, or Crisco.  All are chalk full of omega-6 fatty acids (see #3 above) and trans-fats, which make our bodies more inflamed and exacerbates auto-immune symptoms, like asthma.  Instead, choose butter made from pasture-raised milk, select a cooking oil that is pure and not partially hydrogenated (almost ALL commercial cooking oils are partially hydroginated – Yikes!), like Rice Bran Oil, and bake with Mangalitsa Lard instead of hydrogenated Crisco. Lard from pigs naturally grazed on grass and tree fruits are naturally higher in Vitamin D and K, as well as other fat-soluble vitamins, and one of Nature’s most amazing cooking and baking fats. Although it may not cure your asthma, it will surely help prevent it by decreasing the number of trans-fats in our diets.  Throw that Crisco away … now!

6.  Add Folate-Rich Bean and Lentils to your Repertoire

Folate rich foods are also a good choice for anyone suffering from an auto-immune disease. Folates help reduce the reaction to oxidative stress by lowering homocysteine levels, thus decreasing the inflammation response in those with asthma. Folate-rich foods include dark leafy greens, but also include pantry staples like Lentils and Kidney Beans – foods that are easy to find but that American’s rarely include in their diets – maybe because we don’t know how to make them, or because our canning process is so bad here in the US we can’t stand to eat the mushy gloop that typically comes from a domestically produced can of beans - except maybe ground into a hummus or made into re-fried beans.  Garbanzo beans, in particular, are high in folates, but so are Kidney Beans (also known as Cannellini Beans) – and the European-style canned beans are amazingly yummy – and cheap – and very eatable.  They are generally more expensive, but the way I see if, for an extra buck, you get a can of beans you can actually eat.

7.  Eat Orange Foods - like Carrots and Yams

There are not that many pantry foods that are high in Vitamin A.  The most common sources are going to be orange-colored vegetables, like yams and carrots. Here is a simple recipe I make all the time that my kids absolutely love: Pan-Fried Yams or Carrots Recipe.  Extra delicious when finished with a good sprinkling of magnesium-chloride-rich French Gray Salt (instead of kosher or table salt), freshly ground black pepper, and a healthy drizzled with a good Extra Virgin Olive Oil (as opposed to that cheap stuff … you can probably guess how I feel about the cheap stuff…) Add to that a sprinkling of freshly-chopped parsley to boost the carotenoids (Vitamin A), flavonoids and folates even more. But only Italian flat-leaf parsley – I don’t care much for the curly kind.

8.  Replace your Cheap Soy Sauce and Vinegar with Truely Fermented Artisan Products, But don't Forget your Oats and Rice Bran Saluables.

A healthy population of beneficial bacteria in our lower intestines turns out to be one of the keys to a more normal and stayed immune response, and an important step to avoiding auto-immune syndromes of all types. Naturally fermented foods are packed with pro-biotics – including the ever popular Apple Cider Vinegar and Real (Raw) Wine Vinegar and naturally fermented Japanese Shoyu (or Soy Sauce).  But the other piece of the puzzle is a healthy dose of soluble fiber – or pre-biotics – in order to help that pre-biotic bacterium make it through our digestive tracts alive. Apple pectin in one such pre-biotic and is found in good Apple Cider Vinegar (See: Health Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar) The heart-healthy soluble fiber found in Whole Grain Organic Oats is another, as are products such as Rice Bran Solubles – which I eat every day in my “Bullet-Proof” chai.

9.  Replace Your Kosher Salt with French Gray Sea Salt - And Then Celebrate with Good Chocolate

Magnesium is one of the minerals that’s key to muscle relaxation.  So, in the case of asthma, where involuntary muscle contraction within the bronchial tubes is part of the body’s reaction to lung irritation, having enough magnesium in your diet is key to suppressing that contraction response.

Frequently mentioned sources of Magnesium include green leafy vegetables, Avocados, Almonds, Sesame Seeds, Dried Mission Figs, and Dark Chocolate – all yummy stuff.  However, besides replacing your daily serving of peanut butter with a good Tahini, the other great way to help boost your Magnesium is by using a high-quality French Gray Salt, instead of table salt or kosher salt.  French Gray Salt should contain about 8-10% Magnesium Chloride, as compared to kosher salt which contains – you guessed it – none, because kosher salt is 100% sodium chloride. Plus, Gray Salt contains other minerals, like potassium chloride, sulfur, and calcium carbonate, and as many as 50-60 other trace minerals (Seafriends.org.nz) – and it tastes better as well – so how can you go wrong? (Bathing in dead sea salt or epsom salts also works - although those aren't foods...)

10.  Support the EPA and the Clean Air Act

OK, so this is not a food, but it’s still a good thing to do. Air pollution is the number one asthma trigger because it directly impacts the level of oxidative stress on your lungs, and that stress directly stimulates airway irritability, bronchial muscle contractions, and mucus secretion. So, working to improve and protect air quality is crucial for asthmatics everywhere. Also, it goes without saying that, if you suffer from asthma, don’t smoke or live with someone who smokes.

*What Doctors Don’t Tell You, March 2017 Issue

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