Posted on Mar 10, 2014 by Ruth Loftus
If you don’t suffer from it yourself – or you don’t have an immediate family member with the condition – then asthma might appear to be a fairly low level illness with only a small impact at on quality of life. However, within the UK alone some 5.4 million people (one in twelve adults and one in eleven children) suffer from the condition; an asthma attack may last from a few hours to a week and it is the cause of death for three people every day.
Most of these deaths can be categorised as preventable. Across the world as a whole, some 300 million people suffer from asthma and it is one of a number of health conditions that are becoming more prevalent in developed countries so it would not be surprising to see the rate of asthma continue to rise significantly over the next few decades. Given the present situation and future predictions, research into asthma will become increasingly important and there have already been some significant developments recently. However, it remains the case that the essential cause of asthma is still not fully understood.
Asthma manifests itself in coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. These arise because the muscles that surround the passages which take air in and out of the lungs constrict after becoming irritated by an inflammation. The airways can then become further constricted by mucus and it is this that causes wheezing and breathlessness as it becomes more difficult to draw breath.
An illness that is more likely to affect children and young adults, Asthma is characterised as a chronic condition - i.e one that persists throughout a lifetime. The factors that cause the inflammation of the airways are not yet fully understood. However, as with numerous health conditions, there is evidence that vulnerability to asthma runs in families and so there may be a genetic component to the condition.
What is known is that there are a range of factors that can increase the possibility of asthma developing. These include factors such as:
Food eaten by the mother during pregnancy which can cause an allergic reaction
Living with pets as a child - particularly cats
Suffering from certain illnesses as a child
Exposure to cigarette smoke in early life (or even before birth) - babies with mothers who smoke are twice as likely to develop asthma
Allergies to pollen, house-dust mites and mould
Other contributing factors that are viewed as significant in the western world include air pollution and processed foods.
Specific triggers for an attack are varied but are known to include factors such as the weather, medication, traffic fumes and exercise. Both smoking and other people’s cigarette smoke are particularly dangerous for asthmatics.
Recent research has suggested that exposure to sunlight may have particularly positive benefits for people with asthma. It is thought that Vitamin D, which can be generated by the body as a result of sunlight, may assist the body’s immune system. Interleukin-17 is a vital part of the immune system and plays an important role in fighting infection. However, there is evidence that people who suffer from asthma have very high levels of interleukin-17 and that at these raised levels, it may be implicated as part of the cause of asthma.
Research has shown that asthma sufferers with very high levels of interleukin-17 do not benefit from steroids as treatment. Exposure to more sunlight could result in higher levels of vitamin D and enable the body to exert control over levels of interleukin-17, therefore making steroids more effective for more asthma sufferers.
However, full clinical trials are still required and the fact that overexposure to sunlight generates its own risks will have to be factored into the full assessment of this research.
Other research has also observed the way in which the immune system may play a part in the development of asthma and how enabling the system to operate more effectively, may make management of asthma more straightforward.
Due to the increased use of processed foods in the western diet, people are generally consuming less fibre. Tests on mice have shown that when fed on fruit and vegetables, which have a high concentration of soluble fibre, bacteria produce more short chain fatty acids. These fatty acids contribute to the working of the immune system and in particular, to the management of irritation in the lungs and therefore asthma.
As with the vitamin D research, there is further work to be done in this area so the insights gained from research on mice can be transferred into clinical trials for human sufferers. However, research such as these examples provided indicate that there is in fact hope and further developments to be made in alleviating the stress that comes with such a debilitating condition.