A Rising Epidemic Tells Us Much About Ourselves, And Offers Clues to Effective Treatment

There is an old Sufi story about a man who loses his keys in his house and decides to look for them under a street lamp on a nearby corner. When a neighbor passes by and asks his friend what he might be looking for, the man replies that he has lost his keys.

“Where did you lose them?” the neighbor asks.
“I lost them in the house,” the man replies.
“Than why are you looking for them out here on this corner?” the neighbor asks.
“Because the light is better out here,” the man replies.

This humorous story tells us a lot about stubborn thinking, which leads inevitably to failure.

A similar problem exists in the medical science today. Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are searching for chemical solutions to diseases that are caused by diet, lack of exercise, and emotional distress.

Examples of this phenomenon are everywhere, but they include the epidemics of overweight, obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and several forms of cancer, just to name a handful. Instead of addressing these illnesses at their cause, the medical and pharmaceutical establishments search for chemical treatments — drugs that temporarily ameliorate the symptoms, but allow the causes of the illnesses to flourish.

This reminds me of that quote from the American bank robber, John Dillinger, who, when asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” 

As any pharmaceutical representative will tell you, the money is in treatment, especially in the kinds of treatments that do not cure, but keep people coming back for more. There’s no money preventing a disease (that only reduces the market), and there isn’t much in curing it, either. Which explains why so few illnesses are being cured by medical science today, and why that trend will only continue.

Unfortunately, the approach to health care that’s based exclusively on the short-term profit motive is leading us all to disaster. If the current population of sick people doesn’t shrink, and more sick people are added to the health care system, eventually the system will be overrun with patients.  And that is exactly what is about to happen in the next thirty years, as hundreds of millions of obese, cancer-stricken, heart-diseased, Alzheimer-ridden, diabetics overwhelm hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, and extended care facilities. Symptomatic medicine is about to meet it’s Waterloo.

These well-known epidemics challenge to the limitations of medical thinking. But one disorder presents medicine with an even more perplexing set of mysteries. That disease is asthma.

We cannot even begin to understand asthma, much less heal it, if we adhere to medical science’s small definition of human life, which insists that basic biochemistry is all that matters when it comes to medicine and health care.Asthma exists outside of these boundaries. It is rooted in the messy interplay among human psychology, emotions, biology, and inherited constitutional strengths and weaknesses. In other words, it clearly involves all aspects of our humanity, which is why there’s so little understanding of the disease.

Clues to a more accurate understanding of asthma, and a more effective set of treatments, do exist in the medical literature. The problem is that these studies are largely ignored because they lead us into realms that reductionist scientists and doctors do not want to enter.

Asthma is the consequence, indeed the side effect, for how we cope with negative emotions, internal conflict, and beliefs about ourselves. When we find a cure for asthma, we’ll have found the cure for modern life.

Like many other answers, that cure is out there, awaiting our discovery. The question is, Are we willing to find it? 

Asthma: Immune Reactions Block Oxygen

Asthma is a chronic condition that limits the afflicted person’s ability to breathe. Periodic attacks of asthma can be so severe as to be fatal. The incidence of asthma is rising throughout the world, but especially in First World nations.

Currently, there are approximately 300 million people worldwide who suffer from asthma, and that number is expected to skyrocket over the next few decades.  The disorder is especially widespread in the U.S., Great Britain, Western Europe, and Australia. The number of Americans afflicted with asthma (now 24 million) has doubled since the 1980s. In Great Britain, ten percent of children and eight percent of adults have asthma. On the other hand, it is virtually unheard of in many African nations.

The underlying condition that creates asthma is inflammation – in other words, an immune reaction that causes the airways inside the lungs to become swollen and inflamed. As the tissues within these tubes swell, the passageways become smaller, and thus reduce air flow to the lungs.

Most people who suffer from asthma usually contract the condition in childhood, but the illness can arise at any age and it is common among many adults. On the other hand, many children who contract asthma discover that the illness passes when they reach adulthood, or becomes less severe.

Symptoms And Medical Treatment

The symptoms of asthma, which vary in both severity and type, include difficulty breathing, wheezing, sweating, rapid heart rate, great emotional distress, fear and anxiety.  During an attack, the skin can become pale and the lips can turn blue. For many, sleep is disturbed, shallow, or shortened.    

Like all chronic conditions, asthma attacks rise suddenly, become acute, and then recede. They can be triggered by an array of possible catalysts, including mold, animal dander, house dust, dust mites, cigarette smoke, air pollution, cockroach droppings, and certain foods, such as milk and milk products, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish.

Because asthma is an autoimmune disease – meaning the person’s own defenses turn against the body – most of the treatments are designed to suppress the immune system, which in turn reduces the inflammation in the bronchioles. Among the drugs commonly used are albuterol (administered through an inhaler); corticosteroid drugs; and pharmaceuticals that can be taken Intravenously (such as aminophyline).

Medical doctors state that there is no cure for asthma. Moreover, there are no methods for prevention. Treatment is focused primarily on asthma attacks, which is extremely important, given that people can die from an asthma attack. On the other hand, little effort is paid to preventing it, perhaps because there is so little understanding of the illness.  Perhaps that is why worldwide numbers keep going up.  

If we open up our view of ourselves, and find a way to join modern science with ancient wisdom, we begin to gain insights into the causes and the cures of asthma. We also begin to see more deeply into our own humanness.

Asthma Is An Emotionally-Based Disorder

Somehow, we in the West decided that emotions are somehow irrelevant to health care. Common sense tells us otherwise, but we’ve been blinded to that old fashion faculty.  Which may explain why so much of the research that shows that asthma is directly tied to anger, depression, and fear has been dismissed by clinicians and researchers alike.

In any event, the case for linking the onset of asthma, and asthma attacks, with our emotional life is a strong one.

For example, in a study published in the medical journal, Thorax (October 2006; 61(10:863-8), researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health examined the effects of anger and hostility on lung function of 670 men. The study was a prospective experiment, meaning the researchers measured the degree of anger and hostility in the men first, and then determined the effects these emotions had on their lungs. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that anger and hostility significantly reduced overall lung function, narrowing airways and contributing to the overall decline of the lungs.

“This overall association between higher hostility and reduced lung function remained significant after adjusting for smoking and education,” the researchers found. “Higher hostility was associated with a more rapid decline in lung function and this effect was unchanged and remained significant…”  Not only did anger and hostility reduce the ability of the men to breathe, but these emotions also contributed to the decline of the lungs over time.

In a similar study, German scientists from the University of Hamburg studied the effects of emotions on asthmatics and non-asthmatics.  The Hamburg researchers showed two groups – one composed of people with asthma, and another composed of non-asthmatics. They showed both groups photographs depicting emotionally charged imagery. Each photograph was meant to evoke a different emotional state. After showing these photographs to both groups, the scientists measured the effects of these emotional states on the air passages in the lungs.  They also were able to measure the effects of mood on breathing in both groups during everyday life.

The photographs that evoked negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and hostility, reduced the lung function in both groups, but more severely in the asthmatic patients.

“Unpleasant mood is associated with decreased respiratory function in asthmatic patients in everyday life and in laboratory assessments,” the scientists concluded.

But the fact that these images affected both groups is worth noting. It’s possible – even likely – that most of us experience some degree of lung dysfunction after experiencing or witnessing an unpleasant event. But the lungs in some of us are more sensitive to trauma, and thus more vulnerable to an asthmatic reaction.

Stanford University researchers examined the effects of different moods stimulated by watching films in the laboratory. The results showed that not only did negative mood and emotional states significantly reduce lung function, but positive emotions also lowered lung function as well in the asthmatics, though not as much as the negative emotions. Moreover, the Stanford researchers found that the asthmatics in the experiment were particularly susceptible to depression.

The researchers, who published their study in Psychosomatic Medicine (November-December 2000; 62 (6):808-15), concluded that, “Pulmonary function of asthmatic patients is negatively affected by strong mood states in daily life. Airway effects of negative emotion…particularly depression, can predict changes in pulmonary function in response to negative mood…”

The reference to depression is important, because other researchers have found that many asthmatics are particularly susceptible to depression. Mexican researchers studied 85 children with asthma and found that “100 percent of the evaluated asthmatic children and adolescents showed

[mood states] related to depression.”

After a review of the medical literature, scientists from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey reported in a 1993 issue of the Journal of Asthma that, “Asthmatics tend to report and display a high level of negative emotion, and asthma exacerbations [i.e., asthma attacks] have been linked temporarily to periods of heightened emotionality.”   

In fact, the medical literature is bursting with studies showing that heightened negative emotions – most commonly anger, fear, and depression – are among the most common characteristics shared by people with asthma.  Moreover, asthma attacks most often arise when these underlying emotional states flare up and cause dramatic changes in lung function, which in turn cause the narrowing of the bronchioles and severe reductions in breathing.

Children Feel Greatly, But Cannot Speak Their Truths

One of the important lessons every healer learns early in his or her training is that emotions are, in fact, bundles of energy that cause dramatic change in biochemistry and organ and muscle function. Also emotions have tremendous power to create states of physical contraction or relaxation. Take shock and fear, for example.

If a child is sitting on the floor with crayon in hand, coloring a picture, and an adult suddenly screams at that little boy in anger, that child will go into a state of shock that will trigger an array of body-wide changes. The most obvious symptom of that shock will be an instantaneous contraction of virtually every muscle in his body. An array of other biochemical changes will occur, including the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which is a primary cause of inflammation.

The truth is, many children are shocked on a regular basis by traumatic events or by the sudden emotional outbursts from parents, teachers, and siblings. Many children are verbally, physically, and/or sexually abused, as well. These are the more obvious sources of trauma in life.

But there are subtler forms of emotional injury that are also widespread, but tend to be denied or overlooked, such as regular arguments between parents; or the effect of a depressed parent on the family; the effects of parents who are struggling with illness, fear of job loss, or some other tragedy that cannot be controlled or avoided.

In fact, most families are forced to deal with challenges and tragedies over which they have no control. Parents do their best to protect their children from all manner of difficulties that adults face, but very few of us have effective coping mechanisms. We do our best, but our children feel every bit of our pain. And they suffer with us.

Children are so open and attuned to the emotional lives of their parents that they cannot help but experience, in very intimate ways, the internal conflicts and turmoil that their parents are experiencing. Which means that not only must children cope with their own emotional distress, but they must also deal with the terrible weight of their family’s inner turmoil.

As stress hormones rise, the immune system goes into action. Inflammation rises throughout the system, including in the lungs.

The terrible conundrum that children face is that they cannot speak their truths, tell their stories, and express their pain. Yes, they lack the vocabulary, but more important, they lack the awareness of what is taking place within them.   Meanwhile, adults do not encourage children to speak their truths or to purge their frustrations, anger, and fears in healthy ways.

In fact, in most cases, we adults ask our children to cope with their emotional pain and buried truths by “being good,” or “learning to behave,” which is our code for asking them to make the fewest demands on us as possible. Children realize this and very often adopt a pattern of silence, especially when it comes to their own needs and inner experiences of life.

Their inner stories, their challenges at school, at home, with friends, or in their neighborhoods remain buried inside of them, causing patterns of distress that become deeply imbedded. There they linger and fester, ready to implode or explode, depending on the nature of the child.

When emotions – especially shock, fear, and anger – go unexpressed and unhealed, they can have long-term effects on stress hormones, inflammation, muscle contraction, and altered states of organ function. Our bodies are literally reshaped by the emotional events and traumas of our youth.

It’s possible that the science of post-traumatic-stress, which is still in its infancy, will one day help us understand the degrees of trauma each of us is carrying.  What we do know is that trauma creates a kind of emotional and biological programming which is set in motion every time we experience some degree of stress. For many of us, that programming triggers the same biochemical and emotional cascade, no matter how severe the stressor may be. This is why so many of us overreact to relatively minor events.  Even small stressors can set off our underlying programming, and thus set the cascade in motion.

For the sensitive child – the child whose lungs are particularly vulnerable – those patterns of stress, emotion (especially anger), and silence change the way lungs function. And indeed, may well be the basis for asthma.

This is also true for adults who struggle with asthma.

The two emotions that have the greatest power to trigger this traumatic programming are anger and fear. This is especially true of a certain form of anger, which I refer to as powerless anger.

Powerless Anger Is At The Root Of Asthma

One of the most difficult emotions for any family to deal with is anger. In many families, only one member is allowed to be angry. Usually, that person with permission to be angry is the father. He is, after all, coping with the world of work and earning a living – at least that’s the rationale we use to justify his rage. In many families, however, it’s the mother who is angry and the father who is passive.

Anger can exist without necessarily exploding into verbal or physical violence, of course. Lots of angry people merely seethe, or become withdrawn, or manipulative, or passive aggressive, or withhold their love. Anger can take on many forms. And the more powerless the angry person feels, the more indirect, manipulative, and unjust he becomes.  People with powerless anger invariably take out their rage on innocent people, and usually on dependents.

When one family member is angry, and every one else is silent, it means that all the other family members are forced to repress their anger, as well as their power and the personal experiences of life. They swallow their rage, bury their truths, and make excuses for one or both parents. Meanwhile, they feel powerless to change the one person who is allowed to be angry. They are also afraid to express their own anger for fear that they will be punished or attacked or will lose all hope of gaining their parents’ love.

Anger within the family is always accompanied by fear. We are angry at one or both parents, afraid of his or her wrath, and afraid that we will never receive his or her love. Hence, children keep their anger silent to get along, keep their hopes alive, and survive.

 This anger only gets worse in adulthood. That our world is becoming more angry is proof of this statement. Too many adults are feeling powerless to affect positive change in their lives.  Gun sales are way up and not because people feel good about themselves, or their neighbors. We have lost faith in the power of our words and the dignity of our bearing.

And virtually everyone – children and adults alike — deals with his or her anger in the same way: with food.

Food is among the primary means of dampening emotional turmoil in both children and adults. And the foods that lie at the cause of asthma are the foods that children use most often as anesthetics for their emotional pain – sugar, soft drinks, processed foods, and dairy products, such as ice cream, cheese, butter, and yogurt.

Food Is A Primary Source Of Inflammation

All the foods we use to cope with stress, fear, anger, frustration, and depression are highly inflammatory. Processed foods, including sugar, white flour products, soft drinks, artificial chemicals, and fake foods, all cause rapid elevations in blood glucose and insulin, which in turn increase weight and trigger the release of highly inflammatory compounds, including tumor necrosis factor (TNC) and interleukin-6 (Il-6).

Milk products contain insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which is highly inflammatory. Milk proteins and purines also trigger immune reactions and lead to inflammation, especially in milk-sensitive children and adults.  Milk proteins also elevate homocysteine, which acts on soft tissues – including those in the arteries and lungs – like battery acid. The injury caused by homocysteine triggers an immune reaction in the sensitive tissues, which in turn causes inflammation.

The saturated fat in animal products all drive up blood cholesterol levels which in turn triggers an immune reaction in all the places where cholesterol plaques collect, especially in the arteries around the heart and in the lungs.

The combination of highly toxic emotions – especially anger, fear, and depression – with highly toxic foods, especially processed foods and dairy products, is the real cause of asthma.

Ancient Wisdom, Modern Needs

Our ancestral healers understood the union of psychological states, emotions, food, and physical constitution in ways that modern minds have great difficulty appreciating. Perhaps the most advanced system for articulating this union of body, mind, and spirit was the Chinese system of the Five Transformations.

The Five Transformations articulated how organs rely upon each other in order to function optimally. No organ functions exclusively on its own. Rather, it depends on other organs for support.

In the case of asthma, the lungs are dependent upon an array of other organs, especially the spleen, kidneys, and liver. And when it comes to treating asthma, these organs are the keys to the restoration of the lungs.

This becomes even clearer when we understand that the Chinese maintained that each organ holds and is responsible for regulating a specific emotional state. A brief summary of that system follows:

 The lungs hold and regulate sadness and grief. Conversely, the lungs are injured by excessive sadness and grief.

The kidneys and bladder hold and regulate fear, courage, and innate will power.  In the same way, the kidneys are injured by excessive fear.

The liver holds anger, frustration, emotional balance, and the expression of our will and deep feelings. The more anger in one’s life, the greater the insult and injury to the liver.

The heart, joy. When the heart is imbalanced, the emotional state becomes chaotic and we experience hysteria. The more chaos in one’s life, the greater the injury to the heart.

The spleen, stomach, and pancreas hold and regulate compassion and empathy. These organs also strengthen our sense of self and our boundaries. When the spleen and stomach become weak, we can over-identify with the feelings of others, which can result in a loss of one’s sense of self and a loss of one’s connection with his or her own truth. Over-identification with other people’s stories and truths injures the spleen, stomach, and pancreas.

As an organ weakens, the negative emotional state becomes more pronounced.

These emotions are all heightened in asthmatics, which indicates that all the associated organs are in a weakened state. They must all be treated in order to heal asthma.

Meanwhile, the excessive and imbalanced emotions held within the body must also be released and healed.  In other words, the trauma-programming, with its emotional and biological cascade, must be transformed in order to heal asthma.

What To Do

Pharmaceutical drugs, including inhalers and other forms of medication, will go on being necessary as long as the person with asthma goes on reacting to negative emotions and stressful events with the same emotional and biochemical cascade.

In order to transform that programming, we must learn to react to stressful events and negative emotions in a different manner. In effect, we must break the old habit of swallowing our emotions and turning anger in on ourselves.  At the same time, we must stop using the same poisonous foods to cope with stress and negative emotions.

Four steps must be taken if we are to transform the underlying, trauma-based programming. Those four steps are as follows:

  1. We must undergo regular healing touch or acupuncture in order to release the effects of emotional stress that are still carried in our organs and tissues, especially in the lungs, kidneys, and liver. (More about how that can be done is provided below.)  The tension and trauma held in these organs are still triggering that inflammatory cascade that is at the root of the asthma.
  2. We must stop consuming all refined, white sugar and all dairy products, including milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. We must also sharply reduce processed foods, which cause both glucose and insulin spikes, both of which lead to higher levels of inflammation. These foods may act as temporary analgesics for emotional distress, but they in fact fuel the biochemical cascade that leads to inflammation and asthma.
  3. Replace sugar with cooked fruit and foods sweetened with rice syrup, barley malt, maple syrup, and cooked apple juice. Eat sweet vegetables, such as squash, carrots, onion, and pumpkin.
  4. We must practice speaking our truths and expressing our emotions in safe environments, such as writing them in a diary and speaking to therapists and healers. This must be done consistently and habitually. Rather than turn our emotions inward, they must be expressed outwardly. That outward expression must lead to new behaviors in which we feel a growing sense of our power and control in life.
  5. We must add foods to the diet that heal the lungs, kidneys, liver, and spleen.

In order to heal the lungs, eat:

  • Leafy vegetables, especially collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, and green cabbage.
  • White vegetables, especially daikon, onion, turnip, and cauliflower.
  • Brown rice, boiled. Eat brown rice once or twice a day for three or four days per week.
  • Small amounts (half a teaspoon) of fresh grated ginger, twice a week, in vegetable medleys and soups.
  • Mochi, or pounded sweet rice, in soups with green and leafy vegetables. Once or twice a weekIn order to heal the kidneys:
  • Substitute vegetable protein for animal protein during most meals.
  • Eat beans daily, especially aduki beans, black beans, navy and kidney beans. Eat tempeh and tofu as substitutes for beans, but make beans the priority.
  • Eat sea vegetables, such as arame, wakame, and sushi nori daily.
  • Sea vegetables, rich in minerals, alkalize the blood and support the kidneys.
  • Restrict animal foods to fish once or twice a week and one or two eggs, twice a month, until the asthma attacks are alleviated.
  • Eat root vegetables, especially burdock, carrots, parsnips, lotus root, and rutabaga.
  • Eat buckwheat as groats and as pasta, such as soba noodles in tamari or shoyu broth.
  • Eat a small amount of pickles three to five times per week after dinner meal. Pickles alkalize the blood and provide digestive enzymes.
  • Eat miso soup four to six times per week. Miso soup should include wakame seaweed, along with small amounts of green and root vegetables.
  • Eat black sesame seeds as a condiment on cooked grains and vegetables.
  • Eat chestnuts in fall and winter, and watermelon in summer.
  • Use sea salt in cooking (usually a pinch is all that is needed in cooking).
  • Avoid all cold and iced drinks.
  • Avoid excess protein, especially from animal foods, especially red meat and dairy products.
  • Avoid table salt.

To heal the liver, eat the following:

  • Barley, boiled so that the grain is moist or, sometimes, as soup. Occasionally add shiitake mushrooms, carrots, scallions, and onions to cooked, moist barley.
  • Eat steel cut oats. Use raisins and rice syrup to sweeten.
  • Green and leafy vegetables, especially broccoli, broccoli rape, bok choy, collard greens, and kale.
  • Eat a tablespoon size serving of sauerkraut five days a week.
  • Use lemon as a condiment on vegetables.
  • Eat shiitake mushrooms three times per week.
  • Eat udon, especially as noodle soup, with shiitake, green and leafy vegetables, carrots, and scallions, seasoned with tamari, shoyu, or miso.
  • Eat fruit, especially green apple, strawberries, and blueberries.
  • Avoid fried foods, oily foods, and all fast foods.

In order to heal the spleen, eat the following:

  • Millet, boiled. Make is soft and moist. Cook with a pinch of seasalt.
  • All round and sweet vegetables, including squash, onion, rutabaga, turnip, sweet potato, yams, and corn.
  • Miso soup, five times per week.
  • Chew foods thoroughly.
  • Avoid processed foods and sugar, which injure the spleen.
  • Avoid soft drinks, especially orange juice and all sodas.

Add the following supplements and healing behaviors.

Quercitin with bromalain. These two come in a standard formula and is widely available from most natural foods markets. Quercitin, which is a powerful antioxidant, with bromalain strengthens and heals the lungs and opens the bronchial passages.

Black Elderberry syrup.  1 teaspoon before bed. Heals the lungs and immune system and is highly anti-inflammatory.

Peppermint tea. Clears and opens lungs.

Sauna. No more than ten minutes in a sauna, twice a week. Promotes elimination and strengthens kidneys and lungs.

Warm body scrub. Scrub entire body either before or after coming out of the shower with a moist cloth until skin is red and breathing. This will eliminate waste from the upper layers of the skin and support kidney and lung function.

Chinese herbs, usually administered by a skilled herbalist and acupuncturist.  Many of my clients have had great success with asthma by eliminating dairy products and sugar and taking Chinese herbs. Seek out a qualified acupuncturist and herbalist.

Engage in an aggressive, competitive sport, or martial art. Aggressive feelings must be channeled in a positive way through sport or martial arts. Such a sport should be practiced at least three or four times per week. This will change the practice of turning anger and other aggressive feelings inward. It will also reduce hostility and utilize energies in a positive way that are currently trapped inside the body and are contributing to inflammation.

Asthma requires a transformation body, mind, and heart. This is not as hard as it may appear, and with the practices described above, the underlying programming that is the life support of asthma can be eradicated. That programming can be replaced with a new sense of personal power and creativity, which together can create a new way of life.