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Asthma and stress: the yoga treatment

It’s time the medical profession started integrating complementary therapies into conventional treatment, says David Servan-Schreiber

Linda had suffered from asthma since childhood. But at 43, over the course of a few weeks, she found she was having to use her inhaler a dozen times a day. At Pittsburgh University’s Center for Integrative Medicine, Dr Amy Stine checked Linda’s medication and respiratory test results, and then asked her about possible lifestyle changes: different perfume, a new pet... No, nothing like that. But with stress building at work over the past couple of months, Linda had been thinking about leaving her job.

Asthma is an allergy that causes inflammation of the membranes around the bronchioles and produces mucus that blocks free movement of air around the lungs.

Stine knew that certain kinds of stress could provoke inflammation in the body. She introduced Linda to Beverly, the centre’s yoga teacher, so she could learn to manage her stress through better breathing techniques. Beverly, in turn, persuaded Linda to see the centre’s nutritionist.

The goal was to teach her how to control levels of inflammation in her body by modifying her diet: less omega-6 (found in sunflower oil, dairy products, red meat), more omega-3 (found in canola or rapeseed oil, linseed oil or seeds, sardines), and include turmeric powder several times a week.

Once she had mastered the deep breathing techniques taught in yoga and made the dietary changes, Laura was amazed to find that she relied less on her inhaler, even less than she had before the stressful period at work began. Delighted finally to have learned how to manage her asthma using her body’s own resources, she couldn’t help wondering why, over the past 30 years, not one doctor had ever mentioned the possibility of alternative treatments.

Nowadays, three-quarters of American medical schools include at least one compulsory course on complementary medicine in the core curriculum. And the top 18 university hospitals have set up integrative health centres that offer meditation, yoga, acupuncture and hypnosis as complements to conventional treatments.

The only real measure of value in medicine is not whether treatment is labelled Western or alternative, but whether it is effective, with the fewest possible side effects. It’s what patients quite reasonably expect. And it’s patients who are insisting that our traditional medical system integrate these new forms of therapy