If numbers can be trusted (99% of all statistics being made up on the spot), there are almost 25 million cases of asthma in the United States. Out of almost 314 million people in the country, that equates to almost 8% of the population. More than 3,000 Americans die from asthma each year. The annual cost for prescription drugs exceeds 6 billion dollars, and, as reported in 2012, asthma cases have increased 48% in the last ten years. (http://www.statisticbrain.com/asthma-statistics/, from the American Lung Association). Wow, that’s quite an indictment.
Asthma is a condition in which airways become narrowed, swell and produce extra mucus, making it difficult to breathe. It triggers coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. For the lucky few, it’s only a minor nuisance; for others, it can be a major problem that interferes with daily life and might lead to a life-threatening asthma attack. Although asthma has no cure, it can be controlled. Once in a while symptoms flare up in certain situations, such as the exercise-induced asthma that worsens when the air is cool and dry, or the occupational asthma that assaults people in a workplace where exposure to fumes, chemicals or gases are the norm.
The odds of developing the condition increase among smokers, those whose mothers smoked during pregnancy, those assailed by second-hand smoke, people having other allergic conditions, or those having a blood relative with asthma. Symptoms that interfere with sleep, work or recreational activities need serious attention and a visit to a physician.
The inhaled corticosteroids commonly prescribed to treat asthma claim to have fewer adverse effects than the oral steroids used for other inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis and allergies. But that is purely subjective. These medications are used for the long haul, as are the oral leukotriene modifiers that include Singulair and its kin. Leukotrienes are endogenous chemicals that mediate responses in allergic reactions and inflammation, and their modification with drugs is linked, albeit weakly, to psychological reactions characterized by aggression, agitation, hallucinations, depression and suicidal thoughts. No completed suicides have been reported, however (Philip, 209). That’s reassuring. Yep. Other medications are used in combination with inhaled corticosteroids, but have the nasty habit of occasional exacerbation of symptoms. A drug seldom used nowadays is theophylline, a pill that relaxes the muscles around the airways to keep them open. Originally extracted from tea leaves and later found in cocoa, theophylline is one hundred percent bioavailable, but its side effects are equally disturbing, and are worsened in the presence of fatty meals.
But the future is bright. On the horizon are compounds extracted from ginger, the zingy spice that livens up our baked goods. Traditionally used to treat stomach upset, including that from motion sickness (Langner, 1998), ginger has found its way into the grab bag of integrative medicine, where its anti-inflammatory nature finds favor with sufferers of arthritis, hypercholesterolemia (Madkor, 2011), elevated glucose (Akhani, 2004), and even hypertension (Ghayur, 2005) and worms (Mostafa, 2011) (Lin, 2010).
Researchers at Columbia University have discovered that the bronchoconstriction of asthma can be attenuated with ginger compounds that work synergistically with medications called beta-agonists, the best-known probably being Albuterol. The relaxation of airway smooth muscle is the goal. When the drug and the natural components were combined, relaxation response was remarkable (Townsend, 2013). Of the ginger isolates, one called 6-shogaol was most effective in its relaxing effects. This constituent of ginger is similar in structure to the better-known gingerol, the most active ingredient of the herb which is related to compounds appearing in chilies and black pepper, capsaicin and piperine respectively. Shogaol is produced when ginger is dried or cooked. As far as pungency, it falls between capsaicin and piperine on the heat scale.
In the lungs there is an enzyme called PDE4D which interferes with the relaxation of the airways. The elements of ginger stop this enzyme from flaunting its attributes. To further aggravate asthma, there also exists a protein structure that plays a role in the constriction of airways and the contraction of muscles, named F-actin filament.
6-shogaol dissolves these filaments rapidly. While there is support for the idea that asthma can be outgrown as musculature matures (Chitano, 2005), there is comfort in knowing that management of the disease is readily obtainable and that all-natural adjuvants are in the offing. Calcium signaling is part of the muscle contraction process. With some blood pressure medicines, calcium is inhibited and vessels relax to allow the smooth passage of blood. It was found that ginger has an activity like that of verapamil, a calcium-channel blocker, in that it can ease the contraction of the smooth muscle that controls airways (Ghayur, 2008).
In the decade preceding the 21st century, plants have been documented to be useful in the treatment of various respiratory disorders, including asthma. In fact, the use of natural products has increased dramatically all over the world. Not only have they affected bronchodilation, but also mast cell stabilization, anaphylaxis, and overall leukotriene modulation (Mali, 2011). (Mast cells, by the way, are those that release histamine in response to injury, allergy or inflammation.) To the delight of alternative-minded practitioners, many of these medicinal plants provide relief of symptoms equal to allopathic medicines (Bielory, 1999).
We might be reminded to enjoy our spices, especially those with anti-inflammatory characteristics, such as ginger and its close cousin, turmeric, but to be prudent if taking blood thinners. That the therapeutic value of ginger is enhanced by its mineral constituents (Latona, 2012) adds another dimension to the study of its universal appreciation.
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