As if being overweight doesn’t cause enough problems — increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, joint issues and more — it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a strong link between obesity and asthma as well. Those extra pounds you’re carrying could be making it harder for you to breathe and, according to the results of a new study, could be making the breaths you do take more harmful.
Doctors have long wondered whether the connection between asthma and obesity is a “what came first” dilemma. In some cases, asthma can be a contributing factor to obesity, as asthma sufferers often limit physical activity due to their breathing problems. For others, research shows obesity may actually cause asthma, because the excess weight prevents the lungs from expanding fully with each breath. This leads to the narrowing and constriction of the airways, one of the primary factors for asthma.
Being significantly overweight — meaning a body mass index of 30 or higher — can also increase inflammation in the lungs, which is one of the primary causes of asthma attacks. The bottom line? Those excess pounds not only increase the likelihood you will develop asthma, but they also make it more difficult to manage your symptoms.
More Pounds, More Pollution
Researchers are still looking for the definitive connection between obesity and the excess inflammation that causes asthma, but a new study from the University of Montreal might provide clues. Scientists at the School of Public Health measured the amount of air inhaled each day by 1,900 people. About 1,000 participants were overweight, while 900 were at a healthier weight.
The results indicated the obese subjects took in up to 50 percent more air each day than their healthier counterparts. According to the lead researcher, Dr. Pierre Brochu, some of the heaviest participants took in more air each day than elite athletes who climb Mount Everest or compete in the Tour de France. Because their larger bodies need more oxygen to function, the overweight subjects took in more air.
While we might think taking in more air would be a good thing, in the case of the overweight subjects it was actually harmful. Elite athletes only breathe more air when they are working at peak performance and breathe more regularly as they go about their normal activities. Overweight people breathe at higher levels all day, every day; given their narrower airways, they do so by taking many shallow breaths instead of fewer deep breaths.
Compounding the problem is the more air you breathe, the more contaminants you take in. In the average city, the air is full of pollutants including ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ammonia, all of which can cause airway irritation. Using daily asthma medications helps reduce the inflammation and prevent asthma attacks, but that doesn’t change the fact being overweight exacerbates the problem.
Improving Your Symptoms
For some people, asthma is a lifelong condition that can only be managed, not cured. In others, losing weight can go a long way toward significantly reducing symptoms and the likelihood of an attack or even make the condition go away altogether.
If you’re suffering from asthma, we recommend talking with your doctor about developing an asthma treatment plan that includes shedding pounds. Your doctor will probably recommend:
Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. Studies indicate asthma patients who eat plenty of fruit each day have reduced symptoms. This is most likely because fruit contains vitamins A, C and E, all of which reduce inflammation.
Avoid fatty foods, processed foods, transfats and high-calorie foods. Choose fresh produce, lean meats and plenty of fish, which contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids that can reduce inflammation.
Add exercise to your routine, with your doctor’s guidance. You might avoid exercise because it triggers your symptoms, but even light exercise such as walking or swimming can help burn calories and strengthen your lungs, so you can breathe easier.
Avoid smoking and allergens. Be aware of the allergens that trigger symptoms and take steps to avoid them.
By attempting to lose weight and increase your lung capacity, not only will you ease the restriction that prevents you from breathing freely, you’ll reduce the amount of pollution you take in each day.
Obesity is a serious problem these days; more than a third of American adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, we’re spending more on health care than ever before — on average, obese people spend $1,400 per year more on health care than people at a normal weight do. Given the laundry list of problems that carrying extra pounds causes, if you are overweight — especially if you’re having breathing trouble — we strongly recommend talking with your doctor and developing an action plan. You’ll breathe easier in more ways than one.
Man with asthma pump by marin from freedigitalphotos.netInhaler image by NIAID on Flickr’s Creative CommonsAbout the Author: Atlanta-based physician Dr. Rodney Sewell is an outspoken advocate for healthier living. He shares his wisdom in many published articles, blogs and books.