Asthma Triggered By Expectations
Asthma sufferers usually become quite adept at knowing what can potentially trigger an attack. They do their best to avoid those triggers, but in certain situations it may be impossible to stay away from dust, pollen, or some airborne chemicals. And now, new research shows that it may not only be the exposure to these allergens that can set off an asthma attack, but also the mere belief that exposure to a potential trigger took place.
The study, which was conducted at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found that people with asthma can experience a symptomatic reaction simply from thinking that an odor they smell may be potentially harmful as an asthma attack trigger.1 The subjects were 17 individuals who had been diagnosed with moderate asthma. Each of the participants was exposed to a harmless chemical with a floral scent, known as phenylethyl alcohol, that is actually used in some perfumes. While not typically a cause of lung irritation, phenylethyl alcohol does have a noticeable odor.
To discern how the mind influences the body, nine of the volunteers were informed that the odor they smelled could elicit a mild respiratory response. The other eight subjects were instead told that the odor might have some therapeutic value. Just before their exposure to the phenylethyl alcohol, tests were conducted on each person to evaluate their lung function and whether there was any inflammation present in the airways. As they were inhaling the chemical, they were told to give a rating to the intensity, irritancy, and annoyance of the odor. Then, immediately after the exposure, two hours later, and 24 hours later, the same tests were conducted measuring lung function and airway inflammation.
Those participants who were made to believe that the odor was potentially detrimental rated it higher in the categories of both irritation and annoyance than did their peers who believed the odor possibly helpful. Even more importantly, the airways responded differently depending on which group the volunteer had been a part of. Those told it was harmful had markedly more inflammation in their airways right after smelling the phenylethyl alcohol, and the inflammation was still present even 24 hours later. Conversely, those told the odor might be beneficial showed no increase at all in airway inflammation levels.
This negative mental influence could be very troublesome for people with asthma, as the inflammation produced in the air passages can take several days to resolve. And sufferers are more likely to react to other triggers--even if they are relatively mild and might not normally affect them--when their airways are already swollen and constricted. Plus, asthma is a very common disease and is on the rise. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, approximately 20 million people had asthma in 2001, and by 2009 the number increased to 25 million.
While the size of the study makes it difficult to consider the findings definitive, it is not really much of a surprise that this experiment demonstrates how much your mind influences your body. As we already know, stress has been found to impact our health in numerous ways, including aggravating allergies, which are closely related to asthma. A 2013 study at Ohio State University in Columbus determined that experiencing stress could set off a flare up of seasonal allergies.2 And, just as we can take a placebo and report feeling better, the opposite--thinking that something is harmful and having a bodily reaction as a result--just might make sense as well.
Therefore, those with asthma should take precautions to not only avoid their potential triggers as much as possible, but do what they can to optimize their health and minimize any possible inflammation so that triggers--real or perceived--won't have as much of an effect. That can include the use of ginger compounds3 and vitamin D,4 both of which have been found in recent studies to naturally relieve asthma symptoms. Even better, they do so without the side effects that pharmaceutical asthma drugs may cause.
- 1. Dallas, Mary Elizabeth. "Even Thinking an Odor is Harmful May Spur Asthma Symptoms." U.S. News & World Report. 30 July 2014. Accessed 4 August 2014. http://health.usnews.com/health-news/articles/2014/07/30/even-thinking-an-odor-is-harmful-may-spur-asthma-symptoms
- 2. Patterson, Amber M.; et al. "Perceived stress predicts allergy flares." Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. 8 August 2013. Accessed 5 August 2014. http://www.annallergy.org/article/S1081-1206(13)00492-4/abstract
- 3. "Ginger Compounds May Be Effective in Treating Asthma Symptoms." Columbia University Medical Center. 20 May 2013. Accessed 5 August 2014. http://newsroom.cumc.columbia.edu/blog/2013/05/20/ginger-compounds-may-be-effective-in-treating-asthma-symptoms
- 4. Poon, AH; et al. "Vitamin D deficiency and severe asthma." Pharmacology and Therapeutics. November 2013. Accessed 5 August 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23792089