Using Diet to Treat Asthma and Eczema

Treating Asthma and Eczema with Plant Based Diets

I previously discussed the power of fruits and vegetables to help prevent and treat asthma and allergies. If adding a few more servings of fruits and vegetables may help asthma, what about a diet centered around plants? Twenty patients with allergic eczema were placed on a vegetarian diet.  At the end of two months, their disease scores, which covered both subjective and objective signs and symptoms, were cut in half, similar to what we might see using one of our most powerful drugs. The drug works much quicker, within about two weeks, but since drugs can often include dangerous side effects the dietary option is more attractive. This was no ordinary vegetarian diet, however. This was an in-patient study using an extremely calorically-restricted diet—the subjects were practically half fasting. Therefore, we don’t know which component was responsible for the therapeutic effect.

What about using a more conventional plant-based diet against a different allergic disease, asthma? In Sweden, there was an active health movement that claimed that a vegan diet could improve or cure asthma. This was a bold claim, so in order to test this, a group of orthopedic surgeons at Linköping University Hospital followed a series of patients who were treated with a vegan regimen for one year. (This study is highlighted in my video, Treating Asthma and Eczema with Plant-Based Diets.) Participants had to be willing to go completely plant-based, and they had to have physician-verified asthma of at least a year’s duration that wasn’t getting better or was getting worse despite the best medical therapies available.

The researchers found quite a sick group to follow. The thirty-five patients had long-established, hospital-verified bronchial asthma for an average duration of a dozen years. Of the 35 patients, 20 had been admitted to the hospital for acute asthmatic attacks during the last two years. Of these, one patient had received acute infusion therapy (emergency IV drugs) a total of 23 times during this period and another patient claimed he had been to the hospital 100 times during his disease and on every occasion had evidently required such treatments. One patient even had a cardiac arrest during an asthma attack and had been brought back to life on a ventilator. These were some pretty serious cases.

The patients were on up to eight different asthma medicines when they started, with an average of four and a half drugs, and were still not getting better. Twenty of the 35 were constantly using cortisone, which is a powerful steroid used in serious cases. These were all fairly advanced cases of the disease, more severe than the vegan practitioners were used to.

Eleven couldn’t stick to the diet for a year, but of the 24 that did, 71% reported improvement at four months and 92% at one year. These were folks that had not improved at all over the previous year. Concurrently with this improvement, the patients greatly reduced their consumption of medicine. Four had completely given up their medication altogether, and only two weren’t able to at least drop their dose. They went from an average of 4.5 drugs down to 1.2, and some were able to get off cortisone.

Some subjects said that their improvement was so considerable they felt like “they had a new life.” One nurse had difficulty at work because most of her co-workers were smokers, but after the plant-based regimen she could withstand the secondhand smoke without getting an attack and could tolerate other asthma triggers. Others reported the same thing. Whereas previously they could only live in a clean environment and felt more or less isolated in their homes, they could now go out without getting asthmatic attacks.

The researchers didn’t find only subjective improvements. They also found a significant improvement in a number of clinical variables, most importantly in measures of lung function, vital capacity, forced expiratory volume, and physical working capacity, as well as significant drops in sed rate (a marker of inflammation) and IgE (allergy associated antibodies).

The study started out with 35 patients who had suffered from serious asthma for an average of 12 years, all receiving long-term medication, with 20 using cortisone, who were “subjected to vegan food for a year,” and, in almost all cases, medication was withdrawn or reduced, and asthma symptoms were significantly reduced.

Despite the improved lung function tests and lab values, the placebo effect can’t be discounted since there was no blinded control group. However, the nice thing about a healthy diet is that there are only good side effects. The subjects’ cholesterol significantly improved, their blood pressures got better, and they lost 18 pounds. From a medical standpoint, I say why not give it a try?

If you missed the first three videos of this 4-part series here are the links:

More on eczema and diet can be found in my videos:

There are a number of other conditions plant-based diets have been found to be effective in treating:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: KristyFaith / Flickr

  • guest

    I am confused about coconut fat. Is it the processed and extracted coconut oil that increases gut permbeability only? Or does the fresh coconut meat also cause inflammation and increase gut permeability? Thank you.

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      I am not sue about gut permeability and coconut oil, specifically. I did not see anything in the literature on human studies. Fresh coconut and coconut water are probably the best types. Dr Greger points out the differences in this video between saturated fat from coconut vs. animal fat. From the transcript “Unlike saturated animal fats, coconut oil doesn’t cause that spike inflammation immediately after consumption of animal foods, which makes sense because as you’ll remember it may be the dead bacterial endotoxins in animal products ferried into the body by saturated fat that are to blame. ”

      Two recent reports on coconut oil that may help:

      CSPI report on coconut oil

      Forks Over Knives report

      • Brazily

        Yeah I too would like to know if coconut flesh is inflammatory, and if it increase gut permeability like other high saturated fat foods.

  • Guest

    My wife is > 3 years vegetarian and >0,5 years vegan. However it does not seem that her diet affected her eczema anyhow. What is she missing?

    • guest

      “SCD diet”, but do a vegan version of it. Follow it 100%.

      • Marnie

        I work in a skin care clinic as a laser technician and we recommend a product called Juice Plus. We have seen so many people improve their health including eczema. Its a variety of 30 fruits veg and berries in a convenient capsule or chew form. The Vineyard Blend (berries and grapes) is the powerhouse when it comes to improving eczema due to its circulatory properties. We find it easy to recommend as its safe as its 100% food and its NSF Certified. Its so hard to get that much needed 7-13 servings of fruits and vegetables daily…..I know better and I still don’t do it! I can send some before and after photos if you’d like or if you would like any more info you can check out my website at Switch the website at the top depending what country you are in. Its a frustrating skin condition for many so I hope my info helps :)

    • Matthew Smith

      You could consider supplementing with D3, It is recommeneded here for all folks.

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Hi there. It is hard to say what is best. I would need more more information about the diet. Have you seen all of our videos on eczema? Some of these might help. You may consider eliminating certain foods that may or may not be linked to skin health. I also suggest seeing a dermatologist and dietitian familiar with skin conditions. Let me know if you need help finding one.

  • SK

    I have been vegetarian all my life (30+ years old) but still deal with eczema/dry skin symptoms. Any ideas/suggestions?

    • b00mer
      • Catherine J Frompovich

        Perhaps you ought to talk to an MD who is familiar with doing blood testing for identifying various viruses that also can impact eczema/skin problems. Once your MD can identify the specific virus involved–since many vaccines automatically contain hidden animal viruses depending upon excipients, etc. used; plus they also can contain “mycoplasmas”–you can address your problem, including maintaining a LOW lysine diet, i.e., eliminate foods that are high in lysine, which “feed” viruses. Just a suggestion that may help.

        • Sally Ute

          I thought viruses feed off of arginine, and that lysine inhibits and fights them, no? Cold sore remedy (herpes virus) is to avoid arginine foods and add more lysine.

        • lu

          You might want to correct this statement. Lysine has been show to do the opposite.

        • b00mer

          Hi Catherine, this comment went to me but I think you meant for it to go to SK. They may not have seen your reply.

    • Panchito

      look into pygnogenol. It is found in very small quantities in the peels of some fruits.

    • Matthew Smith

      You could have your vitamin D3 levels checked. Do you get enough sunshine?

    • Parissa M.

      Regarding eczema, it has both genetic and environmental factors involved. Lots of factors can exacerbate the condition such as stress, contact with irritating substances and soaps, cold & dry climates or heat & sweat. Avoiding animal products would definitely decrease inflammation associated with eczema, but considering these factors would help you better deal with the problem. Interestingly according to among treatments are mentioned short warm showers vs. long hot showers and mild soap and moisturizers. Also exercise and reducing stress can improve the condition.

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Have you seen all of our videos on eczema? Some of these might help. Coconut oil on the skin may help, and of course seeing the dermatologist to discuss the right lotions or ointments can help. You may consider eliminating certain foods like eggs or wheat or milk, as some folks have allergies to these foods.

  • Kitsy Hahn

    As far as what diet to follow, there are (conflicting) websites like this one:

  • Helen Jameson

    On a different topic. I am interested in using diet to improve or manage Polycystic Kidney Disease. I am familiar with the Tanner rat studies, but I’m not aware of any other research having been carried out. As it also affects the liver and other internal organs, it obviously has wider implications. Can you give any more information please, and does it depend on how much the disease has progressed?
    I’m also interested in the effects acupuncture can have. Have any interventions, other than drugs, been successful? Thank you for your help and the fascinating articles.

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Hi Helen. Here are our videos on kidney disease and one on kidney failure. I am not sure it pertains to polycystic kidney disease. This foundation has more information on the disease. They claim “At present, no specific diet is known to prevent cysts from developing in patients with PKD. Reducing salt intake helps control blood pressure in PKD patients who have high blood pressure. A diet low in fat and moderate in calories is recommended to maintain a healthy weight. Speak to your doctor or a dietitian about other changes to your diet, such as avoiding caffeine.”

  • Annetha

    Strains of Lactobacillus reuteri are said to help with asthma (as well as colic):, My cow’s milk kefir contains L reuteri–are there other sources?

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Thanks for the links! I am not sure where else that strain is found? I just wrote more about kefir in this comment which may help. I reference one study about that strain.

  • Elizabeth Koshie

    Im an asthmatic and have turned vegan for the last 6 months. I still continue to be on medication and have not seen a noticeable change to the point of giving up on the diet. Any help or suggestions is greatly appreciated.

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Hi Elizabeth. Sorry to hear you have to still take medication. A vegan diet can be healthful and even help with asthma based on some of the studies Dr. Greger mentions, but it depends on what you’re eating overall. The diet may not be helpful in every case, but I think even if some of the symptoms associated with asthma are not lessened, a healthy eating pattern can still benefit you in other areas of disease prevention.

  • mparent

    I’m not sure where to ask this question, but I was wondering if there is any research regarding alopecia (hair loss) with diet. I’ve read blogs with some vegetarians indicating they’ve had hair loss. Is this a b12 or zinc deificiency? Are there types of foods that can minimize this? Thank you

  • Darcelle Rancourt

    Are there any studies regarding nutrition and rosacea?
    My skin was fine until I transitioned to a whole foods, plant-based diet. Two weeks later I developed rosacea (dermatologist diagnosis), which I have now struggled with for 6 months with no signs of improvement. I am frustrated because a WFPB diet is touted as promoting excellent skin and mine is the worst it’s ever looked. So if there’s anything I can add or subtract to my diet that would help I would love to know. Thanks!