Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.
Asthma during childhood is a frightening disease. As the child's air passages become narrow he finds it difficult to exhale and to bring in fresh oxygen. The little air that moves through tight airways produces a wheeze that is obvious to a bystander. Most attacks subside spontaneously but some lead to death, even with treatment.
Why has the incidence of asthma more than doubled in children since 1980? It seems that the more we stray from the biological blueprint that nature provided hundreds of thousands of years ago, the more that asthma and other chronic diseases whittle away at our health and vitality.
It's likely that there was less asthma during the Stone Age because air pollution and tobacco smoke did not invade their environment. Cigarette smoke, the single biggest contributor to chronic lung disease, affects even those who never light up. Babies born to mothers who smoke have a greater risk of developing asthma during childhood and second-hand smoke contributes to asthma as well as to heart disease and cancer.
But weren't Stone Agers exposed to smoke from the fires that they used for cooking and warmth? Open fires, both indoors and outdoors, do increase the risk of asthma, but our ancestors avoided other factors that may have made them more susceptible.
One of those factors is obesity, which was probably as rare among prehistoric populations as it is among modern hunter-gatherers who still live a Stone Age lifestyle. The upward trends in obesity and asthma among children seem to be moving together. That is probably not a coincidence. Obese children have more than 2 1/2 times greater risk of asthma than do children of normal weight. When these children lose weight they wheeze less.
Asthma, like other allergic diseases, does have a genetic component. As in type 2 diabetes, which also tends to show up in some families more than others, there are environmental triggers that set off the disease process and protective factors that minimize or suppress it. Breastfeeding may fall into the latter category. Some studies have shown that breastfed children are less likely to develop asthma during infancy. The picture is clouded by the fact that the definition of "breastfed" varies from one study to another.
The kind of fats we have in our diet may raise or lower the risk of asthma. The fat in most vegetable oils is known as omega-6 and it tends to promote inflammation, one of the triggers of an asthmatic attack. Omega-6 fats are not all bad but we have far too much in our diet. Omega-3 fats tend to suppress inflammation. A healthy diet contains about equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. The typical diet in the United States contains 10 to 20 times as much omega-6 as omega-3. That increases the likelihood that we will develop asthma and other diseases that involve inflammation, namely lupus, ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis. In numerous clinical studies, all these conditions show improvement in a significant number of patients whose diet contains less omega-6 and more omega-3 fats.
We don't need to subject ourselves to the discomforts and disadvantages of a Stone Age lifestyle but we can certainly apply some of its dietary principles in order to lessen the burden of asthma and other diseases that once seemed to be unavoidable.
Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.