You would be right to think that asthma has become more commonplace over the years. Consider that between 2001 and 2009 alone, more than 4 million people were diagnosed with asthma in the United States. Likewise, millions of Americans experience stress on a regular basis. What you may not have realized, however, is that these two health problems are often linked.
Looking at the Numbers
As shown by the following statistics, many Americans must routinely contend with the effects of stress and asthma:
- An estimated 8.4% of Americans had asthma in 2010. In 2001, this figure stood at just 7.3%
- In 2010, a total of 25.7 million Americans were asthmatics. Of this amount, roughly seven million were children.
- A study by Carnegie Mellon University found that Americans have dealt with increasing amounts of stress since the 1980s. From 1983 to 2009, self-reported stress levels increased by 10 to 30 percent.
- According to a Harris Interactive Poll, one fifth of Americans report experiencing “extreme stress” in their daily lives. This same poll found that stress levels were highest among those aged 18 to 33, an age bracket referred to as “millenials.”
Other than the fact that stress and asthma afflict large numbers of people, it may seem that these two conditions would have little to do with each other. In fact, it is not uncommon for asthma attacks to be triggered by stress. When experiencing mental and emotional strain, the muscles in various parts of the body often tighten and contract. One such area where this reaction can occur is in the tissues surrounding the lungs’ airways.
In turn, the pressure from these constricting muscles can either cause or exacerbate asthma symptoms. The telltale signs of an asthma attack include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest area. Of course, the sudden appearance of asthma symptoms can lead to even more stress, kicking off a repeating cycle that worsens both the patient’s mental and physical condition.
Scientific research has found that stress can adversely affect asthma sufferers. A 2005 report found that, during an asthma attack, certain sections of the brain can aggravate asthma symptoms. For this study, six volunteers were asked to inhale either dust-mite extracts or ragweed, two substances that are often problematic for asthma sufferers. The participants had all been diagnosed with mild asthma, and each underwent fMRI brain scans during the study.
As was expected, the irritants triggered both muscle contraction and inflammation in the subjects. While dealing with these symptoms, volunteers were required to read certain words. The words shown to the subjects fell into one of three groups – asthma-related, non-asthma negative and neutral. “Wheeze,” “loneliness” and “curtains” are respective examples of these categories.
After concluding this experiment, the researchers examined the status of each subject’s lungs. In addition, the study also documented the presence of inflammation molecules in sputum samples (sputum is a thick, mucous-like fluid found in respiratory system). Finally, the volunteers’ fMRI scans were thoroughly studied by the research team.
Using this data, the study concluded that asthma-related words stimulated activity in two sections of the brain. The responses in these regions, known as the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula, were correlated with more pronounced asthma symptoms. In other words, the subjects’ condition worsened when reading terms associated with asthma. This report was authored by faculty from the University of Wisconsin, Ohio State University and the UK’s University of Birmingham, and can be found in the September 13th, 2005 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Keeping Stress Under Control
While stress is undoubtedly a part of life, there are methods that can be used to help prevent stress-related asthma attacks.
Diet Matters – Ingesting excessive amounts of sugar, caffeine and alcohol can cause numerous problems, including elevated levels of stress. The American Heart Association advises men and women to consume no more than 9 and 6 teaspoons of sugar per day, respectively. Regarding caffeine intake, the Mayo Clinic recommends a daily limit of 400 milligrams for most healthy adults. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (authored by the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services) advises against even moderate drinking, due to possible adverse health effects.
Get Sufficient Sleep – It’s no secret that many Americans are starved for sleep – a 2013 Gallup survey found that 40 percent of respondents slept six hours or less per night. As with poor dietary choices, failing to get enough sleep can take its toll on your health. Among other issues, increased stress is a common problem faced by sleep-deprived individuals. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
Use Relaxation Techniques – There are many techniques that have a proven track record of alleviating stress. Some of the more popular stress-relieving methods include deep breathing, meditation and yoga. Another option is progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and then relaxing specific muscles in the body.
Don’t Try to Do Too Much – Some people overburden themselves at work or at home by simply taking on too many tasks at once. If possible, try to delegate some of these tasks to others. Some tips to make this goal more achievable are shown below:
- Make a list of what needs to be done
- Rotate undesirable responsibilities among different people
- Provide coherent instructions with clearly outlined goals
- Offer praise when appropriate
Seek Professional Help If Necessary – Some people require the assistance of medical professionals to better control their stress levels. Such doctors often rely on some combination of talk-therapy, behavioral changes and medications to treat their patients.