Statistics shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that 1 in 12 people living in the United States have asthma. And for a variety of reasons, asthma rates are rising every year. Asthma—a condition in which your airways narrow and swell while producing excess mucus—is a lifelong, chronic disease that can significantly impact a person’s quality of life. The CDC estimates that asthma costs, which reached $56 billion in 2007, will continue to rise if doctors can’t find ways to help people better manage their asthma symptoms and avoid asthma attacks.
A fascinating and novel study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that amino acid supplements could be a helpful way to treat asthma symptoms.
There are multiple types of asthma, but they all share some common characteristics. Asthma, as mentioned above, affects your airways that link your nose and mouth to your lungs. In response to a multitude of triggers, your airways become inflamed. This can cause surrounding muscles to tighten and your airways to produce more mucus. As a result, it becomes difficult to breath and can trigger coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
Researchers are still in the process of categorizing all the variants of asthma, which they hope will improve their understanding of what causes this disease, as well as how best to treat it. At the moment, the terms used to categorize the types of asthma sometimes overlap. Here are 11 types of asthma that have been identified so far:
- Allergic asthma
- Non-allergic asthma
- Allergic bronchopulmonary mycosis
- Aspirin-induced asthma
- Adult-onset asthma
- Asthma with fixed airflow obstruction
- Exercise-induced asthma
- Cough-variant asthma
- Work-related asthma
- Nighttime (nocturnal) asthma
- Asthma with obesity
For some people, asthma is merely a sometimes inconvenient nuisance. For others, it can consistently interfere with their ability to go about their daily life and can even lead to fatal asthma attacks. According to the CDC, asthma has been linked to at least 3,447 deaths annually, or about 9 per day.
While there’s no cure for this disease, asthma symptoms like shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain, and coughing or wheezing attacks can be managed and even prevented. If you have asthma, it’s vital that you work with a trusted healthcare professional to achieve good long-term control of your condition and to prevent life-threatening asthma attacks.
There’s No Universal Treatment for Asthma
Findings from a research team based at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine highlight the importance of personalizing asthma treatments to address the type of asthma a patient has, their specific triggers, and any known underlying causes.
Adult-onset asthma and asthma with obesity can be two of the most challenging variants to manage, especially when they overlap.
“In people who develop asthma after the age of 12 and who are also overweight, there can be an increased burden of asthma symptoms, more flare-ups, and poorly-controlled asthma when compared to normal weight asthmatics,” stated Fernando Holguin, an associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and co-director of the Asthma Institute.
One reason for this is that severe asthma can require frequent steroid treatments and can also limit physical activity, both of which can lead to weight gain. However, obesity can also aggravate and even spur the development of asthma symptoms.
“Obese asthma patients tend to have worse symptoms, more frequent episodes of breathing difficulty, and don’t respond as readily to conventional treatments,” Holguin said. The findings of Holguin and his team of fellow researchers, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, indicate that problems with the metabolism of an amino acid called arginine could be an underlying cause of these two difficult-to-treat types of asthma.
The Link Between Amino Acids and Asthma
The research team found that patients who are obese and who develop asthma as adults typically exhale lower levels of nitric oxide, a compound that relaxes blood vessels and is believed to do the same for airways, making it easier to breathe.
When analyzing blood samples collected from participants, the researchers found that compared to early-onset asthma patients, those with adult-onset asthma and asthma with obesity had lower levels of an amino acid called arginine as well as higher levels of an metabolite of arginine called ADMA which blocks nitric acid production.
To have normal levels of nitric oxide, it’s crucial to maintain a balance between arginine and ADMA, explained Holguin. For individuals with adult-onset asthma and asthma with obesity, having lower levels of arginine and higher levels of ADMA significantly lowers their nitric oxide levels, which in turn causes more shortness of breath, wheezing, and other asthma symptoms.
“This finding is promising,” Holguin said, “because it suggests that increasing arginine could restore nitric oxide levels.” This would have a highly positive effect on airway function and asthma symptoms.
Should You Use Amino Acid Supplements to Treat Asthma?
Based on the findings of Holguin and the research team, you might think that supplementing with arginine could be a good treatment option for people whose asthma symptoms are caused or worsened by low levels of nitric oxide. Arginine is rapidly metabolized by the body, however, making it impractical as an ongoing treatment option.
A better option might be to supplement with citrulline, an amino acid that your kidneys convert into arginine. Taking citrulline supplements has been shown to increase blood levels of arginine. In fact, Holguin and his fellow researchers are currently evaluating the effectiveness of citrulline as an asthma treatment, though only a preliminary summary of that research is available through the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Since citrulline has no reported side effects, and ensuring your body has an adequate supply of amino acids can improve your health on multiple levels, there’s no need to wait for Holguin and the research team to publicize their results before talking with your doctor about possibly adding a citrulline supplement to your asthma treatment plan.