Prevention & Recovery

Asthma and stress

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

Asthma and stress

Asthma sufferers will be the first to tell you -- a stressful situation can act as a catalyst for an attack. Whether it's a tough day at the office, a near miss in the car or a nasty surprise in the bank account, an incident loaded with stress can cause the wheezing and tightness symptomatic of the condition. A new report, published in the Sept. 13 edition of The Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, provides further evidence of the link between asthma and stress. This study is the first to describe an explicit connection between asthma and the brain.

Close to two million Canadians suffer from asthma, many of them children. Asthma is an immune disorder that causes the muscles around the bronchial tubes, leading into the lungs, to tighten. Certain stimuli, such as pollen, dust, food allergies and even emotional stress can lead to the tell-tale inflammation, and the struggle for breath that comes with it. While an asthma attack can be fatal, the vast majority of people with the disorder learn to recognize the warning signs and self-medicate (typically with inhalers) accordingly.

There have been studies linking asthma attacks to emotional stress in the past. One depicted how college students are more prone to greater bronchial inflammation when exposed to stimuli during exams. However, this new study, led by Prof. Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, is the first to monitor brain waves during asthma attacks. Using an MRI to 'photograph' the subjects' brains, six individuals with mild allergic asthma were exposed to substances that would stimulate attacks.

An asthma attack works in two phases. The first is the release of chemicals after exposure to an allergen, which causes the muscles in the chest to contract. This is followed by the release of another chemical that causes inflammation. The researchers found that brain activity differed in both phases of the attack. During the study, the subjects were asked to read words, some neutral, and others associated with asthma (like 'wheeze' or 'cough'). The researchers noted that the asthma-related words caused a different reaction in the part of the brain that governs inflammation, leading them to postulate that there is in fact an explicit connection between brain activity and the severity of an attack.

The authors of the paper admit that the subject group was too small for the research to be definitive, but this does provide some pioneering groundwork for the further study of brain activity as it is linked to asthma. It certainly shows that there may be broader psychological implications -- and certainly a link to the central nervous system -- when it comes to inflammation.

There is still no cure for asthma, but groundbreaking studies like this one show that we are coming to understand the disorder better and better all the time. For now, it's best to keep those puffers near by.

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Asthma and stress

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