In this post I talk about my own experiences with asthma, hayfever, sensitivity, medication, exercise and breathing techniques. While I have seen how medication has relieved my own symptoms I feel that there should be a focus on breathing and a complete path to removing a dependence on medication as quickly as possible.
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1/10 children have asthma, and 1/20 adults.
Inhalers, nasal sprays and tablets
Around the same time of my life as I was diagnosed with hayfever I was also diagnosed with asthma and over time I came to understand that in my case the two were linked. I was perhaps 11 years old when I was put on a range of inhalers, nasal sprays and tablets and to this day I begrudge having been put through this process and I’m pretty much anti-medication, hardly ever even taking an asprin; in the past ten years I have only been put on one round of antibiotics when I had a random ear infection, and even that I doubt if it was the right course of action – perhaps it was resolving itself in the end, although I have been prone to brief ear aches since after a cold-night’s sleep.
The reason I begrudge medication is because I generally think there is (or was) another approach, and that medication has other effects beyond what is desired, some of them long-lasting or life-changing.
Some people are more sensitive to such things than others, and I have come to realise that I am quite a sensitive person, this runs on many different levels, not just how substances effect me physically, but also emotionally, and I’m also aware of my changing mood, and how substances can affect this; it runs full circle.
By “substances” I mean things like caffeine and sugar, as well as medication, but also fruit and vegetables, down to noticing an effect when I don’t have an apple for a couple of days.
I was surprised to learn when my niece was diagnosed with having asthma that one of her symptoms was recognised as being “moody”. I had never heard of this being a case before but in doing so it seemed pretty obvious; with asthma it’s like an inefficiency in the cardiovascular system; inefficient breathing that leads to a lack of oxygen in the brain, or more effort being required to maintain the correct levels which leaves us worn out and tired, and thus moody. It seems pretty normal to get a little bit moody when tired and people around us are preventing us from going to bed; we see a moodiness in babies and children when they get tired – they start to get tired and “fighty” and you know it’s time for Tubby-bye-byes.
So when diagnosed with asthma we go to the doctors, they test our breathing levels, and listen to our breathing, and when they confirm the problem they stick us on an inhaler or two and check on the results a week or so later, perhaps adjusting the dosage stipulation or swapping one inhaler for another, or giving us a second one, or adding tablets to the mix, until things balance out.
And that was it for me. If my asthma got bad at any point and the current dosage of inhalers wasn’t having enough of an effect then I would go back to the doctors and he would tell me to temporarily up the frequency or the number of puffs.
Strange side effects
All medication is supplied with a list of side effects, some of them minor that we can look out for and accept, some of them more severe needing us to go back to the doctors, but mostly I think any lasting or long-term effects are either glanced over, ignored, not mentioned, or not known. I don’t remember what list was included with my inhalers or tablets, other than my nose spray for hayfever causing drowsiness, but from my limited understanding, the inhalers were just a dose of steroids. [the invention of inhaled steroids has made asthma easier to control (it’s not a cure)].
Some years later I came to recognise that “steroids” was a bad thing and I suspected it had had a less than desirable effect on me. Generally we think of steroids as something body-builders take in order to help them ‘bulk up’, but it seemed they can have an opposite effect in youngsters in that they can limit growth. I never really had the typical growth-spurt in my teens; I saw my peers have there’s but I kinda crept up very slowly in height and staggered behind everyone else and ended up being one of the shortest students in my year at school. To this day I don’t feel particularly tall, although it’s not so bad, and because I’m slim I kind of look lanky, and sure, there are plenty of adults who are shorter than me. I became pretty certain that the steroids in my inhalers had stunted my growth and prevented me from having my growth spurt, and it seems that missing out on this means I missed out on some fundamental part of my development, although I can only speculate on how deeply this runs.
Weaning yourself off your medication
The other problem with being put on medication was that there was no “end-game”, there was no target, which in my mind should have been a point in time when I could stop taking my inhalers. I ended up figuring this out on my own and deciding to quite the stuff, but no one had said “asthma is often just something you have when you’re a child and eventually you can cut down your medication and even stop taking it.” No one worked with me to work towards this point, I wasn’t monitored regularly once I was no longer suffering from my asthma, so I was just left on the same dosage and routine I had always been on… like, a couple of puffs of one inhaler each and every morning and taking my other one if I got out of breath.
I think I did this all for way too long.
I mainly decided to quit my inhalers when I was moving abroad for a few months (I was by now in my early 20s) and I didn’t want the complication of having to take medication with me or figuring what I do while I’m away and I run out. I knew that just stopping any medication, particularly stuff you have been on for a long time, isn’t a good move so I slowly cut down my own dosage; I “weaned myself off” my inhalers, and then just stopped taking them.
It seemed remarkable how fine I was once I had quit, making me question “Did I even need to be taking that stuff?” and certainly acknowledging I had been taking it all for too long.
In hindsight, taking medication for my asthma wasn’t the complete answer. I was an active child, played the trumpet for a couple of years at one school, I cycled to high school each day for goodness sake (two things that require plenty of puff), but there were some issues around me that added to my breathlessness; my parents smoked, there was a refuse tip and mining work going on a short distance from my home (causing invisible dust in the air) and I had become allergic to pollen.
I believe there was an underlying issue too, and perhaps still is, or are. To be allergic to pollen indicates there is something off-track with the auto-immune system; a sensitivity, but also a breathing issue, and the thing that always helped with my cycling was focussing on my breathing when out of breath.
Whenever I over-extend myself I get wheezy and when young this can be quite frightening but I have learned to breath my way out of these situations, mostly. My mum noticed me being out of breath in our home when all I had done was climb the stairs, and she heard me coughing in the nights; this is what lead her to take me to the doctors and to me being put on medication. There were a few times that I remember getting too out of breath; one time was during a swimming competition, my first ever swimming race, I must have been pretty nervous; I was a competent swimmer but not very fast (especially considering I was probably smaller than most others) and I quickly over-exerted myself and got so out of breath and wheezy on the way back down the length of the pool, I’m surprised no one jumped in to help me while I paddled slowly back in the face of a crowd; an embarrassing situation. Another time I got out of breath at the end of a fitness test; the irony here is that I ended up being the second-fittest in our year and just felt my asthma kick in at the end and make me wheezy, perhaps this is just a natural result of pushing yourself so much, to the peak of your fitness, but I could blame it on having asthma. Then a third notable occasion was during heyfever season when I would notice my hayfever symptoms going through their usual phases until the final one where my asthma gets affected and I start to get wheezy after some days, until I feel my lungs closing up; I had actually quit my own inhalers maybe a year or so before, and I no longer had one, and no matter how relaxed I stayed and focused on my breathing like some zen master, my lung capacity declined further and further until I had to give in and ask if my brother still had an inhaler lying around. Luckily he did otherwise it might have been my first ever trip to the hospital; one puff and literally a minute later I was breathing clear again.
The medication surely works, especially in severe cases but I don’t believe it is the be-all-and end-all. It shouldn’t be. It saddened me to learn that my niece got diagnosed with having asthma and got given an inhaler; it seems like she’s heading on the same path as I was. However I think breathing exercises should be taught and incorporated into a daily routine, and that an “exit plan” should be produced; progress monitored and “sufferers” having their medication reduced as far as possible to determine if they are indeed still “suffering”, rather than medication only being increased when there is an increase in symptoms (which may only be seasonal or caused by other factors which should be observed).
While I don’t suffer from asthma any more and this year and last I hardly had any hayfever symptoms (this can be because of a low year for pollen counts) I can still get out of breath when I over exert myself, but I accept this as normal. Over-exerting myself occasionally feels like a good thing; I get to learn my limits and have developed my focus on breathing so I can remain calm and work on breathing my way out of a wheezy situation, rather than avoiding any exercise as some people do. Yoga has revealed to me in recent months how the various breathing techniques with it can make a huge impact on not only the exercises themselves but on my cycling and running too; I find myself practising my ‘Ujjayi breathing’ whilst doing these other activities, and whilst I lay in bed at night.
Calming down and having a good night’s sleep is very important and I have noticed that stress can have a noticeable effect on my breathing; I get tight in my shoulders and have pains here and in my chest when any stress is prolonged for some days or weeks; all very unpleasant. I’m convinced that I have some issue with “shallow breathing”; I’ve always needed a good amount of sleep, like I can’t cope with regularly getting less than 9 hours; it seems like, as with my niece being tired and moody because of her asthma, I perhaps don’t breath enough, or correctly throughout the night, leading to my similar symptoms; continuing to practice my new-found breathing exercises and incorporating them into my day-to-day life will surely train my body to continue in this fashion throughout the night.