Does Exercise Make You Sick?

My life partner has been diagnosed with respiratory reactive disease. He is normally a cyclist and hiker.  He was ill a great deal last fall and winter. What do you recommend he do to stay healthy and fit?

– September 21, 2007

Respiratory reactive disease, sometimes called reactive airway disease and better known as exercise-induced asthma, is a form of asthma that occurs among people who don’t have the allergies or recurrent infections that usually trigger asthma symptoms. Instead, their symptoms (wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath) occur when they exert themselves, as in aerobic exercise. Fortunately, attacks are preventable with proper precautions, changes in diet and lifestyle, and with medications in the form of inhalers for use prior to exercise.

The following approaches can prevent or minimize symptoms:

  • Warm up very slowly to the point where you almost feel the "tightness" associated with exercise-induced asthma. Then stop and stretch or, if you’re exercising vigorously, slow down. By taking this break, you often can thwart the development of symptoms. You can then resume your normal pace. This may take some getting used to, but sometimes can eliminate the need for medication.
  • Try breath work. The most effective approaches are pranayama techniques (breath control exercises taught in some yoga classes). You can do these after the initial warm-up when symptoms are almost upon you. Start with my relaxing breath, which you can learn by visiting and searching with the term "relaxing breath."
  • Find a form of physical activity that minimizes exercise-induced symptoms. Sports that have intermittent rest periods (such as tennis, softball, and golf) can allow you to regain control of your breathing. Swimming may be better than running outdoors in cold weather, but with proper treatment no type of exercise is off-limits.

Here are some other approaches that can help:

  • An anti-inflammatory diet including plenty of organic fruits and vegetables, less rather than more protein, and a lot of omega-3 fatty acids. Take my antioxidant formula plus anti-inflammatory herbs such as ginger and turmeric.
  • Eliminate cow’s milk and all cow’s milk products from the diet. Milk protein increases mucus secretion in the respiratory passages. In addition to eliminating dairy products themselves, check the labels of other foods to make sure that milk is not among the ingredients.
  • Drink plenty of water to keep respiratory tract secretions fluid.
  • Experiment with traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, both of which sometimes afford significant help through more specific dietary adjustments and herbal treatments.
  • I also would suggest trying medicinal mushroom tonics, such as cordyceps and reishi that have been traditionally used to promote lung strength. These mushrooms have also been found to increase aerobic capacity and boost immunity.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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