Many people ask the question “How can eating something cause me to have an asthma attack in my lungs”.
The answer is simple, but to understand this question, you first must gain an understanding of what asthma is. It is also essential to understand how asthma is developed and the difference between normal respiratory defence mechanisms for fighting foreign particle attacks in the lungs in comparison to what happens in an asthma attack.
Unlike other respiratory conditions like cystic fibrosis, COPD and Bronchiectasis, asthma is actually a hypersensitivity condition. An asthma attack is actually an immune response to enzymes, proteins and anti-enzymes released by a parasite or an antigen.
As a part of the body’s immune response in an asthma attack, apart from the standard respiratory responses of inflammation and excess secretion of mucus, the body also releases a number of immune chemicals including immunoglobulin E or IgE (among others).
The release of IgE induces constriction of the smooth muscles around the outside of the airways, also known as Bronchoconstriction. This constricts the airways more and works towards helping to amplify the cough mechanism and expel the parasite from the lungs.
We have similar defence systems (called mucociliary escalators) in other parts of our bodies, including the large and small intestines of our digestive system. All of these systems are connected through our circulatory system where the immune system works its magic. Let me explain this further and how it all works.
Because it is all connected by the circulatory system, when enzymes from allergens or secretion from a parasite, or chemicals in preservatives, additives, etc… similar to these enzymes reach the walls of the large intestines, small intestines, etc… this stimulates an immune response similar to an asthma attack and can also induce an asthma attack through the circulatory system.
What’s the Adaptive Immune System and How It Relates to Asthma?
Without going into too much detail, it is believed that asthma is usually developed from the 1st exposure to a specific parasitic attack and how the adaptive immune system combats this type of invasion.
The adaptive immune system is the part of our defence system, which reacts to new infections or attacks from foreign particles, bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc.…
When our body is attacked for the 1st time from a new infection, the adaptive immune system can take between 4-7 days to become activated against the infection or attack (when activated this takes a much shorter period). Then these cells produce memory cells so that these cells are produced quickly every time that the infection or attack occurs from then onwards.
What is the Difference Between Normal Defense and Asthmatic Defense?
When a parasite or allergen attacks the host, it secretes a fluid (proteins, enzymes and antienzymes) which break down the bond between the skin cells (called the epithelium) so that the parasite can gain access to the tissue and then absorb the nutrients from the blood for feeding on.
Normal Defense to Parasitic Attacks
In the case of people without asthma, it is believed that the 1st attack by a specific parasite (like dust mites, fungus, etc…) is from a large invasion.
As a means of combating this attack the body (both the respiratory and digestive system) performs the following 3 steps:
1. Hypersecretion of mucus – The 1st line of defence is for the mucus globules in the skin cells (called epithelium) to release a larger, thicker amount of mucus to help stop the fluid from reaching the skin cells (epithelium) and causing damage.
2. Inflammation of the tissue/skin cells (called epithelium) – If the secretion from the parasites reaches the tissue/skin cells, then the circulatory system releases histamine into the blood. This helps to open up the walls of the blood vessels so as to release platelets and white blood cells into the tissue to fight the secretions, stop the bleeding and heal the damage.
3. Cough – A cough uses a combination of built-up pressure by closing the vocal cords and expanding the diagram, which then has an explosive release of air as the vocal cords suddenly open.
In the case where either the mucus starts to build up or the secretions start to irritate the skin/tissue, then a cough is employed to help expel the parasites from the lungs through a process called wind sheering (where the top layer of the mucus containing the parasites is expelled from the body) and a cough also assist in mobilising the contaminated mucus up to the throat to be coughed or swallowed naturally.
Most of the time, dust mites are removed from the body simply by being trapped in the mucus and then by being expelled via the mucociliary escalator. We don’t actually feel any major symptoms unless we have a respiratory condition where the mucus builds up and can’t be removed.
Asthma Defense to Parasitic Attacks
In the case of someone who develops asthma, it is believed that the 1st attack by a specific parasite (like dust mites, fungus, etc…) is from a small number of parasites.
Because of this, the defence uses the same 3 forms of defence mechanisms as mentioned in the “Normal Defense to Parasitic Attack” above, plus 1 more form of defence.
Because of the small number of parasites, the lungs decide to employ a 3rd form of defence to help remove the parasites quicker and help reduce the amount damage to the airway walls, mucus buildup and inflammation of the tissue. This, in turn, has the potential to reducing the damage from the parasitic attack in a shorter period of time.
This form of defence is known as Bronchoconstriction – This is where the muscles of the airways spasm or contract, to assist in the removal of the mucus from the airways, while also assisting in amplifying the effect of the cough, in removing the parasites.
The asthma attack and Bronchoconstriction are only employed if secretions reach the skin/tissue within the organ like the lungs.
How this Attack Leads to Asthma from Food
Now, you’re probably asking how everything above relates to eating food and getting an asthma attack.
Well, the outcome for developing asthma from the 1st attack from this type of parasite, the way the body reacts to the invasion determines how the body’s adaptive immune system is set up for all future attacks.
In the case of asthma, the adaptive immune system develops memory cells for employing this defence mechanism for this type of parasitic or allergen attack (which caused Bronchoconstriction) for all future attacks. If the body has no further attacks in a set period of time (i.e. a couple of years), then the memory cells may be discarded as they aren’t considered to be needed, but if you receive another in the next couple of years, then the memory cells are retained.
This is similar to a vaccine needing to be delivered multiple times for effectiveness.
Because the defence mechanism is based in the immune system, which works hand in hand with the circulatory system, it affects the whole body, not just 1 or 2 organs.
So every time that secretions from this type of parasite are experienced in any part of the body which employs a similar defence mechanism (i.e. the lungs, pancreas, intestines, even the skin, etc…), then any part of the body can experience an effect, similar to an asthma attack for this part of the body as well as others.
Some examples include:
- An asthma attack in the lungs,
- A bout of vomiting or diarrhea from the large or small intestines of the digestive system,
- A bout of rashes and inflammation of the skin,
It isn’t only limited by the secretions of a parasite, if chemicals in food (i.e. preservatives, additives, etc.… ) are similar to the secretions of the parasite or allergen, then it can induce an asthma attack, make you feel sick or both at the same time.
This is why it is essential to consult with an immunologist to get this important information and understand which allergens, parasites, preservatives and chemicals may affect you.
Another important point is to have healthy lungs with a healthy mucociliary escalator. The reason being that the mucociliary escalator traps and removes up to 90% of foreign particles and is the 1st line of defence.
If this isn’t running smoothly or is blocked up, then there is a higher chance of parasites, bacteria, viruses and particles become deposited into the mucus and making their way to the airway walls.
This may lead to a higher chance of either an asthma attack (i.e. coughing, hypersecretion of mucus, inflammation and Bronchoconstriction) or respiratory infection and defence response (i.e. an asthma attack minus the Bronchoconstriction).
Another important point is that it may not actually be pollen which causes asthma attacks, but the chemicals, secretions or allergens which are absorbed by the pollen. These secretions are released from the pollen as they are deposited in the mucociliary escalator which isn’t flowing smoothly. These secretions may then be deposited onto the skin/tissue in the lungs, causing an asthma attack.
I know the article was long, but I hope you found it informative and helpful in understanding the mystery behind why eating certain foods can lead to an asthma attack.
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