The relationship between nutrition and airway health is complicated and entwined, but the basic relationships can be broken down into five categories:
In each category, certain foods will support good airway health while other foods compromise it. Determining which foods drive the problem and which foods resolve the problem is a highly individualized matter. However, a few general rules apply:
Further details on the five categories:
1. Overall health: The developing epidemic of breathing problems is strongly related to not just what we eat, but how we eat. Starting with prenatal nutrition and breastfeeding, the structure and functional capacity of a person’s airway is set on a path for life. We are a species that requires sucking and chewing to develop properly; if we do not, there can be compromises in the dental arches and developing breathing mechanisms. We are a species that evolved on locally sourced, organic fresh food. The modern epidemics of chronic health issues are the logical consequence of not having it. When we are not eating close to nature, compensation will need to take place in the form of intentional eating behaviors and supplements to compensate for nutritional and structural deficiencies.
2. Allergy or other inflammatory responses: When someone has an immediate and obvious allergic response such as hives, mucus production, or itching, it is fairly clear and easy to identify the source of the problem. But many modern triggers of allergy and inflammation, increasingly in our children, are harder to trace. The consequence is sometimes delayed, so it’s not so easy to connect to the offending material. Any food, drink or other material that we ingest along with them (like herbicides, pesticides and microorganisms) that cause inflammation can compromise airway health. Collaboration with an airway-informed ENT may be required. Sometimes a motivated person can determine which foods are personally inflammatory by doing an elimination diet. In this case, eating experiments and observations are done at home. When it’s too complicated, professional help is available from practitioners of clinical ecology or functional medicine.
3. Weight gain or loss: There is a tight connection between weight and especially neck thickness and compromised airway health. So there is an important role for nutrition, with food being both a potential driver of compromised airway and at least a partial solution when a person’s airway problems are caused by excess weight.
4. Adrenal stress hormone responses: Processed foods, and too much fructose or carbohydrate for a particular individual, drive type two diabetes. This leads not only to problems with weight but also with the production of stress hormones. The role of stress hormones in airway health cannot be overemphasized. Stress responses drive not only problems with sleep but also dictate a person’s food and beverage preferences. Very briefly: A body that is fighting to breathe is producing a lot of stress hormones to keep that airway open. A body that is constantly fighting to normalize blood sugar and mood chemistry disturbances related to what one is eating and drinking is on a daily roller coaster ride of insulin and cortisol (adrenal stress hormones). Any stimulus that arouses the production of stress hormones is affecting food preferences. It’s complicated in the details, but the goal is simple: Eat whole, fresh foods that make you feel energized and give you a sense of well-being. Avoid processed foods or anything that robs you of energy and sense of well-being. This is easier said than done because… continue to #5.
5. Eating behaviors in the context of self-comforting and self-medicating: We become addicted to the very foods and beverages that resolve uncomfortable feelings in the short term. While sugar or starch may provide immediate relief from the discomfort of having low blood sugar (like fatigue, cravings, anxiety) or the discomfort of going through withdrawal from favorite foods, consuming them repeatedly leads to addiction and weight gain. This is what connects food and eating behaviors tightly to airway health: anytime you run adrenal stress hormones for any reason, including not being able to breathe properly, the body goes into fight or flight mode and demands some form of sugar. In people with sleep apnea or Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome, investigation into their compulsive eating should start from this assumption.
A therapeutic diet and a regimen of rehabilitative supplements can be a full but more often a partial solution. We know that certain foods reduce inflammation. We know that if a therapeutic diet is not enough we can take supplemental minerals, vitamins, and herbs to compensate. We understand that calorie restriction or any diet that leads only to weight loss but not necessarily good health is not a solution. Nutritional solutions are systemwide and happen in a natural order: health first and then weight loss. Both support good airway health.
In conclusion, food can be a cause of compromised airway health and food can be part of the solution. But the restoration of one’s nutritional status needs to happen in collaboration with the other forces that improve sleep and breathing.
Contributed by Dorothy Mullen