Asthma management: The link between sleep, diet, and exercise

By Payel Gupta, MD, FACAAI | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 26, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Poor sleep, an unhealthy diet, and low levels of physical activity can contribute to worsening asthma symptoms.

  • Regular exercise is especially important for people with asthma, as it has been shown to improve lung function and enhance cardiovascular fitness, which help alleviate asthma-related symptoms.

  • Healthcare providers should discuss the link between sleep, diet, and exercise with their patients with asthma, and recommend lifestyle changes that will ultimately improve their quality of life.

Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that affects millions of individuals worldwide, significantly impacting their quality of life. It is crucial for healthcare providers to recognize the profound influence of asthma on sleep, diet, and exercise, and to actively promote strategies to improve these areas. 

The connection between sleep and asthma

The importance of sleep and the vital role it plays in maintaining physical and mental health, along with promoting optimal cognitive function, memory consolidation, and overall well-being, should not be overlooked in a patient with asthma. Impaired sleep quality correlates with worse asthma control and quality of life, according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (UWSMPH).[] 

Related: Connecting the dots: Asthma and allergies

Sleep disturbances are common among people with asthma, leading to decreased quality of life and increased asthma-related morbidity.[] 

The relationship between asthma and sleep is bidirectional, with poor asthma control contributing to sleep disruptions and vice versa. Healthcare providers must address this interplay to improve patient outcomes.

Effective asthma management, including appropriate pharmacotherapy, can help control nocturnal symptoms and reduce sleep disturbances. Appropriate asthma management and educating patients on the importance of adhering to their prescribed treatment regimens will help improve asthma control and reduce asthma-related sleep disruptions.

Patients who have difficulty in achieving adequate asthma control should be screened for sleep disorders, as they are common in patients with asthma, according to the UWSMPH researchers.  

Influence of diet

The link between obesity and asthma is well-documented.[] A report from the American Thoracic Society on obesity and asthma notes that numerous studies have shown obesity increases the risk of developing asthma and worsens asthma symptoms. Obesity-related factors, such as systemic inflammation, altered immune responses, and mechanical effects on lung function, contribute to this association.

Healthcare providers may educate patients with asthma on the relationship between obesity and asthma, with recommendations for diet and lifestyle changes to help improve asthma control and, in turn, the patient’s quality of life.

Related: A breath of fresh air: An expert’s perspective on the future of asthma

Studies have demonstrated that a Mediterranean diet has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This dietary pattern has also shown effectiveness in controlling waist circumference and obesity.[] In contrast, a Western diet high in processed foods, saturated fats, and sugary beverages has been linked to increased obesity and inflammation. 

By collaborating with registered dieticians, healthcare providers can provide tailored dietary guidance to asthma patients. Individualized dietary plans can promote the consumption of anti-inflammatory foods and discourage the intake of pro-inflammatory foods, thereby positively influencing asthma control and overall well-being. It is also important for providers to be aware of the pharmacological treatment options available to patients in managing their obesity, such as the increasingly popular semaglutide. 

The importance of exercise

Regular physical activity is essential for maintaining optimal health and reducing the risk of being overweight and obese, yet many individuals with asthma may avoid exercise due to fear of triggering symptoms. Healthcare providers should educate patients about the benefits of exercise and support them in adopting asthma-friendly exercise routines.

Contrary to popular belief, exercise can be well-tolerated and beneficial for asthma patients. Engaging in regular physical activity has been shown to improve lung function, enhance cardiovascular fitness, and reduce asthma symptoms.[] 

Any physical activity that the patient would like to participate in should be encouraged.

To facilitate safe and effective exercise participation, healthcare providers can work closely with patients to develop personalized asthma action plans that address pre-exercise medication use, warm-up techniques, and appropriate intensity levels. Regular follow-up appointments can help monitor a patient’s response to exercise to make any necessary adjustments to treatment plans.

What this means for you

Healthcare providers need to be cognizant of the impact of asthma on sleep, diet, and exercise and take an active role in improving quality of life for asthma patients. By incorporating evidence-based approaches, such as optimizing pharmacotherapy for better sleep, providing personalized dietary guidance, and promoting asthma-friendly exercise routines, healthcare providers can empower patients to effectively manage their asthma, enhance their overall well-being, and lead fulfilling lives.

Read Next: Your patient has uncontrolled asthma—how do you assess for biologics treatment?

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