If I told you there’s a disease that about 12 million Americans currently carry the gene for and that this same disease affects more than 30,000 children and young adults in the U.S., you’d want to know about it, right? Of course you would, and that’s why you need to know about cystic fibrosis.
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited disorder that disrupts normal functions of epithelial cells, the cells that line the passageways of many of our most important organs — including the lungs and respiratory system, liver, kidneys, skin, and reproductive system. People with CF have a certain defective gene that impairs epithelial cell functions causing them to experience a buildup of sticky mucus inside the body, often leading to lung damage and chronic coughs. This defect in turn affects how CF patients breath and filter air, digest food, and absorb nutrients in the digestive tract.
Because epithelial cells have many important roles inside the lungs, sweat glands of the skin and the digestive system, CF symptoms can occur throughout the body and become severe. CF is a serious, lifelong disease that needs to be properly managed throughout a patient’s lifetime.
According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, currently CF is considered to be incurable, however certain dietary interventions, supplements, digestive enzymes and lifestyle habits can help manage symptoms. Fortunately, over the past several decades cystic fibrosis treatment approaches have come a long way. Most people with cystic fibrosis now live into their 20s and 30s — and some even longer, into their 40s or 50s. Research shows early diagnoses of cystic fibrosis can help prevent complications and certain developmental problems, helping improve a patient’s quality of life.
Natural Ways to Help Manage Cystic Fibrosis
1. Early Diagnoses and Care
CF is diagnosed most often in unborn babies, newborns or young children by performing genetic tests. Doctors can now test for CF during pregnancy, which is especially common in children who are at a high risk. In newborns or children, a “sweat test” is now the most common means of making a CF diagnosis, which is conducted by testing a sample of sweat from the skin for levels of chloride. Aside from a sweat test, chest X-rays, blood tests, nutritional status tests, bacterial tests and pulmonary function tests to measure breathing can also be performed.
Early diagnoses of cystic fibrosis can help manage symptoms and complications before they worsen, such as dehydration and diarrhea, which can contribute to weight loss. Doctors can help clear the lungs of mucus, helping prevent infections, and get the patient started on a diet that will prevent nutrient deficiencies. Digestive enzymes and supplements can also help with healthy development and weight gain.
2. Dietary Intervention to Prevent Deficiencies
Young CF patients who begin a diet with high-nutrient foods, supplements and digestive enzymes are more likely to have stronger metabolisms, gain weight normally and avoid deadly infections. Diet plays an important role in cystic fibrosis management because lung infections and diseases progress more slowly among children who are growing well and getting enough vitamins, minerals, probiotics and antioxidants.
Many doctors/nutritionists working with CF patients recommend a high-fat, high-calorie diet to reduce the risk for malnutrition, although enzymes are often needed to boost absorption of fat and fat-soluble vitamins. Junk foods and processed foods might be high in calories and fat (especially trans fats or omega-6 fatty acids found in refined vegetable oils, such as safflower, sunflower, corn and sesame), but they’re usually not helpful for lowering inflammation and preventing lung damage, therefore they’re not recommended for people with CF.
Some of the beneficial nutrients people with cystic fibrosis are most likely to be low in include:
- vitamin K
- vitamin D
- vitamin A
- vitamin E
- some people with CF might also need to add more salt to their diets to prevent dehydration
- Omega-3 fatty acids can be beneficial for lowering inflammation (found in wild-caught fish like Alaskan salmon, sardines and halibut)
- pancreatic enzymes are also commonly given to help digest food and calories better
- high-quality multivitamins and antioxidants can help prevent inflammation, susceptibility to infections and lung damage
- probiotic supplements are also helpful for improving digestive functions
Eating anti-inflammatory fats, including monounsaturated fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocado and virgin coconut oil, is a good way to increase calorie intake. Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts and hemp seeds, are also good choices for this purpose, as are naturally fattier meats like grass-red beef and lamb. Unrefined carbohydrates can help provide dense calories and energy, especially when combined with fat, but it’s best to eat unprocessed, low glycemic kinds such as ancient grains, starchy veggies and fruit.
3. Help with Proper Lung Function & Breathing
Cystic fibrosis treatments today are generally aimed at improving quality of life, helping boost nutrient intake/absorption, and improving breathing and lung capabilities. The use of non-medication pulmonary therapy treatments to maintain lung function is very common and can be life-saving. Devices such as a bronchodilator can help relax the muscles in the airways of the lungs, help cough up mucus and prevent inflammation from worsening.
Using certain inhalants or bronchodilators can help restore breathing and keep infections away, as can use of devices called oscillatory positive expiratory pressure, which increase airflow to the lungs through use of vibrations that help break mucus. (5,6) Research shows that approximately 50 percent of patients with CF have some degree of bronchial lability (asthma), which a bronchodilator can improve by increasing clearance of secretions from the chest. Bronchodilators are sometimes used in combination with other therapies, like physical therapy, or anti-mucus medications and salt solutions to expel phlegm and offer even more relief.
4. Physical Therapy and Exercise
Other natural approaches to helping CF patients breath more easily include breathing exercises, physical therapy and cupping therapy. These techniques require no medications or antibiotics and help dislodge mucus in the chest, airways and elsewhere, which limit breathing and decrease quality of life.
Throughout the years, there have been mixed opinions on whether or not physical therapy can be effective for lowering CF symptoms. One meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine looked at several different leading approaches of clearing bronchial secretions in the treatment of patients with cystic fibrosis. These approaches included positive expiratory pressure mask, forced expiratory technique, exercise, autogenic drainage, and “standard physical therapy” using vibrations, drainage and percussion. They found that physical therapy worked very well in the majority of patients, especially when used in combination with other approaches like gentle, appropriate exercise.
Over 65 relevant trials and eight review articles were included in the meta-analyses comparing the independent techniques, and it was found that standard physical therapy resulted in a significantly greater sputum expectoration than no treatment or other single treatment. Physical therapy in combination with exercise suited for the patient was associated with a statistically significant increase in quality of life and lower CF symptoms.