Natural products and complimentary therapies

By the Cystic Fibrosis Dietitians across Canada and CF Education

You are far from being the only one interested in complementary therapeutical approaches to relieve physical and affective problems related to cystic fibrosis (CF). More and more people follow non traditional approaches to treat some of their health worries. That said, remember that herbal or holistic medicine aren’t always without risk. Most complimentary therapies are not subject to the same clinical tests as classic medication. Some supplements or herbs can even interact with medication you take for CF. Furthermore, don’t forget that complementary therapies serve, as their name suggests, to complement your current treatments, and not to replace it.

When trying a new product or complimentary therapy, it is essential to pursue your medical treatment, to consult with competent professionals and to obtain information from existing associations, federations or professional corporation, to discuss treatment with your physician and with your CF clinic’s medical team. These people will without a doubt have suggestions, answers and advice to give you.


Phytotherapy can be qualified as medicine with plants, or botanical medicine. It is the most common medicine in the world. It has been used in Asia for thousands of years. But beware: natural therapies are not necessarily without risk. Few studies have been done on natural products: it is therefore impossible to guarantee their effectiveness. As they are sold as nutritional supplements, they are not subject to regulation on prescription medication. Manufacturers are not obligated to mention the different ingredients on the labels. Beware of potential allergic reaction. Furthermore, what is indicated on the bottle label does not necessarily correspond to the content.

One of the best-known plants is obviously garlic. Without proven clinical arguments on garlic’s health benefits, it remains one of the most popular supplements for the stimulation of the immune system and a contribution to recovery following respiratory tract infection. Garlic contains a component names allicine which helps to fight against cold symptoms (and even prevent its emergence).

Some experts estimate that, to be efficient, garlic must be taken once a day, even without any cold symptoms present. Also, there is echinacea, a root that, it is believed, could reinforce the immune system and protect from the cold. It can also help to resist other types of infection. Opinions differ on its effectiveness. Some experts estimate that in association with ginseng, it indeed possesses immune system reinforcement properties. Others state that it has no virtues whatsoever and that it can provoke allergic reactions. Echinacea has no known side effects and is, generally, considered as a safe choice (although a little costly).


Pine bark extract and grape seeds are regarded as powerful antioxidants. Studies have shown that pine bark is beneficial for asthmatic patients, besides boosting resistance, increasing athletes’ performance and contributing to the treatment of diabetes. According to experts, grape seeds contain an active component, which is a powerful antioxidant. Grape seeds have been used as an anti inflamatory substance to prevent infections; in Europe, they are frequently recommended for the treatment of allergic rhinitis and asthma. They have no known side effects.

Cider vinegar is also a very popular home remedy. It can stimulate digestion and the absorbtion of nutrients, and even relieve symptoms of asthma, flu and certain sinus infections. The usual treatment consists of taking two teaspoons of cider and one teaspoon of honey, in a glass of water, three times a day, half an hour before each meal. The vinegar must be unpasteurized and, ideally, organic and non-filtered. Other than the slightly acid taste of vinegar, there are no known side effects. Finally, some studies state that primrose oil reinforces the immune system, increasing circulation and reducing pain and inflammation caused by arthritis.

There also exist plant mixtures that improve some symptoms. Used for decades already in Europe, Gélo-Myrtol™ arrived in Quebec a few years ago. Available in capsule form, it contains eucalyptus leaves essential oils, myrtle, sweet orange and lemon peel, as well as other active ingredients. It is a mucolytic, meaning that it liquefies the mucus in bronchial tubes and sinuses, improving evacuation and facilitating expectoration.


To improve your nutritional levels and to prevent vitamin deficiency, you can take vitamin supplements and multiminerals, as well as other supplements, according to your needs. If you consider adding supplements to your diet, discuss it with your CF team first. Also, consult with your CF team before starting any alternative therapy based on supplements.

Vitamin A is an antioxidant that can protect against bacterial infections. You have probably already taken a vitamin A supplement in a multivitamin. Vitamin A is fat soluble, meaning that it is soluble in fats. Therefore, it is absorbed in smaller quantities by someone with CF. Nevertheless, it is important not to consume an excessive quantity of this vitamin to prevent potential poisoning. It plays an important role in the human body: it helps to see at night and allows the eyes to adjust when moving from a dark to a lit space. I you suffer from vitamin A deficiency, it is possible that your eyes cannot adapt from light intensity changes. Some people affected by CF have signaled this problem. If you think you suffer from these symptoms, speak to your physician. Vitamin A also helps to make the skin healthy and to fight infections. During childhood, it spurs growth. It can be found in eggs, liver, tomatoes, milk and some fruits and vegetables..

Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, which favours absorption of iron and contributes to reinforce the immune system. Some experts believe that, in doses sufficiently important (more than a gram per day), it contributes to mitigate cold symptoms. However, taking higher doses also comprises risks in certain cases. Because it improves iron absorption, vitamin C can lead to iron overdose and provoke a blood imbalance. Consult your physician before taking important doses of vitamin C.

Vitamin D comes from two sources. It is produced by the skin when exposed to the rays of the sun, and is also found in foods we consume. It helps the body to absorb calcium and to transport calcium from the blood to bones. If the body is deficient in vitamin D, bones can weaken and fracture risks increase. Although some food such as eggs and cereal products contain vitamin D, the most important source of this nutrient is milk. It is usually recommended for persons with CF to take vitamin D supplements to ensure a sufficient and continuous supply.

Vitamin E is more and more popular due to its role as an antioxidant. During growth, many changes occur in the body. As these changes occur, the body makes damageable products that can destroy healthy cells. Vitamin E helps the body to get rid of those products, and that is why it is called an antioxidant. A deficiency in vitamin E can affect the body’s capacity to protect itself during an illness. For persons affected by cystic fibrosis, such a deficiency can have effects on their lungs and their respiratory capacity. Food that contains vitamin E includes vegetable oils, margarine and some fruits and vegetables. For persons affected by CF, food only cannot prevent a deficiency in vitamin E; that is why a supplement is usually recommended.

Most of the vitamin K we need can be found in food. It is found in green vegetables, in vegetable oils and in margarine. «Good» bacteria in our intestines also produce vitamin K. These bacteria can be destroyed by antibiotics taken to fight pulmonary infection. To optimally absorb supplements, it is preferable to take them with food and enzymes.

Vitamin K plays a very important role, because it helps blood coagulation. When you cut yourself, the time necessary for the cut to stop bleeding depends on the quantity of vitamin K present in your body. The longer the coagulation time, the more you risk having a vitamin K deficiency. Furthermore, vitamin K is essential in children’s normal bone growth. To prevent a deficiency, many persons with CF take a supplement containing vitamin K[1].


Holistic therapies: a healthy mind in a healthy body

The reduction of tensions suffered by the body can contribute to relax the mind and to bring a sense of wellbeing. The following methods are part of the preferred holistic treatments, a doctrine that encompasses the entire human being, in its physical, emotional and mental dimensions.

The most known is certainly acupuncture, a 2,000 year old Chinese medical technique characterized by the insertion of needles in the body, at specific points. Some believe that a simple touch or stimulation of these points, called meridians, contribute to liberating the natural energy flow, for the system to itself trigger the healing process. It is also believed that acupuncture can successfully treat some respiratory problems (particularly mild cases of bronchial asthma) and gastro-intestinal problems (such as hiccups, duodenal ulcers and constipation). It is not painful but some people find it uncomfortable.

Although everyone is different, in most cases treatment requires five to fifteen sessions. When practiced by a certified acupuncturist there are few side effects. However, the following events might happen:


  • The acupuncturist may forget a needle.
  • Your symptoms may get worse following a session. This generally doesn’t last more than two days.
  • You may feel euphoric after a session. This is related to the release of endorphins, or the “feel-good” chemical in your brain. Patients are encouraged to relax for 20 minutes following a session.
  • Pneumothorax has been reported.
  • Certain medications may interfere; check with your physician or your acupuncturist and perhaps your pharmacist.


For centuries, people have used the healing power in their hands and fingers to relieve all kinds of health problems. It makes sense when you think of how we naturally want to rub an area of our body that hurts, for example, your stomach when you have a stomachache. Some experts believe that massage can block the painful stimuli carried by certain nerve fibres. As well as relieving aches and pains, it can improve your circulation, digestion, reduce fatigue, and relieve tension. Massage techniques are numerous. For example: the Japanese shiatsu technique by which the masseur applies strong pressure using thumbs, palms, elbows or even feet. This pressure is applied on acupressure points on the body to restore the balance of the energy flow.

There is also the reflexology theory, where each organ corresponds to precise points on the hand and feet. The application of pressure on these points contributes to appease tension in other body parts. Californian and Swedish massages can also give good results, as well as reiki, which is different from massage sessions as muscles are not directly manipulated. Instead, the Reiki master gently applies his hands on different body parts for five minutes.


Aromatherapy is a system of caring for your mind and body with the scents of essential oils derived from plants. According to some experts, smelling certain aromas have a direct effect on brain activity. Whether they are inhaled directly, massaged into your skin or added to your bath, these oils can help relieve pain, ease tension, and restore your energy and sense of well-being.



May have antiseptic, antibacterial and inflammatory properties. May also be beneficial when inhaled for treating colds and flu.
Lavender Used for centuries to alleviate stress.
Eucalyptus radiata It is the kind of eucalyptus found in dry saunas. It is known for its bronchodilator properties. It is generally well tolerated and rarely provokes spasms.
Eucalyptus globulus It is known for its antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Beware, it is less well tolerated and must be avoided with young children!
Hyssop It possesses expectorant properties and is used to relieve asthma, cough, flu and different allergy symptoms.

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