Treating Allergies with Chinese Medicine
Spring is such a glorious time. After a fair bit of winter hibernation people are stripping off their winter woollies and venturing out into the sun. I even considered going to the beach this week.
The change of season and the new growth can bring with it a lot of pollen and other common allergens. Have you been noticing that your eyes are a bit itchy or red? Is your nose running or your sinuses beginning to play up? Has sneezing and hay fever started to make its way into your daily life again? Any headaches or achy neck pains? Has your dermatitis, eczema or hives started to play up? Is stuff just generally irritating you?
Did you know that 10-20% of people experience allergies around the world? Read on to find out what they are, how they work and what you can do to help them.
What is an allergy?
Allergies are an allergic reaction caused by both internal and external factors. An essentially harmless environmental factor - like pollen, dust, animal dander (hairs and skin cells) or food products - can cause a reaction if your immune system is hyperactive or alert. Different types of allergies include respiratory-based issues such as allergic rhinitis or sinusitis as well as dermatological ones like urticarial (hives) and atopic dermatitis (the most common form of eczema).
From a TCM perspective, we believe that the body has a certain amount of Wei Qi (Protective Qi) that circulates over the surface of the body to protect it from external attacks. This is kind of like the equivalent of your immune system. If your Wei Qi is strong and your internal organs are balanced you will be protected from external attacks (such as Wind, Heat, Cold, Dry and Damp) and your internal organs won't have any signs of disharmony or dysfunction. However, if your Wei Qi is weak you will not be as well protected from external factors, allowing them to make their way internally to cause disharmonies such as respiratory, dermatological or digestive troubles.
When a TCM practitioner diagnoses allergies there are several different organs that we look at: the Kidney, the Lung, the Liver and the Spleen. Liver-type allergies generally occur in the Spring and often involve headaches or red, itchy eyes. If the Spleen is inhibited there will be phlegm - either in the chest or the sinuses. Lung allergies occur in the Autumn and are generally of a drier-type - think sneezing and dry, hacking coughs. Kidney-type allergies are long-term chronic affairs. If you have skin-issues such as eczema then the Lung and Spleen are often both to blame.
How do we treat allergies?
The difference between a Western allergy treatment and a TCM treatment are really quite different. Like chalk and cheese you might say.
Western medicine has two general treatment methods:
To remove the allergen from your environment – Um … how do we get rid of all the trees shedding pollen? Basically it’s impossible.
Desensitise or suppress your immune system so that you are not affected by the allergen. This is generally done with injections, prescription medication or over-the-counter antihistamines. These can often have side effects such as drowsiness or increased heart rate, and on top of that you quickly build up a resistance to them (making them less effective the longer that you take them).
Generally, these treatments are only a short-term fix for a longer-term problem. While they may help you to moderate your symptoms for a little while they are not going to help you in the long run and you may well find yourself reaching for the anti-histamines every year as spring rolls around.
Unlike this, TCM treatments work a two-pronged approach looking at both the internal and external factors causing the allergy issue.
INTERNAL - by asking a serious of questions, we can find out which parts of your insides aren’t quite working at 100%. This allows your Acupuncturist to make up personalised Acupuncture and herbal prescriptions to redirect Qi and correct the internal imbalances.
EXTERNAL – if you’re being affected by seasonal changes or specific external factors are affecting you (like your flat mate’s cat or those pesky spring pollen flowers) then your Wei Qi isn’t circulating and protecting you like it should. Once you’re initial signs and symptoms have decreased we would look to strengthen your Wei Qi to stop the allergies happening in the future.
Simple, right? Basically all we need to do is sort out your insides, strengthen your outsides and Bob’s your uncle. Within 3-4 weeks of consistent treatments you should be fighting fit and ready to bury your nose in Fluffy’s heavily molting fur. With proper lifestyle maintenance and occasional treatments you should be able to maintain an allergy-free state as long as you like!
Foods to help allergies
FOODS TO AVOID – best to limit your intake of cold and raw foods for the moment. If you’re a bit snotty or your skin is playing up then your Spleen probably isn’t feeling amazing. Give it a bit of help by eating warm (or at least room-temperature) foods. If you eat anything cold your body needs to heat it up to body temperature (roughly 37 degrees Celsius) before it can even begin to digest it. Help a Spleen out, eh? Eat some warm foods so that it can get digesting straight off the bat. Or, if you are going to have something raw, make it a small amount, like some lovely pickle or a bit of radish on the side.
LIVER FOODS TO ADD – as it’s springtime it’s a good idea to eat as many greens as your can. Spring is the time of the Liver organ and by eating lots of bitter green vegies (broccoli, zucchini, bok choy etc etc) you are filling yourself up with magnesium and chlorophyll-rich foods that will help to alkalise your blood, relax your muscles, calm your mind and help the Liver to regulate and excrete any allergenic factors.
LUNG FOODS TO ADD – eat pears. Just do it. The lovely skin on pears is a complete boon for your Lungs. These little fruits are cool and sweet and so help to nourish your internal fluids properly and so moisten your Lungs. Your Lungs open to the outside (in terms of breathing, your skin and also your Wei Qi) so by looking after them properly you’re also looking after your immune function. If your tummy likes almonds and chickpeas add in a few handfuls of each into your lunches throughout the week – Lungs love them too.
GET YA SPICE ON - get into some cinnamon and dried ginger in your breakfast smoothie or on top of your muesli and porridge. Not only does cinnamon help to regulate your blood sugar levels, both are warming and help to increase peripheral circulation. By using these spices a bit more liberally you’ll be flushing your limbs with fresh oxygenated blood. If you’ve been experiencing any increase eczema this should help to slowly move it along and away.
Allergy health tips
GET ACUPUNCTURE – acupuncture works directly with the nervous system, directing the body’s Qi where it needs to go and where it needs attention to be held. In terms of allergies, your Acupuncturist will develop a personalized treatment strategy that works to balance your internal organs and strengthen your Wei Qi. There are specific points in the body that have been shown in clinical studies to boost your immune system. If you’re curious, maybe Google the immune-modulating effects of points like ST-36. We generally look at a series of four treatments over the course of a month to work through all of your symptoms and boost your immune system to 110%.
MASSAGE YO’SELF – There are a few points that you can use to help clear your sinuses at home. Start at the inner section of your eyebrow and use your second and third fingers to press in strongly upwards towards your hairline. It may be rather ouchie but persevere! Trace your fingers along your eyebrow ridge, always strongly and always with your fingers facing upwards. This works super quickly and you may find that this releases a bit of pent up phlegm. Don’t freak out! This is just the old stuff finally breaking free and running for the exit!
GRAB SOME HERBS – there are several pre-made Chinese herbal formulas for different allergy types. These are excellent treatments – they are both easy to take and swiftly relieve the symptoms of your allergies without any side effects. If you wanted to get to the root of the problem it’s also possible to take different formulas on a longer-term basis. The particular formula pictured works specifically to relieve the symptoms of hay fever. Neat, eh?
ADD SOME HUANG QI TO YOUR SOUP – if you’re making any chicken soup add a few pieces of Huang Qi (Astragalus) when it’s simmering. This lovely herb is basically tasteless in soup (you might get a slight herbal whiff at the back of your palate) but is one of the strongest TCM immune-modulating herbs you can get. It’s a beaut!
USE CHRYSANTHEMUMS – Ju Hua (Chrysanthemums) are delicate little yellow flowers that are used to treat colds and flus due to their anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-viral properties. They both super tasty and also great at decrease histamine production. So if your throat is feeling dry, scratchy and inflamed make a cup of tea with them and you should feel a difference fairly quickly! The flowers have flavones in them, which increases circulation as well as carotenoids that have a particular benefit for the eyes. They also work a treat in a compress if you’ve got an eye infection or the spring pollen affects your eyes.
How to – Chrysanthemum Compress:
Grab 3tbs or a small handful of fresh flowers (sans preservatives and sweeteners). These are available in any local Asian grocer.
Steep these in a cup of hot water for 5 minutes.
Strain the liquid into a cup and let the flowers drain and cool.
Separate the flowers into 2 piles and wrap them in two clean handkerchiefs or some kitchen paper. Apply to sore, swollen eyelids (make sure the eyes are closed).
You can either rehydrate the compresses with the leftover tea if they dry out. Or you can drink the delightful tea and just make more a bit later. I generally go with the second option.
NB: make sure that you apply one compress to one eye only i.e. keep one compress for the right eye and the other for the left. That way if either eye is infected you won’t spread it around.
Chrysanthemum is also said to cool the Liver, make it a lovely spring herb for anyone who is feeling a bit stressed, is detoxing or has high blood pressure.
PLEASE NOTE: In saying all of this, it’s super important to listen to your body. What does it want? What is it telling you? Is it saying that you need something in particular? It’s really important to gather information to make the choices that are right for you and your body. This information isn’t personal medical advice – rather it’s a guideline on ways that could help you to live a healthier, happier lifestyle. It is always wise to consult with a qualified health practitioner before starting any new herbs, supplements or dietary and lifestyle programs.