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Hay fever, Rhinitis, Sinusitis, Allergies? A Chinese Medicine Perspective On Allergies

When winter is over the conversations are no longer snowstorms and the severe cold and flu season. The landscape will soon transform into a magical bouquet of flower blooms, buzzing bees and, unfortunately for millions of people, another seasonal nuisance: allergies. In this post, we’ll examine the root causes of seasonal allergies and allergies in general, as well as tips for prevention and treatment in TCM.

What Causes Allergies? A Western Perspective

In conventional medicine, the release of pollen into the air by trees, grasses and weeds is by far the most common catalyst of allergies during Springtime but technically they are not the cause – the cause is internal. Pollen is mistaken as a pathogen by an already over stimulated immune system, which rallies to the defense, mobilizing IgE antibodies to attack pollen, thus triggering the release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine. Histamine opens the blood vessels and causes swollen membranes. The result is the familiar symptoms of runny nose, as well as itchy and watery eyes.Lifestyle issues such as sub optimal diet (too much junk food, diary and sugar), not enough sleep, stress, not enough exercise, stomach issue such as IBS, IBD and leaky gut all can combine to increase IgE and histamine in the body. Approximately 70% of the immune system is situated in the gut. If these immune cells are stimulated they can send inflammatory cytokine hormone messengers out to the immune systems in the sinuses, skin, muscles, lymph. In western medicine, doctors prescribe prescription medications to treat seasonal allergies (corticosteroid & prescription antihistamines) . Or, allergy sufferers self-medicate with over-the-counter antihistamines.

What Causes Allergies? A TCM Perspective

In comparison, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), offers different theories for spring allergies. According to TCM theory, one explanation for seasonal allergies is the state of your health in the preceding season. Take the transition from winter to spring as an example. In the winter, environmental stressors weaken immunity. Technically our body goes into a slight hibernation in winter. Many of our hormone levels change relative to the seasons.

Testosterone has been shown to be low during winter whilst oestrogen rises. Vitamin D can also become deficient. Examples of stress include working too hard; not resting or sleeping enough; going to bed too late; not enough exercise, exercising too strenuously without resting and refuelling the body; and getting wiped out by a nasty cold or flu. All these factors can produce Qi deficiency, which in turn impacts the immune system.

Symptoms of allergies manifest due to the weakest link in your Zang-fu organ system. And more often than not, the weakest link is the Lung organ system. In fact, allergic skin diseases, rhinitis, and asthma are all related to the Lungs, according to TCM theory.

Specifically, Lung Qi deficiency is the main cause of these conditions. It makes sense that a runny nose is one of the most common symptoms of seasonal allergies. After all, the Lung meridian opens into the nose.

However other organs are also involved – the Spleen and Kidney. TCM theory couples the Stomach with the Spleen. When we describe the Spleen in TCM its really a metaphor for the immune system, especially the white blood cells that are part of the stomach and gut system. The kidneys also play a role in modulating inflammation (adrenaline) so if Kidney Qi is weak (from too much stress during the winter months or maybe a general kidney deficiency) then the Kidneys will no longer be able to help balance and already pro-inflammatory system.

Managing Allergies Using TCM

To lower your chance of having weakened Qi by the time Spring rolls around, take it extra easy in winter. If the allergy is just a manifestation of weak lung Qi then the classic TCM formula for this is Yu Ping Feng San – which that may help stop allergy symptoms from development. This formula is based on an ancient TCM medicine that reinforces and supports the body’s immune system and Lung Qi.

If the Spleen and Kidneys are implicated in allergy symptoms then other formulas may also be used such as: Bin Min Gan Wan, Xin Yi San and Xiao Qing Long Tang (Lungs and Spleen) and also Xiang Sha Liu Jun Zi Tang, Xiang Sha Yang Wei Wan and Shen Ling Bai Zhu San (Spleen/Stomach). Treating the Kidney is more a longer term treatment plan and formulas such as Ba Ji Ying Yang Wan, Fu Gui Ba Wei Wan and You Gui Wan will be used long term and all through the next winter. Chose to eat foods that also nourish the kidneys.

Unfortunately, most people wait before it’s too late. And if that’s the case for you, and you’ve already experienced miserable allergy symptoms, your Lung Qi and Yin energy have been damaged. Thus, if you want to try TCM herbs for allergies, you need something that focuses firstly on the Lungs. Choose herbs or formulas that will nourish Lung Qi and Yin energy directly. Indirectly, it also helps to nourish the Spleen and Kidney organ systems.

A small summary of TCM Herbs for Allergies

Huang Qi (Astragalus), is a TCM herb beneficial for lung Qi. Its chemical constituents have been investigated by researchers for its immunomodulating and anti-inflammatory effects, as have the ones in Bai Zhu (atractylodes), another TCM herb that builds lung Qi and has shown immunomodulating and anti-inflammatory effects. In addition, both Sha Shen (Glehnia Root) and Bai He (lily bulb) benefit Lung Yin. Also, to help boost your immune system, both Fang Feng (Siler Root) and Ling Zhi (Reishi) mushroom may help. Reishi is among the rarest and most precious herbs in TCM, and is supported by research studies to enhance immune function.