Finally, the sun is out and the warm weather upon us. But for roughly 45 million Americans, seasonal allergies (also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis) make this time of year a miserable one. How can allergy sufferers enjoy themselves with all the sneezing, runny nose, fatigue, sinus pressure, congestion, red itchy eyes, scratchy throat and headache?
Many sufferers turn to medications throughout the season despite the common side effectsof drowsiness, dryness, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, nervousness, and digestive disturbance. There’s also immune system suppression and the risk of becoming medication-dependent to worry about. Worse still, the Western treatment of allergies treats only the symptoms and not the root cause. Those seeking a natural and effective alternative need search no further than Chinese medicine.
In Chinese medicine the strategy behind treatment is alleviating the acute symptoms as well as correcting the root energetic imbalance causing those symptoms. The symptoms of allergies are most often related to underlying disharmonies involving wei qi, or defensive energy, phlegm or dampness, and the lung, spleen, and kidney energy systems, all of which I explain below.
Wei Qi and Lung Qi: In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), illness prevention begins with a protective layer around the exterior of the body called wei qi, or defensive energy. A strong and healthy wei qi is the body’s initial protection against all external pathogens. If the defensive energy is weak, “wind pathogens” transmitted through the air will enter the body, so a combination of a wind-born pathogen and a deficiency of the protective wei qi is a recipe for illness. People with wei qi deficiency catch colds easily, and allergy symptoms may be particularly bad in the spring or fall seasons which are generally windy. Patients with seasonal allergies, chronic cough and/or recurrent colds and flu are also likely to have Lung deficiency, since wei qi and immune function are part of the lung energy. Lung qi controls the domain of skin, lungs, nose, sinuses, and respiratory passages.
Spleen Qi: Behind every weak immune system is a deficiency of the spleen qi, part of the digestive system. It is the job of the spleen to make healthy qi from food. If the spleen qi is weak, it is not able to efficiently digest food and make a healthy quality of energy to distribute to all systems of the body. The immune system suffers. Spleen qi deficiency is usually accompanied by dampness; fluids fail to metabolize and often end up turning to excess phlegm and mucus. Spleen Qi vacuity with Dampness is a common underlying condition with allergy symptoms.
Kidney Qi: Since kidney energy is the root of constitutional and all other energy systems in the body, it is usually related to imbalances involving deficiency. Especially when allergies, asthma, or frequent or chronic respiratory illness are problems since childhood, the kidney energy must be addressed. It is also important to note that kidney energy is damaged by long-term medication use.
Allergies & Chinese Herbal Medicine
Chinese herbs are very important both for quick relief of the acute symptoms as well as support for the underlying imbalance in energy responsible for allergic problems. Though every patient has a unique combination of symptoms and is treated according to their individual pattern, the most common treatment principles are boosting the lung qi, wei qi, and supporting the spleen qi while expelling wind and phlegm dampness from the body.
There are many Chinese herbs that build wei qi and enhance the immune system. For best results (and safety!), herbal formulas should be prescribed only by professionally trained herbalists. The formula prescribed will address each patient’s unique presentation of symptoms, and hence will vary greatly from case to case. However, an example of one of the simplest and most famous formulas is called Jade Windscreen and is comprised of just three immunity-enhancing herbs: Huang qi (Astragalus), Fang feng (Saposhnikovia) and Bai zhu (Atractylodes).
Huang qi (Astragalus) is traditionally used to strengthen wei qi. Modern research has identified several notable pharmacological effects confirming its historical use. Huang qi is an immunostimulant, increasing both specific and non-specific immunity. It also increases the number of white blood cells and has antibiotic actions against streptococcus and staphylococcus. Clinical studies have shown it effective in the prevention of colds and respiratory infections. It is also considered a hepatoprotective (liver-protecting) herb.
Fang feng’s (Saposhnikovia) TCM name is translated to mean “guard against wind,” and it has antibiotic and antiviral properties.
Bai zhu (Atractylodes) is traditionally used as a tonic to build both spleen qi and wei qi. Recent studies have shown that Bai zhu increases the activity of macrophages and increases the number of white blood cells and lymphocytes.
Allergies and Lifestyle: Survival Tips
The following suggestions may help minimize suffering:
- Minimize exposure to your allergens. Check your local TV, newspaper or the Internet for pollen forecasts and current pollen levels, and stay indoors when the pollen count or humidity is high. The morning is prime pollen time – especially if it is dry and windy. Plan outdoors activities for later in the day, or after a good rain, when pollen counts are lower.
- Keep windows shut when the pollen count is high, including those in your house and car. Use air conditioning if possible, or keep indoor air dry with a dehumidifier. A HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter or an electrostatic precipitator may also help clean pollen and mold from the indoor air.
- Don’t hang laundry outside, since pollen may cling to towels and sheets. Wash all bedding every 7 to 14 days. Also, remove clothes you’ve worn outside and shower to rinse pollen from your skin and hair.
- Avoid mowing the grass, pulling weeds or raking leaves. If you must do these, wear a mask to filter pollen and molds from the air.
- Plan vacations where pollen isn’t prevalent. A good choice is the beach.
- Swim for exercise. In fact, you’ll find one of the purest concentrations of air in the ten to 15 inch layer right above the water, and the gentle humidity keeps your airways from drying out. If you exercise outdoors, use a neti pot before and after exercising to get rid of dust, pollen, and mucus from your nose.
Diet and Supplements for Allergy Season
In general, eating a well-balanced healthy diet will keep the immune system strong. Specifically, minimize or avoid cows milk and other dairy products as they contribute to the production of phlegm and mucus. Overindulgence in simple carbohydrates and sweets can also contribute to allergies, since they harm the spleen qi.
Include both omega-3 and omega-6s fatty acids included in salmon, tuna, mackerel, and other cold-water fish. Eat mercury containing fish, such as tuna, in moderation especially pregnant women. Check the USDA Website for more information on mercury and fish. Flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and canola oil are high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body converts to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the form found in fish.
The best time to get treated for seasonal allergies is before they show up. Starting a treatment program including acupuncture and Chinese herbs 6-8 weeks before they typically start for you, helps boost the immune system and hence prevent symptoms from appearing since the underlying energy will be strong and resilient. However, if allergy symptoms are already bothering you, start treatment as soon as possible for best results.