Perhaps you know the feeling, red, itching eyes, runny nose, and sinus pressure. You're sneezing, tired and really out of it. Sound familiar? That's how I felt when seasonal allergies first hit me hard as a teenager. I was miserable and incapacitated.
I eventually found out though, that I didn't have to endure the misery. I discovered Oriental medicine which has successfully treated seasonal allergies for thousands of years by treating the root cause of illness not just the symptoms.
Millions of dollars are spent annually on "traditional" medications and allergy shots for the treatment of allergies. But some people don't want to start medication if they don't have to. This eastern healing practice has given these people an alternative and, as it has gained respect in the Western world, some allergy sufferers are opting for the thin needles of an acupuncturist instead of allergy shots.
Allergies are a result of our bodies interacting with our environment – with foods, chemicals, and natural substances that we inhale, ingest or otherwise come in contact with. The immune system is designed to correctly identify between self and non-self. So when foreign bodies are encountered, the body reacts by manufacturing antibodies or releasing histamines.
Pollens, dusts, molds and animal hairs contain protein antigens that stimulate an antibody response. A "hyper-response" is when the antibodies attach to the antigens, resulting in a number of internal reactions. Histamine and other chemicals are released causing an inflammatory reaction. The antigen-antibody reactions affect our organs and tissues, especially the mucous membranes, the lungs, skin and gastrointestinal tact. This can result in itchy watery eyes, runny and/or stuffy nose, sinus pressure, skin reactions, fatigue and headache.
But allergies vary. Some of us are allergic to pollen and experience seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever). This is a result of an interaction between an inhaled allergen and antibodies. When pollen particles are inhaled, they become trapped in the mucous layer of the nasal passages and form allergens. This causes the immune system to respond and results in the release of high levels of IgE's, immunoglobulins that attach to mast cells in the respiratory tract. When the allergen-antibody reaction occurs, the cells release substances such as histamine causing dilation of blood vessels, swelling of tissues and contraction of smooth muscles. Other people are allergic to dust, house dust mites, fungus, and/or pet dander - all perennial allergies, causing year-round symptoms. With perennial allergies, people's noses also tend to be more sensitive to cigarette smoke, and perfume. The great news is that all allergies are treatable.
The Oriental View Of Allergies
So what is the root cause of seasonal allergies? According to Oriental medicine, these allergies are due to repeated invasion of the lungs by wind and cold. Normally, the weather will not have any detrimental effect on the body when it is strong enough to defend itself. The wind only becomes a cause of allergies when either the body is weak in relation to the weather or the weather is unseasonably excessive (too windy in the spring).
In modern medicine we speak of the immune system protecting the body. In Oriental medicine we have the concept of the Wei-Qi or Defensive Qi that circulates on the skin and muscles to protect us from invasion of wind and cold. It is only when this precious protection becomes compromised that we are vulnerable to the elements of nature. Our Defensive Qi can be weakened due to lack of sleep, high stress, negative emotional states, poor diet or a combination there of.
If our diet is fairly pure, we exercise regularly, our stress level is low, and our elimination is working well, we usually experience few allergic symptoms. However, if we eat out often and compromise our diet, have a high stress lifestyle, exercise less or not at all, and have some temporary constipation, we may experience sinus and respiratory problems, skin rashes or other allergic reactions. From the Oriental medical viewpoint these allergic reactions are the result of an imbalance in energies and organs in the body.
One of my regular clients Betty, is a 39 year old computer programmer who cares about her work and puts in long hours on her job. She understands that Oriental medicine is a preventative medicine, so she comes in at the beginning of her seasonal allergy seasons - Spring and Fall - to ward off the inevitable symptoms of red, itchy eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose and sneezing.
In Betty's case, I began with traditional diagnosis. I made an energetic assessment with traditional pulse reading and tongue diagnosis. This instantly told me the status of Betty's Qi (pronounced "chee," meaning vital life energy).
I found Betty's pulse quality "slippery." Her tongue coating has a heavy yellow coating on it. These two factors together showed an internal dampness. Dampness means the spleen is not working properly and there is an abnormal buildup of body fluids and excess secretions. The nature of dampness is heavy, sinking, accumulating like a swamp. Dampness slows the body's systems down causing fatigue. It can feel like a band tied around the head.
I then looked at Betty's body like a good detective, and ferreted out "patterns of disharmony." From an Oriental medical perspective, the spleen (Betty's weak link) has to do with our capacity to formulate ideas and focus attention. Excessive concentration can weaken the spleen, which is part of the digestive system and converts food essences into Qi . The spleen is associated with the earth element. Each element is associated with a specific emotion, in this case worry. Worry causes Qi to slow down. This sluggish movement of energy can make one feel lethargic and slow like the heavy humidity of late summer.
Betty's other symptoms included itchy eyes, nose, and even ears. Itching is a symptom of wind. The symptoms of wind are like the wind itself - they appear suddenly and disappear suddenly, do not stay in one place.
To re-balance Betty's condition I administered acupuncture to "expel wind," drain dampness, and regulate her Defensive Qi to protect her from invasion of wind. Betty drifted off to sleep with the needles in and later emerged from the treatment room feeling refreshed. She could now breath more freely through her nose and her itchiness had subsided. The acupuncture needles acted like switches in her body's energy circuit. Since the problem was not the allergy itself but the patient's reaction to the allergen, these switches reprogram the body so it doesn't react to pollen as a harmful substance.
The selection of points, the direction and depth of insertion, and the manipulation of needles in the patient's body all depend on a person's diagnosis. Each person is treated differently.
In Betty's case, I prescribed herbs to drain dampness and expel wind. I advised her to eat foods that were slightly drying and warming and to stay away from cold foods such as raw foods (salads), fruit juices and iced drinks. Consumption of cold foods weakens the spleens digestive functions and causes interior dampness. I also advised her to minimize sweets, which weaken the spleen and create more phlegm. Moderate exercise such as yoga was also recommended to remedy her condition.
Allergies are just one of the many health concerns that Oriental medicine successfully treats. A treatment series will leave you breathing easy and feeling energized.
By Steven Sonmore, L.Ac.
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