Western (allopathic) medicine tends to rely on relieving the uncomfortable symptoms of allergy sufferers with the use of medications. While this approach may provide temporary relief, there are often unpleasant or even intolerable side effects. Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine believe that the best way to control allergies is to address their causes by treating the whole person and balancing the immune system.
In the spring, budding trees, flowers, weeds, and grasses release pollen, which is spread through the air by wind. This natural occurrence can trigger an allergic reaction, known as hay fever (allergic rhinitis). Tree pollens are at their height in early spring, while grass and weed pollens arrive in late spring and summer. Aside from these seasonal offenders, other common allergens such as dust, dust mites, mold, and animal dander trigger symptoms year-round. Exposure to the allergen results in symptoms such as itchy eyes and throat, sinus congestion and sneezing, asthma, and even diarrhea. What occurs physiologically is a massive release of IgE antibodies, which attach to white blood cells known as mast cells. These cells are mostly located in the lungs and upper respiratory tract, the lining of the stomach, and the skin. When these cells are stimulated, they release a number of chemicals, including histamine, which produce allergic reactions. This is a misplaced immunity and a learned response by the immune system.
Of course, not everyone has this reaction. Geographic location plays a role, as it dictates the type of foliage present. There can also be a family history that predisposes sensitivity to certain allergens. An estimated 22 million Americans suffer from allergies and spend millions of dollars on medications and allergy shots.
It is important to understand that symptoms are signs of a malfunctioning immune system. In the case of allergies, things that are normally harmless, such as pollen, present a threat. The allergens are not actually the problem. The problem is the person’s reaction to the allergens. The histamine produced when attempting to fight off allergens is what causes the symptoms. Basic allopathic medical therapies, such as antihistamines, rely on inhibiting the allergic response. Other types of drugs used to treat allergic rhinitis or asthma include those that act on the nervous system (Albuterol, epinephrine), while corticosteroids (prednisone) and decongestants focus on suppressing the symptoms of allergies.
Western medicine also emphasizes the importance of avoiding the allergen. The use of air filters to decrease exposure is encouraged. When avoidance or elimination is impossible or impractical, the next level of treatment may be desensitization, which involves injecting small amounts of the allergen in gradually increasing doses in order to neutralize the number of antibodies present over time. While allopathic medicine is effective in treating the allergic response, side effects such as drowsiness, immune system suppression or over-reliance on medications often result.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), including a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbs, is a safe, natural and effective option for treating allergies. The goal of all TCM is to promote the healthy flow of qi (vital energy) that travels through the meridians of our bodies. TCM interprets the cause of allergic rhinitis, referred to as “bi yuan,” as an imbalance in the distribution of qi. The blockages, excesses, deficiencies, and imbalances that can occur in each of the meridians and organs need to be identified and corrected in order to eliminate allergy symptoms.
Bi yuan occurs due to invasions of “wind-cold” that eventually turns to “wind-heat” if not treated properly. Allergy symptoms will either present as wind-cold or wind-heat. Wind, like the symptoms of allergic rhinitis, causes congestion. This wind often coexists with a deficiency of the protective qi or “Wei qi.” Wei qi is analogous to our immune system. Those with Wei qi deficiency catch colds easily, and their allergy symptoms may be especially acute in spring or fall, which are windy seasons.
Treatment using TCM can dramatically lessen allergic reactions, or in some cases help the sufferer tolerate what caused the symptoms. It also enables most people to reduce or eliminate their dependence on allergy medication. We like to use a two-phased approach when treating seasonal allergies. First, during the pollen season, the focus will be to treat the acute symptoms by expelling the wind-cold or wind-heat. Second, after the pollen season, or when the symptoms have cleared, our focus is on treating the underlying problem by strengthening the immune system or Wei qi. After an initial series of treatments, further treatments are provided as needed. Some people may need to return once or twice a year for a booster, while others may need to come more often. Your treatment will always be individualized to meet your needs.
When we treat someone for allergies, we also look for constitutional or more deeply-rooted signs. The idea is to treat the person as a whole. According to TCM, people with chronic allergies often show signs of spleen or kidney deficiency as well as lung problems. The goal of the practitioner is to develop a treatment plan that will alleviate the patient’s acute symptoms while addressing the underlying immune system imbalance at the root of the allergy. Treatments often include lifestyle and dietary recommendations. There are also excellent Chinese herbal formulas that help to treat allergy symptoms and strengthen immunity.
Allergies are definitely treatable. TCM provides an alternative that doesn’t require taking western-style medications, which can have unpleasant or even serious side effects. If you suffer from allergies, you may want to consider the natural approach offered by Traditional Chinese Medicine.
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