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Red, itchy eyes, sore throat, sinus congestion, running nose, puffy face, congested ears, swollen lips, headaches. Although it may be true that certain seasons have a propensity to bombard us with excess pollen, or air particulates from farming, and pollution there isn’t really one season for allergies. Some people only suffer during a spring and/or autumn season while others may suffer all year long. Some people are allergic to only one thing, while others suffer from a multitude or combination of allergens. Whatever the individual pattern, it is estimated that nearly 50 million Americans suffer from allergies. It’s estimated that over-the-counter sales of allergies medicines should reach $14.7 billion dollars in 2015–that’s a lot of sneezing and muzzy headedness.

I used to believe that seasonal allergies were coming earlier every year.  Though this may be partly true, what I now see in practice is that the air quality is declining in the Boise area enough, that clients are suffer more and often longer with allergies–crud.

Allergies in the eyes of western medicine

Allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, is an example of compromised immunity. Basically, the immune system has a hyper response to a strong pathogen (pollen, an abundance of cat dander, etc) and this causes a rapid physiological changes resulting in itchy eyes and throat, sinus congestion, sneezing, asthma and even diarrhea.  Exposure to an allergen would cause 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 the allergic symptoms.
An IgE-based allergy results in almost immediate symptoms. There are also other types of allergic responses, including delayed hypersensitivity reaction in which the allergic response may take up to 72 hours to manifest itself. These immune system reactions are often IgG-mediated and are commonly seen with food as well as inhaled substances.  “Allergy” may also describe other immune system responses such as nonspecific hypersensitivity or intolerances which are not classic allergic reactions but produce undesirable health effects in response to environmental exposures. It is also true that if you are currently weak or compromised that you are more susceptible to allergens.

Total Load Theory states that for some people exposure to a single allergen may not be enough to trigger a symptomatic response; however, exposure to several allergens near the same time can elicit an allergic response. For example, let’s say that one is allergic to cow’s milk and to cypress pollen. The person may drink milk daily without any noticeable allergic response, however when cypress pollens are present, then allergy symptoms may appear. By avoiding dairy products during pollen season, the “allergic load” may lessen and reduce the symptoms without reliance on symptomatic medications.

Allergies in the eyes of Asian medicine

Asian medicine practitioners can assess allergies using all of the major theories of Asian medicine including: Organ theory, 8 Principle, and 6 Pernicious Influences. They all overlap and can be used to help hone the treatment to the individual which is essential as each person may have different patterns causing the allergies. One client may have allergies that are caused by deficiency of Lung Wei Qi while another’s are exacerbated by damp heat and stagnation congesting the Gallbladder and Liver Qi. Both have allergies and would have some overlapping treatment of symptoms but one client needs their Lung’s tonified while the other needs dampness and congestion removed. Let’s delve a little more.

8 Principle Theory – Looks at each pattern to assess if they are caused by an interior or exterior pattern; whether it is excess or deficient in nature; hot or cold; and Yin or Yang. In Asian medicine allergies are an exterior invasion. Something is attacking or invading from outside your body. How well you manage this attack is dependent on your Wei Qi (Defensive Qi) and how strong the pathogen is.  This is very similar to how colds, the flu and viruses invade the system–in fact it’s almost an identical process which is why sometimes its hard to tell at first if you are fighting a cold or allergies. Further assessment to whether it is hot/cold, yin/yang or excess/deficient is based on signs and symptoms and tongue and pulse. More on interior and exterior patterns.

6 Pernicious Influence –  (cold, dry, damp, heat, summer heat and wind) invades your body’s natural defensive system (the Wei Qi) should rally to fight and hopefully expel the pathogen. However, it may succumb to the pathogen if your system is too weak, as in cases of illness or constitutional weakness, or the pathogen is too strong–think of severe viruses like Ebola or extreme levels of smoke from forest fires–the system just can’t manage the overload. Most allergies are dampness and wind, from there, again we take into consideration the other symptoms to decide if there is heat, dry or cold. Rarely is summer heat a part of the allergy patterns, unless it contributes to overall weakening of the immune system. Let’s face it when you are down with heat stroke, you are more vulnerable to other pathologies.

Clara, wearing and knitting a scarf.

Organ theory – Allows us to get into the knitty-gritty of the root problem. Besides treating the acute symptoms we can start to narrow down which organs have been in disharmony and aren’t doing their job to help keep the immune system up and running. Let’s take a quick look at the major players–

LungsAll allergies affect the Lungs. As the “delicate organ” they have the most contact with exterior environment and they rule the sinuses and the throat. They are also responsible for creating the Wei Qi (Defensive Qi). When they are weak we are vulnerable to any exterior patterns from colds, flu and allergies. The Lungs hate to become dry and they are easily filled with phlegm (especially caused by our diets).

Spleen – Is prone to becoming damp (creating mucus and phlegm) and he thinks the place to store that phlegm is the Lungs. Ideally, the Spleen should be sending refined Qi of Grain (Ku Qi) to the Lungs that will be mingled with the Lung’s Qi of Air (Ta Qi) to make the base for all vital essences used throughout the body for healing, building etc. In our culture, the Spleen is often very depleted because of diets of refined foods, sugars and sweets. If there is dampness and excess phlegm as a part of allergies we must address the Spleen. BTW – the Spleen rules the pancreas in Chinese medicine and is alway indicated in food sensitivities, allergies and diabetes.

Gallbladder – When the GallBladder retains damp heat, there will congestion and the creation of phlegm which can lead to allergies, hives, gall stones and a myriad of other gooey conditions. This pattern is caused by–you guessed it–our diet. Overly rich, greasy, hot and fried foods create heat and damp in the Gallbladder. Weighing it down, it can’t easily help the Liver move the Qi when allergy season pops up. I watch for hyperactive histamine responses when the Gallbladder is involved including flaming red and swollen lips, hives, shingles and gout that flare up.

Liver – Gallbladder’s best buddy.  The Liver is very congested in our society again due to heavy, overly rich diets and and major emotional issues including anger, frustration and stagnation. Spring is the season of Liver and Gallbladder and the foods that arise during spring are particularly beneficial for cooling and clearing out the excess and heaviness of winter–if we eat seasonally. For many, shifting the diet to gently clear can work wonders in settling down hyperactive histamine responses.  If you have stagnation, the Qi in the body cannot flow freely and one possible outcome is congestion in the head and increased phlegm and mucus.

Small Intestine and Colon – Chronic digestive disorders like Irritable Bowel, food allergies and sensitivities, and Crohn’s will give rise to phlegm in the digestive tract that can exacerbate the body’s ability to deal with allergies.

Kidneys – Play a role in creating the immune system by supporting the Lungs. They also reach up to “grasp the Qi” which the Lungs should descend. Meaning, problems with taking a deep breath are often Kidney/Lung related. We see Kidney patterns in many deficiency, constitutional patterns of asthma and allergies.

To sum up: One client may come in with allergy complaints that we narrow down to a pattern of Lung Qi deficiency with wind damp; another’s may be damp heat in Liver and Gallbladder; while yet another’s may be Lung and Kidney Qi deficiency. All allergies, but each treatment would be slightly different to treat the root not just the manifestation.

Tips for treating allergies
Allergies can be particularly tenacious and difficult to treat, especially if they are severe or chronic–but they can be treated. Treatment and prevention of allergies from a Asian medicine standpoint is focused on the individual, treating both the acute symptoms (sniffling, sneezing, etc.) and while treating the root problem to building the system to prevent and reduce re occurrence.

Know thyself – Half of the battle is knowing your constitution and your pattern. For example, if you have a history of colds or Lung Qi weakness, treatment will focus on rebuilding that energy in times when allergies aren’t acute. If you have a lot of phlegm, treatment will focus on draining phlegm even in times when the allergies aren’t flaring up.

Be aware of other situations that trigger your allergies – Is it in the spring? When you are around cats? When you walk down the detergent aisle in a store? When you suddenly decide to spend the entire day ripping out junipers? Once patterns are identified then lifestyle habits, nutrition and herbs can be clearly focused to treat.

Wage war on phlegm and dampness – Excess dampness and mucus congest the Lung, sinuses and respiratory system. Dampness bogs us down, making you feel muzzy headed, slow and heavy. If dampness perpetuates it congeals into phlegm which is even heavier and slows down the immune system stifling the Wei qi. The presence of excess dampness and phlegm are often a huge component in allergies as well as other diseases including candida, diabetes, some forms of arthritis and even cancers.

Reduce damp forming foods – Dairy, processed and refined grains, yeasted foods (that includes beer), sugar, tomatoes, pork, oils and fats–time to cut out the cheese covered pasta. For some fermented foods and vinegar may need to be reduced or cut out for a time. Many people have taken to substituting soy products for the dairy they have given up. Unfortunately, some people think that giving up dairy to replace it with soy solves the , soy in the form of cheese, ice cream and milk is still cold, damp and cloying….

Clear congestion – If you have sinus congestion either from poor eating habits, allergies, or you are getting over a cold or respiratory condition you are in danger of having allergens and pollutants like smoke irritate you. Meaning you will have increased pressure and likely headaches.  The pressure may even aggravate ear or tooth problems. Here are some tips on clearing congestion.

Include foods that drain damp –  Winter squash, onions, turnips, all radishes, and dark leafy greens. Pungent spices such as rosemary, thyme, basil, clove, oregano, cinnamon and mints clear the orifices (sinuses, etc) and move Qi which is often stagnated in allergy patterns.

Include sour and bitter flavors – To astringe and dry damp and move Qi.
Watch out for Wind–One of the 6 pernicious influences, wind is often present in colds, flu and allergies. To understand Wind you simply need to see how it moves. In the body, wind invades in the upper regions, through the sinuses, back of the neck and ears. It moves quickly and transforms rapidly. It sends chills down the spine and makes us sniffle, twitch, have a scratchy throat, headache or watery eyes–and wind often carries in cold or heat with it. Wind rises most in the spring, but it can whip about in any season. Wear scarves and hats to protect from wind invasion. People with Liver pathologies are vulnerable to wind. Quick test—do you like the wind? If you just cringed and crunched up the back of your neck and said ‘no, I hate it,’ you are likely susceptible to Liver patterns.

Build in the off season – When you are not suffering acutely it is the ideal time to build the system. As we build, we become less sensitive and will not react as strongly–if at all– to the pathogen. This, again, means being tenacious and working towards prevention not just treating acute symptoms.

Exercise – Proper exercise increases circulation, respiratory function, immunity–it goes on. Let’s face it, proper exercise is imperative for vitality. There isn’t one perfect exercise–the key is find the exercise that you enjoy that is matched to your needs (we can help you with that, too).

Be prepared and act – Stock your cupboards with the teas, herbs and foods before the season lands on you. If you start to feel a little congested, maybe because you indulged in too much ice cream, use a steam to clear your sinuses and pull your diet back to more clearing foods. The benefits of instilling preventative habits are amazing–they just require you making a new habit. “Oh, I feel phlegmy? I will opt for the onion soup rather than the cream of mushroom.”

Check out the on-demand class on

Countering Coughs

Clearing Sinus Congestion

Be well, wear beautiful scarves.