Are you one of those people who dreads the onset of spring or fall? Rather than enjoying the change in foliage and temperature, perhaps you envision a nightmare of sneezing, itchy eyes, runny noses, and headaches. If so, you're certainly not the only one -- and acupuncture and east Asian medicine can help you.
First of all, what causes allergic responses? As a child I never had any allergies. I was free to enjoy a home filled with pets and the changes in seasons without giving too much though to it. It was only in my teens that I would find myself crippled with allergies every spring, eyes watering, nose running, barely able to pay attention in class because I was convinced that my face was swollen shut and I was about to asphyxiate (I was a hyperbolic teenager).
This started me wondering: what exactly are allergies? And why had I suddenly developed such a strong reaction to stimuli I had been exposed to my whole life?
To state the obvious, allergies are a response to a foreign body that the immune system determines poses a threat. Sometimes, when immune cells (Th2 cells) decide that a foreign body is a threat, it is a true invader, like a virus or a bacteria. These Th2 cells play an important role in keeping us healthy and in protecting us from these pathogens. The immune cells involved in the allergic response are called Immunoglobulin E, or IgE cells. These cells can become hypersensitive to certain allergens, such as ragweed pollens or pet dander, and when they come in contact with these degranulate, forming the basis for all those lovely substances that then leak from your nose and eyes. Yum! IgE cells are thought to have originally evolved to cope with parasitic infections, which were rampant prior to the development of indoor plumbing. Some hypothesize that the rise in allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disease is linked to the recent decrease in parasitic infections. IgE is found in elevated levels in patients with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
In east Asian medical theory, we worry less about IgE and focus more on three things when it comes to allergies: overall constitution, diet and lifestyle, and wei qi.
Constitution is a relatively straightforward concept -- it's the same reason that two people who are exposed to a similar cold or flu virus may not both contract the illness. One person's immune system is simply more efficient than the other person's. Similarly, people who have a strong base constitution are less likely to be affected by allergies than people who are less robust.
Even if someone has a hardy constitution, they can still be thrown out of balance by improper lifestyle. Excess consumption of greasy foods, raw or cold foods, overconsumption of alcohol, tobacco usage, and a sedentary lifestyle can all throw your constitution out of whack. Looking at digestion is a great indicator for whether or not someone is more susceptible to developing allergies -- if you find that you are constipated, have loose stools, or are frequently bloated after eating, those problems can turn up in other places, and one of those can be allergies.
Wei qi is a slightly more esoteric view of allergies -- in east Asian medicine, wei qi is what is translated as 'defensive qi'. In many ways, it is analagous to the immune system. The defensive qi circulates over the skin in order to protect you from outside pathogenic influences. When the wei qi is strong, you'll find that you're less susceptible to allergies, colds, and flus. If the wei qi is weak, you may find that you're more susceptible to illness, and you may also find that you tend to sweat abnormally. Your skin may be always clammy, or once you start sweating, you have difficulty stopping. Not sweating at all, even with exertion, is another sign that your wei qi is not quite right.
So how does east Asian medicine address these issues? First of all, we take a good hard look at your diet and lifestyle. I always encourage my patients to cook their own food and to take time to cook their vegetables. This way, your digestive system is less taxed in order to absorb the nutrients from your food. Taking time to exercise and moderating alcohol consumption is also important. I also encourage weekly acupuncture and regular herbal treatment in order to address both constitution and symptoms.
The second, even more important component of the treatment is addressing the problem 3-6 months before the onset of your regular allergies. Are your allergies the worst in the spring? We need to start addressing them in the winter. Worse in the fall? Start at the beginning of the summer. Because we are trying to balance your constitution, we need to allow enough time for your body to hit the proverbial reset button. If this treatment protocol doesn't completely eliminate your symptoms, bi-weekly treatments will be enough to manage any lingering symptoms.
Let's be real: allergies are the worst, and there's no reason that they should ruin your spring, summer, or fall. Make an appointment to see your acupuncturist and start addressing them today!
Andrea Lane is a licensed acupuncturist, herbalist, and certified Pilates instructor in Portland, Oregon. Her practice particularly focuses on treating allergies, autoimmune disease, and women's health. She is passionate about maintaining good health through a whole-food diet, mindful movement, and meditation. When she is not practicing, she loves to cook, listen to podcasts, read her way out from under the small mountain of books she's accumulated, and cater to her cat's every whim.