Monday, April 23, 2012

Achoo! The TCM view of Allergies.

You know the signs: itchy, watery eyes; runny nose; sneezing; coughing; itchy, scratchy throat, rashes. Springtime allergies are in full force. But why do we have to suffer through seasonal allergies?

Environmental allergies happen when we are exposed to something that our body sees as foreign. According to the Western view, the immune system surveys anything that enters the body to see if it needs to be dealt with or not. Whole organic food, for the most part, is something that comes in and is seen as safe so the immune system stays quiet. Bacteria and viruses are seen as foreign and unsafe so the immune system mounts a defense. Allergens are an in between entity that should be seen as safe, but for some reason the body views as foreign so it mounts a defense. There are many theories about why this happens to some people and not to others, ranging from excessive over exposure to a particular allergen to history of excessive vaccinations. Basically it comes down to how strong your immune system is: a weaker immune system doesn't function as well as a strong one and may react to allergens because it can't differentiate "friend" from "foe."

That is similar to the Eastern view. The Wei Qi is the most superficial Qi in the body and protects us, like a force field, from external invading pathogens; it is the Eastern concept of the immune system. As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, the ancient Chinese doctors didn't know about viruses and bacteria causing illness, they viewed illness as an invasion of the elements--Wind, Damp, Cold, Heat, Dryness or Fire. How your body responded to a particular illness told them which element or elements had invaded and they treated accordingly. They focused on treating the body, helping the it get rid of the illness rather than treating the illness itself. With allergies it is the same concept, but is usually limited to Wind, Damp and sometimes Heat; it is possible to see other elements as well, but these are the most prominent ones. When your immune system, or your Wei Qi, is weak, it is like someone poked holes in your force field and the elements can then invade your body and cause symptoms.

In terms of allergies, a Wind invasion causes itching and twitching, as well as a scratchy throat and runny nose. Damp shows as the presence of phlegm (thicker congestion, runny nose, post nasal drip, coughing up sputum), but can also cause foggy headedness and fatigue. Heat is often seen as red and irritated eyes, a sore throat (more than just scratchy), or as rashes and hives (this is often combined with Wind and/or Damp depending on the presentation of the rash).

Through a combination of diet, acupuncture and/or herbal medicine, you can repair the holes in your Wei Qi so that less Wind, Damp and/or Heat can invade, thus making your allergies much more tolerable and can eventually cause them to disappear. Ideally you want to start strengthening 2-3 months before allergy season hits, but even in the middle it can help your sypmtoms go away.

What causes your immune system to weaken? Stay tuned...