Allergies are one of the most prevalent conditions I treat in my practice. People come for treatment of allergy symptoms related to pollen, dust, molds, foods, chemicals, pollution, even to other people. You name it, and someone is allergic to it. Interestingly, traditionally in Chinese medicine there is almost no discussion of the concept of allergies, and even less regarding the external source of them. I feel this is a very meaningful difference in the perception of symptoms, their cause, and the remedy for them in Chinese medicine as compared to Western medicine.
The first step in addressing allergy symptoms in the West is to identify the substances to which an individual is believed to be allergic. There are then only three possible therapeutic interventions which may take place – reduce exposure to the allergens, suppress the expression of symptoms, or desensitize the individual to the substances. Each of these measures misses a key point – respectively, that there will always be something external to us which we have reactivity towards and it is impossible to alter the environment to suit our own needs; that the expression of symptoms is the body’s way of cleansing itself and healing; and that tricking the body into not reacting is dangerous and unhealthy. We have an immune system, and in health it is perfectly capable of handling these issues on its own.
It is not my intention to go into a complete discussion of the pathomechanisms of allergies according to Chinese medicine. However, there are a few basic concepts which are useful to understand. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the typical symptoms of hayfever and pollen allergies. Many people will complain of sinus pressure, headaches, post-nasal drip, runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, and fatigue. There are only two basic disease mechanisms acting here. First there is mucus. Any excess mucus in the body is the result of impaired digestion and weakened Spleen function, resulting in the production of Dampness. All of the mucus in the sinuses and throat are Dampness. It is a statement of fact in Chinese medicine that the Spleen makes Dampness and the Lungs store it. This has to due with the Lungs’ function of diffusing and downbearing. That is, the Lungs are responsible for breaking down excess fluids, spreading them throughout the body, and sending the remainder down to the Bladder for elimination. If too much Dampness accumulates, the Lungs’ function of diffusing and downbearing becomes impaired, and they then act as a reservoir for the Dampness. We then cough, spit, and blow it out as a way to get rid of it (the Lung system in Chinese medicine includes the Lungs, the throat, the sinus, and the internal passages of the nose). Another way to express this is to use the channels and collaterals model of Chinese medicine rather than the ZangFu model. In this case, the sinuses are irrigated by the channels of the digestive tract – the Stomach, Large Intestine, and Gall Bladder. Dampness is stored in the sinuses because the sinuses are simply the upper portion of the digestive tract.
The second pathomechanism is Heat. Stagnation of Dampness gives rise to Damp Heat (this is according to the principle of similar transformation, which essentially says that since we are warm blooded, any of the five types of stagnation (Qi, Blood, Food, Dampness, Phlegm and Heat) generates Heat if it sits around. Heat also arises from the Liver, and this is referred to as depressive Heat – Heat which arises from depression of Liver function. In this case, impediment to the movement of Qi and Blood in the body causes the Liver to overwork, which produces friction, and thus Heat, which naturally rises in the body. The reactivity seen in allergies is the result of Heat. This manifests as redness, pain, swelling, inflammation, and irritation. Heat also cooks the Dampness into Phlegm, which is thicker and stickier in nature. Because this newsletter is primarily focused on issues related to the Liver, it is this aspect of allergies I wish to discuss further.
The article titled Benevolence – The Virtue of the Liver in this issue contains the basic information necessary to understand allergies. The friction and Heat which arise from the Liver result from the experience of separateness. Allergic reactions are a reaction to something which the body perceives as other. It is the responsibility of the digestive tract (Spleen) to break things down and assimilate them into us (or Dampness results). But Liver dysfunction may weaken the Spleen’s capacity to do this. The result is that the body must wage war on substances which it perceives as invading and threatening. On some scale, this must take place in order for us to survive. But ongoing gross allergic reactions are indicative of an impaired ability to assimilate the outside world safely into us. In extremes, people with allergies physiologically perceive everything in the world as a threat and an obstacle to them. There are continual cycles of mold and pollen and pollution which make life an ongoing misery. The days are too hot, too cold, too damp. Essentially, there is always something wrong with the environment. The frustration of encountering the world in such an obstructive manner creates more Liver depression, and the cycle begins to self-perpetuate.
As this article is intended to be a commentary on the nature of allergies as opposed to their treatment, I will not say much regarding this topic. However, I do wish to comment briefly on the NAET (Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique) therapy which is popular among practitioners of alternative medicine. The details of the system do not matter here – it is basically a desensitization technique, which is said to “clear” the recipient from any possible substance. My purpose in bringing it up is to illustrate a point which I find is common with regards to chronic allergies. NEAT therapy subjects patients to an endless (and I mean endless) number of desentisitizations. There is never any attention given to rectifying the underlying cause of the allergies, just proposing and then clearing the reactions to a myriad number of substances. This creates what in my mind is a very unhealthy attitude towards life. Life, the world, food, nature, everything is viewed and therefore experienced as against you. This approach can lead to nothing other than more of the same. The patient becomes the poor victim of a harsh world, where everyone and everything in it is an irritant. And the irritation causes the Liver to react even more, so again the cycle self-perpetuates. Although this is admittedly an extreme presentation of the situation, it does occur in varying degrees in real life. Furthermore, I find clinically that this sort of therapy is very immune-suppressive. When I treat people who have undergone various sorts of desensitization techniques, their “allergies” and symptoms commonly recur. They have not been eliminated, simply suppressed. Finally regarding this topic, it is a huge assumption to even say that something is an allergen. Western biomedicine has various guidelines and meanings for allergies. Most importantly, just because we react to something does not technically mean we are allergic to it.
The treatment of allergic responses can be complicated, and I do not mean to imply that people with allergies are angry and that this anger is the cause of all their problems. It is my intention to show that like all symptoms, allergies reflect something of our physiology and our nature. Understanding this always leads to a greater potential for healing.