Acupuncture, Chinese Medicine and Allergies

Lori Grayson, L.Ac., O.M.D., D.N.B.A.O.

Acupuncture can be helpful for eye allergies.

Springtime is here and that spells trouble for the 35 million Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies. Allergies (allergic rhinitis) occur when the immune system over-reacts to certain allergens. During the warm season, wind-born tree, grass or weed pollens can cause symptoms such as sneezing, nasal congestion, runny nose, watery, itchy, or red eyes, headaches, fatigue, and sometimes coughing and wheezing.

Sinus infections are a frequent complication of allergic rhinitis. In allergic rhinitis, the nasal mucosa becomes swollen and obstructs sinus drainage which can lead to sinusitis in susceptible individuals. Western medications, typically antihistamines and decongestants, help to alleviate many of these symptoms but do not address the underlying imbalances that are at the root of the problem. In addition, they cause side-effects such as dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, nervousness, dryness and gastro-intestinal disturbance.

Chinese medicine offers allergy sufferers a way to strengthen their bodies and significantly reduce their symptoms, without unpleasant side effects. You do not have to spend another season living with allergies!

In Chinese medicine the wind (feng) of early spring is a combination of the remainder of the harsh winter gales and the gentle breath of spring. The organ system associated with the spring is the liver (not to be confused with the western understanding of the anatomical organ). This means that it is the most susceptible to injury at this time of year. Add this seasonal propensity to the constant stresses of 21st century life and the pathology which leads to allergy response is triggered. A weakened liver gives way to blood deficiency (by Chinese standard, NOT necessarily anemia by western standard). Blood deficiency leaves space in the vessels, making them ripe for invasion by wind. Disturbances of the liver are often compared to the wind moving through the trees. Itchy eyes and skin rashes, that come on suddenly, fall into this description. When the wind attacks, it attacks at the exposed surface of the body, the skin. The skin and its defensive capacities belong to the lungs. When the temperature rises, the pores open and the defensive shield of the lungs is further weakened.

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine offer an integrated treatment to address these issues. Acupuncture is used to balance and remove blockages in the body's energy (qi). It also strengthens the Lung and Liver Qi and in particular the Defensive Qi (Wei Qi) to block the "invasion of wind" (in our western thinking, blocking the noxious air-borne pollens, bacteria and virus pathogens). Chinese herbal medicine can help prevent the occurrence of infection, relieve symptoms, correct immune system imbalances, and allow healing of sinus tissues. In fact, many of the western treatments for allergies have been derived from isolated compounds of single herbs. However, the best medicine is not achieved in using the same herb to treat all cases, but in using the right combination herbs, acupuncture and nutritional support for each individual patient. It is necessary to treat both the root and the manifestation in order to produce lasting results.

And now for the science ...

The results of several studies suggest that TCM therapies are helpful for allergic conditions such as asthma, eczema, and food allergies. Both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine have been shown to help people with allergic rhinitis. Although these therapies are traditionally used together, their combined effect has not been studied scientifically.

In the current study, 52 people with allergic rhinitis were randomly assigned to receive either weekly acupuncture sessions and Chinese herbal medicine three times per day or placebo (sham acupuncture, in which the needles are placed at non-acupuncture points and mock herbal formulas) for six weeks. The people receiving treatment were given two herbal medicine formulas: one was a basic formula for allergies and the other was created for each individual, based on the person's TCM diagnosis. All herbs were used in the form of tea made from dried herbs. Participants answered questionnaires about their allergy symptoms at the beginning of the study and at the end of each week; a daily symptom diary was also used to monitor symptoms.

At the end of the study, allergy severity in people receiving treatment was significantly lower than in those receiving placebo. Nearly 85% of those in the TCM group improved while improvement was noted in only 40% of those getting placebo. Furthermore, twice as many in the TCM group as in the placebo group had no symptoms or mild symptoms at the end of the study.

The results of this study and many others suggest that protocols involving both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can benefit people with allergic rhinitis.

Dr. Lori Grayson practices Traditional Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture in Los Angeles, CA