Traditional Chinese Herbs For Food Allergies and Environmental SensitivitiesAdina Stanescu, R.TCMP June 1, 2006
Allergic disorders are varied in kind and increasing in frequency in the industrialized world. They range from respiratory conditions such as seasonal “hayfever” and asthma to food allergies and skin disorders such as atopic eczema. Potentially deadly anaphylactic allergies to peanuts are becoming more and more common, despite the fact that we in the West consume less peanut products than many countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, where this food is a staple.
Western medicine, whether holistic or conventional, places much emphasis on the identification of specific allergens and subsequent avoidance. In recent years allergy testing services have exploded, and many patients come in to my office with pages of printouts listing everything they are allergic or sensitive to. Certainly in the case of dangerous nut allergies strict avoidance is absolutely essential, but when one is reacting to everything under the sun, avoidance is impractical, and a different approach is needed.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treats allergic disease by regulating the immune system to eliminate the root of the problem, whether the condition is respiratory, digestive or dermatologic. It is important to note that to “regulate the immune system” does not always mean to strengthen it — in most cases it is actually overly active and must be calmed, while in some cases it is indeed too weak and must be boosted with tonic herbs, as we will see below.
Rhinitis is the medical term for runny nose. It may manifest either as seasonal allergic rhinitis (hayfever, pollen or leaf mould allergies that come at a certain time of year), or perennial rhinitis which is year-round and more likely to be triggered by dust, indoor moulds, animal dander or other inhaled pollutants.
In TCM, the treatment of seasonal allergies is two-fold. Firstly, treatment aims to control the discharge, sneezing, post-nasal drip, secondary sinus infection, etc, with herbal “antihistamines” or herbal “antibiotics”. These may include xanthium fruit, Dahurican angelica, or dandelion. Like their conventional pharmaceutical cousins, these herbs have strong efficacy in these areas, but the effect is slower and cumulative. In other words, it may take several days to notice an effect.
The second focus of the treatment is the underlying immune presentation, generally some type of “heat” which causes the immune reaction to stir unnecessarily. This may mean cooling down the stomach and intestines which send their meridians up to the nose, or occasionally the liver and gall bladder. All of these organs may overheat as a consequence of lifestyle, constitution, diet or stress. Consequently, a herbal formula composed of 10 to 15 herbs addresses the symptoms as well as the root of the problem.
Perennial, or year-round, allergies are treated in a similar manner, although more often one finds immune deficiency, not “heat,” therefore strong tonics such as astragalus are included from the start.
Unlike drugs, herbal treatment does not produce drowsiness, damage to intestinal flora, or dryness of the mucus membranes. This last side effect of conventional antihistamines is quite problematic, as the dryness will cause a thickening of the existing phlegm in the respiratory passages and make it stick there stubbornly like glue, producing a more entrenched condition over the long term.
Finally, while some types of asthma are allergy-based and belong in this category; it is a broad topic which will be addressed in a future article.
When symptoms are triggered by certain foods, the key is to improve absorption and assimilation in the digestive tract, rather than be faced with a lifetime of avoidance of many foods. (Of course, this does not apply to anaphylactics, who must continue to always shun the allergen.)
One of TCM’s crowning strengths is the vast array of herbal substances it employs to regulate, harmonize and improve digestion. Absorption and assimilation of nutrients is the linchpin of health — it matters little what we eat if we cannot break it down and utilize it when beneficial, or excrete it when harmful.
Treatment is individualized for each patient, as the causes of digestive impairment are many. However they can broadly be split into three areas:
1. Weakness, or deficiency of Stomach and Spleen, from constitutional factors or lack of sufficient protein. In these cases the engine does not have enough fire to cook the food it receives, and there may be loose stools or undigested food in the stools. Strong tonics like astragalus or codonopsis, a type of ginseng, are used.
2. Liver Stagnation. Many irritable bowel cases fall into this category. This is not a situation of Liver toxicity, but rather a stress-based, functional impairment. Symptoms include bloating, pain, or gas which are often triggered by difficult emotions rather than any particular foods. This is bewildering for patients who cannot understand why they sometimes react to things like dairy, for instance, but other times they do not, and occasionally will react without any food at all. Treatment focuses on breaking up the stagnant, pent-up energy of the Liver, as well as de-stressing the system with herbs like white paeony root and bupleurum.
3. Mucus accumulation. This is called “dampness” in TCM. If food is not broken down properly over a long period of time, it will eventually cause the gastro-intestinal tract to become toxic. The tongue coating will be too thick. There may be constipation, mucus-streaked or burning stools, and hemorrhoids. Conditions such as Crohn’s disease or colitis may develop. Herbs with a cleansing, Dampness-draining and anti-inflammatory effect are used.
If the above abnormal factors are rectified, food will be properly broken down and symptoms of intolerance will disappear.
The main (chronic) allergic conditions of the skin are hives and allergic eczema. It is important to note that the skin does not generally react to something that is touched, but rather to inhaled or ingested substances. But just as often the cause is never identified. Once again, in TCM these are considered problems of an overactive immune system, i.e. some type of “heat”. They are treated with antiallergic, anti-inflammatory and anti pruritic (anti-itch) herbs such as ledebouriella root. The treatment aims to cure permanently, and in most cases it is successful.
For a fuller discussion of skin disease, view the website at www.thetcmclinic.com.
TIMING OF TREATMENT
Food allergies, year-round allergies and skin conditions can be treated at any time.Seasonal allergies should be treated a month prior to the usual onset of symptoms, and right through the problem season.