What are allergies?
An allergy is the body’s reaction to typically a benign foreign substance due to a weakened immune system. Your immune system produces substances known as antibodies. Some of these antibodies protect you from unwanted invaders that could make you sick or cause an infection. When you have allergies, your immune system makes antibodies that identify a particular allergen as something harmful, even though it isn’t. These antibodies attach to white blood cells and when stimulated, release a number of chemicals including histamine, which produce the allergic symptoms. Reactions can inflame your skin, sinuses, airways or digestive system. The severity of allergies varies from person to person and can range from minor irritation to anaphylaxis- a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.
Common allergic symptoms include congestion, itchy or watery nose or eyes, itchy or irritated skin, hives, rash, coughing, and wheezing. Anaphylaxis symptoms include loss of consciousness, lightheadedness, severe shortness of breath, a rapid, weak pulse, skin rash, nausea and vomiting, and swelling airways, which can block breathing.
Allergies can be caused by a myriad of foods and substances. Most prevalent food allergens include cow’s milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. Other common non-food allergens include latex, poison ivy or poison oak, venom of stinging insects like bees or wasps, pet dander, dust mites, pollen, mold, and various medications (like penicillin and penicillin-based antibiotics).
Several methods are used to test for allergies. Skin prick tests are commonly done on a person’s back or inside forearm. Small amounts of suspected allergens and/or their extracts (e.g., pollen, grass, mite proteins, peanut extract) are introduced to marked sites on the skin. If the patient is allergic to the substance, then a visible inflammatory reaction will usually occur within 30 minutes. This response will range from slight reddening of the skin to a full-blown hive. Interpretation of the results of the skin prick test is normally done by allergists on a scale of severity, with +/- meaning borderline reactivity, and 4+ being a large reaction.
Patch testing is a method used to determine if a specific substance causes allergic inflammation of the skin. It tests for delayed reactions. It is used to help ascertain the cause of skin contact allergy, or contact dermatitis. Adhesive patches, usually treated with a number of common allergic chemicals or skin sensitizers, are applied to the back. The skin is then examined for possible local reactions at least twice, usually at 48 hours after application of the patch, and again two or three days later.
Blood tests can also be used for determining allergic reactions to substances. Blood tests can be performed irrespective of age, skin condition, medication, symptom, disease activity, and pregnancy. Adults and children of any age can take an allergy blood test. The test measures the concentration of specific antibodies in the blood. Quantitative antibody test results increase the possibility of ranking how different substances may affect symptoms. A general rule of thumb is that the higher an antibody value, the greater the likelihood of symptoms.
How Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Treat Allergies
While many over-the-counter remedies promise symptomatic relief, practitioners of Chinese medicine believe that addressing the causes of allergies, treating the whole person, and focusing on balancing the immune system leads to substantial long-term health benefits in managing allergies.
The acupuncturist looks for constitutional or more deeply rooted signs in each person who presents with allergies. Often people with chronic allergies show signs of spleen or kidney deficiency as well as lung signs, according to traditional Chinese medicine. The goal of the acupuncturist is to develop a plan that addresses the person’s acute symptoms to provides relief, but also address the underlying immune system imbalance which is thought to be at the root of the person’s allergies.
Acupuncture: By inserting small hair-like needles around the nose and sinuses we are able to stop sneezing and relieve congestion. There are acupuncture points on the feet that can soothe red, itchy eyes and other points to calm down an overactive immune system. Acupuncture may also be quite effective for people suffering from multiple allergies, since it works to calm the areas of the immune system that are over stimulated by exposure to multiple irritating factors.
In a small but significant study of 26 hay fever patients published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, acupuncture reduced symptoms in all 26 — without side effects. A second study of some 72 people totally eliminated symptoms in more than half, with just two treatments.
According to a study published in the September 2004 issue of Allergy Magazine, a combination of Chinese herbs and weekly acupuncture sessions was useful for alleviating the symptoms of allergies and may help prevent allergies all together.
Chinese herbs are used to build a strong immune system and help regulate the respiratory system to help with acute and preventative measures for allergies. Some herbs also offer antiviral properties. Herbs that drain dampness are employed in order to clear the nasal passages and sinuses. We may also use natural antihistamine supplements to suppress the immune response to the allergen.
Nutritional guidance is customized for each patient based on the health of his or her kidney, lung and spleen function. Diet plays an important part in controlling seasonal allergies. When excessive mucus accumulates in the system, allergens stimulate a much stronger allergic reaction. Sweets, dairy products, and cold foods all tend to increase mucus production, and therefore should be avoided during allergy season. Efficient digestion also helps prevent mucus buildup, so we suggest eating soups, vegetables, and boiled grains which are all easy for the body to digest. Eating foods rich in vitamin C, which is a natural antihistamine, can be helpful and may be found in citrus fruits, spinach, broccoli, strawberries, etc. Chinese medicine also advocates replacing coffee with green tea, which provides anti-allergy actions. Even Chrysanthemum tea made from dried flowers can help reduce allergy symptoms. We address all possible food allergies that could be causing the symptoms as well.
Diagnostic testing can be used to identify allergens to foods and environmental toxins.
How Western Medicine Treats Allergies
Western medical therapies often rely on inhibiting the allergic response; antihistamines (Chlor-trimetron, Benadryl, etc.) are a good example. Other types of drugs used to treat allergic rhinitis or asthma include ones which act on the nervous system (Albuterol, epinephrine), cortico-steroids (prednisone), and decongestants.
Western medicine also emphasizes the importance of avoiding the allergen if possible, and the use of air filters to decrease exposure. When avoidance or elimination is impossible or impractical, the next level of treatment may be desensitization, the injection of small amounts of the allergen in gradually increasing doses in order to neutralize over time the number of antibodies present.
Although Western medicine is very effective at treating the allergic response, side effects such as drowsiness in some people, immune system suppression or over-reliance on medications cause many to seek alternative approaches to managing their allergies. Many turn to their acupuncturist for advice and treatment.