By Rebecca Berkson, L.Ac, Dip.OM
Spring means warm weather, blooming flowers, and outdoor activities for most people but for those suffering from allergic rhinitis or “hay fever”, it means the return of familiar but unwelcome symptoms. One in five people in the United States has some type of allergy whether they are environmental allergies such as trees, grass, or pollen, or indoor allergies like dust, animal dander and molds.
In Chinese medicine, the lung includes the organ along with its corresponding energetic system. The lung is responsible for respiration, dispersing energy from the breath throughout the body, and protecting the body through the immune system. Allergies are considered a weakness of the lung system resulting in symptoms of the nose and throat, which are considered an extension of the lung. Just as in Western medicine, the defense against pathogens is in a hyper alert state causing an immune response to a substance that is usually not harmful. By strengthening the lung, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can modulate the immune system affecting or normalizing the response to such triggers.
Diagnosis in Chinese medicine is based on a collection of signs and symptoms from multiple systems throughout the body. The respiratory system is just one place where we might find these clues to determine the unique pattern. If you see an acupuncturist, they will ask a series of questions to identify the diagnosis. In addition to the classic allergy symptoms, it’s important to know what else is happening in the body. Symptoms such as fatigue, frequent sweating, digestive problems, food allergies and even emotions can be important in making a diagnosis. By viewing the body in a holistic way, the root of the problem can be addressed without simply focusing on the individual symptoms.
For allergies, a typical acupuncture treatment will strengthen the lung through the lung meridian with acupuncture points located on the wrist and chest. Acupuncture points over the sinuses can reduce secretions and drain congestion. Chinese herbal medicine is very useful to reduce inflammation, decrease sinus congestion and address the deficiencies in the immune system. Each individual is different, and herbal formulas and acupuncture treatments are customized for each person.
Within the last five years, several large randomized controlled studies have concluded that acupuncture helps with allergy symptoms compared to control groups. Early reviews of clinical research showed insufficient evidence for acupuncture’s effect on allergic rhinitis, mostly due to poor studies. While the exact mechanism is unclear, acupuncture is known to have anti-inflammatory effects. It can decrease histamine production, downregulate pro-inflammatory cytokines, neuropeptides and neutrophins.
If allergy symptoms are not relieved using conventional medicines, acupuncture and Chinese herbs may be a good alternative or adjunct treatment.
Acupuncture in patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis: a randomized trial
The Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Acupuncture and Their Relevance to Allergic Rhinitis: A Narrative Review and Proposed Model
Acupuncture for allergic rhinitis: a systematic review
A multicenter, randomized, controlled trial testing the effects of acupuncture on allergic rhinitis.