By Dr. Daoshing Ni, D.O.M., L.Ac., Ph.D, Dipl.C.H.

Up to 40% of the world's population suffers from allergies or sensitivity to foreign substances in their environment. Allergies occur when our body, specifically our immune system, reacts to these foreign substances. The substances that cause allergies are called allergens that in most cases are not in themselves harmful, although some of them indeed are poisonous. Allergens can be air-based such as pollen, weeds, or grass; or food-based such as dairy products, wheat, nuts, or shellfish. When we react to an allergen, our body creates protective proteins called antibodies to fight bacteria, viruses, and allergens. These antibodies recognize and latch onto foreign substances in order to neutralize or remove them from the body.

It is important for our immune system to remove harmful allergens like insect or snake venom but when it overreacts to harmless allergens like pollen, our body produces antibodies that can inflame our skin, sinuses, lungs, or digestive system. Allergic reactions can be so severe that they cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening emergency, although most of us suffer from far less dangerous symptoms like sinus congestion, nasal itchiness, a running nose, burning eyes, swollen lips, a sore or itchy throat, postnasal drip, headaches or head stuffiness, shortness of breath, cough, eczema, a rash, nausea, gas, bloating, or diarrhea.

Allergies are not a sign of a weak immune system; rather they are a signal that our immune system is out of balance and has overreacted to allergens that are not in themselves harmful to our body. The most common airborne allergens are pollen, fungal spores, dust, dust mites, and animal dander. The most common food allergies are eggs, milk, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, raw fruits and vegetables, and sesame seeds. Currently, there are no known permanent cures for allergies but there are many treatment methods that can help manage and minimize allergic reactions. Over-the-counter antihistamines, anti-inflammatories, and other medications can be helpful. Immunotherapy, like allergy shots, can also be helpful. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine offer helpful management tools for reducing or eliminating the symptoms of allergic reactions.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), immunity is a function of defensive energy called Wei Qi. Wei Qi is found everywhere in the body, but it exists primarily in the pores of our skin, in our tissues, in our respiratory pathways, and in our digestive system. Wei Qi is not static; it flows constantly throughout our body via energy channels or collaterals, and it is created from nutrients that are absorbed from the digestive system. Wei Qi is responsible for fighting off pathogenic invasions from the outside of our body and the very existence of the fight that is occurring is expressed through allergic symptoms or reactions that we see. In TCM, allergic symptoms are considered to be a combination of the strength and nature of the pathogens, the proper functioning of our Wei Qi energy, and our body's constitutional balance. As practitioners of Chinese medicine, we look at the totality of this action and reaction, then develop treatment strategies to bring the "fight" back in balance.

Acupuncture is capable of influencing how our body creates antibodies. Several research studies on bronchial asthma and allergic rhinitis have confirmed the modulating effect of acupuncture on antibody profiles and it is quite remarkable to see that the production of some antibodies is reduced while others are not affected. It seems that acupuncture treatments help the body to cease the production of antibodies that cause allergic symptoms while not affecting antibodies that protect our immune system. Acupuncture has also been reported to be particularly effective in the reduction of nasal and conjunctival signs and symptoms; it has also been shown to reduce cutaneous symptoms like eczema, rash, and swelling along with improving the quality of life.

Many Chinese herbs are known to be helpful in reducing the symptoms of allergies. Research on fresh ginger, turmeric, garlic, coltsfoot flower, or Kuan Dong Hua, along with many other herbs have demonstrated effectiveness in minimizing certain symptoms of allergy. For example, fresh ginger is very useful for alleviating stomach-related symptoms of allergy while coltsfoot flower is useful for reducing the symptoms of respiratory allergies.

Finally, a healthy lifestyle is conducive to a healthy, evenly balanced immune system and regular exercise has been shown to reduce the severity of allergic reactions. Performing meditative exercises such as Qi Gong and Tai Chi have also been known to reduce allergies.

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