The sun is shining, the temperature is climbing, the flowers are --- aaaaachoo! With all the perks of spring, there is one major downside: allergies. Typically caused by an allergic reaction to pollen, almost one in five Americans are impacted, and for some the Western treatment leads to even more issues. But it doesn't have to be that way. During the spring months, New Yorkers looking for assistance flock to my Manhattan practice and leave allergy-free. To help you, here are some of my patients' most common queries and FAQs about the season of eye itchiness and sneezing.
Why do some people suffer from allergies and others seem to be completely unaffected?
The most common misconception about allergies is that they are just caused by outside elements like pollen, dust or mold. The reality is that allergies are actually a sign of a malfunctioning immune system. In this case, allergens cause the body to release inflammatory chemicals such as histamine. This can cause itchy watery swollen eyes, sneezing, runny nose, congestion, and in some cases even hives and rashes.
So then, what is typical course of treatment?
Western medicine relies on two courses of treatment for allergies -- avoidance (which is almost impossible) and desensitization by injections or medications. Many doctors will suggest the use of air filters, which can remove the airborne allergens, but it does nothing to the allergens on surfaces in your home or on your body. You can try to eliminate your exposure to allergens, but unless you live in a bubble, this is impractical. The second phase of treatment -- desensitization -- involves injecting small amounts of the allergen in gradually increasing doses in order to neutralize the number of antibodies present over time. There are some newly-approved prescription medications that are derived from certain allergens in order to alter the immune system and change one's sensitivity. As with any prescription medication, there can be undesired effects.
What about over-the-counter medicine?
Antihistamines can also be used to combat allergies, but side effects such as drowsiness, increased heart rates, immune system suppression, or over-reliance on medications often result.
What makes the Eastern approach different?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) includes a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Traditionally, the goal of all TCM is to promote the healthy flow of qi (pronounced "chee"), or vital energy that travels through the meridians of our bodies. Modern practitioners use metaphorical terms such as "wind invasion" or weakened "wei" or defensive qi to describe and to diagnose allergies. The treatments are designed to treat both the root of the disease as well as the symptoms. Acupuncture can treat allergies by controlling the body's inflammatory reactions to allergens. Herbs can also help with reduce the inflammatory reaction as well as desensitize the body to allergens. For example, the herb Astragalus, or Huang Qi as it is known in TCM, can help modulate immunities. Even simple herbal teas that contain dried chrysanthemum flowers and cassia seeds can help lower histamine production. Many practitioners also recommend a flavonoid compound called quercetin to reduce histamine production.
So then, what is a typical treatment plan?
Ideally, treatments with a TCM practitioner begin about four to six weeks before the start of the allergy season. This allows time to build immunities to allergens. Of course, if your allergy season has already begun or if you are allergies all year round, then starting treatment immediately can still provide great relief. And if you are currently taking allergy medications, then acupuncture and herbs can help wean you from them.
So suffer through sneezes no more -- with an Eastern approach to a common Western problem.