It’s Oscar season, and this week lots of people are celebrating the winners and sharing pics of gorgeous celebrities parading across the stage.
But those of us with allergies are not-so-eagerly awaiting another kind of parade.
It’s a parade of decidedly un-celebratory symptoms like sneezing, itchy eyes (and sometimes skin), headaches, congestion, and even difficulty breathing.
Like many people, I’ve suffered from seasonal allergies since I was a child. For me, symptoms usually arise most in spring and autumn, when I am typically congested, head-achy, itchy and sometimes even wheezy.
Many others suffer not only the spring-time Pollen Purgatory and the autumn Ragweed Scourge, but also combat grass allergies in summer as well. In my acupuncture practice, I’ve also been seeing an upsurge of year-round allergy sufferers; common perennial culprits are dust, mold and animal dander.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), each allergy sufferer is unique, and when you visit a TCM practitioner you’ll be diagnosed and treated according to your individual constitution and health history, as well as your presenting symptoms. That said, it’s fair to say that most of us with chronic seasonal allergies are likely to have some degree of Lung, Kidney and Spleen imbalance. The Liver (which has a special relationship with the spring season) is also very influential.
What that means, at least in part, is that you most likely have an underlying deficiency of what we, in TCM, call “wei qi” or “defensive qi.”
Without getting too technical, defensive qi is the type of qi (or vital energy) that creates a protective barrier preventing pathogenic influences from adversely affecting our internal balance.
When we react to normally benign substances like ragweed, grass and pollen, it tells us our defensive qi system is not working up to par, and needs some support.
And since wei qi is produced by our Lungs (and supported by the qi of the Spleen and Kidneys), these three organs are likely to need some extra reinforcement as well.
So why does defensive qi get out of balance in spring, leading to allergies? TCM teaches that changes of season are challenging for even the healthiest bodies to manage. In particular our defensive qi has more work to do, as the body is attempting to adapt to the wide variety of environmental influences.
Case in point: here in Toronto, we had temperatures well in the teens last week (l6 degrees Celsius last Tuesday), followed by a snowstorm on Thursday night. Now that the snow has almost melted, we’re back to hovering around the freezing mark, with snow and rain by turns and the occasional peek of sunshine.
Not only that, but some overly optimistic folk are under-dressing for the still-cold weather. This morning, at a local coffee shop, the man entering the shop ahead of me was in short sleeves – though thankfully, I haven’t seen anyone in shorts (yet).
No wonder our bodies are protesting!
To help navigate these changes, many TCM practitioners are encouraging their clients to take particular care with nutrition and lifestyle habits.
This means, for most of us, avoiding all the usual suspects – sugar, alcohol, processed foods and over-consumption of caffeine and dairy. We’ll want to stay with the warming foods of winter, such as soups and stews, because let’s face it – it’s still (kind of) cold outside. But we also want to lighten up somewhat on the heavier aspects of a wintry diet, including heavier fats and protein sources such as red meat. It can be a good time to increase the legumes in your diet, assuming your digestive system tolerates them. We can also begin to add more fresh and cooked greens to our diet, although (as noted below) we still want to avoid a lot of raw, cold foods as they can be hard for the Spleen to assimilate.
7 Ways to Navigate Allergy Season
Here are some additional tips (most from traditional Chinese medicine, but a couple come from Yoga and her sister science Ayurveda that I’ve had particular success with over the years).
- Even on warmer days, it’s important to cover your head, chest and the back of your neck as, according to TCM, these are areas where the still-cool spring winds can penetrate and lead to sniffles and congestion. This may manifest as a full-fledged cold or may simply weaken your body making you more vulnerable to allergens in your environment. Either way, stay covered and stay warm.
Go a Little Green
- Begin to add more greens to your diet. After a winter of heavier foods, your body will thank you for beginning to lighten up. But don’t go cold and raw just yet – instead of an icy cold kale smoothie, make a soup with kale and ginger or warm your smoothie using a base of almond milk and include warming spices like cardamom and cinnamon. Your Spleen needs warm and easy-to-digest foods. Some people with strong digestive systems can tolerate cold, raw foods but if you have chronic allergies, you probably aren’t one of them. You need to prioritize gently cooked (think steamed, stir-fried or braised) greens and other vegetables, rather than raw ones, year-round.
- According to TCM nutritional theory, “pungent” foods can help clear allergy symptoms like congestion. Think of the last time you ate ginger, onions, garlic, kimchee or wasabi. Foods like these stimulate the mucus membranes to clear themselves out and alleviate some of the most irritating allergy signs. But don’t overdo it – pungent foods can be very heating for the Lungs and our bodies in general. If your symptoms tend toward burning and irritation or you’re expelling yellowish phlegm, stick with more neutral and cooling pungent foods such as radish.
Get Herbal Help
- Consider adding immune-supporting herbs to your diet. Astragulus, for example, is an adaptogen, which means that it helps the body manage the extra stress it’s under during seasonal changes. It’s also considered by TCM herbalists to be particularly supportive to the Lung and Spleen. Other adaptogenic medicinals include mushrooms such as shiitake, maitake and cordyceps. You can buy tinctures if you like, but in TCM herbs are most often consumed as part of the diet. If you like to cook, you can brew your own “Change of Season” soup using my TCM-Inspired Bone Broth recipe as a base. Or look for “Change of Season” herbal soup combos in health food shops and Chinese grocers.
Get a HEPA Air Purifier
- A good quality air purifier can help reduce the level of common allergens inside your home and is especially important in your bedroom. A HEPA (High efficiency particulate air) purifier is generally considered most efficient. You might also consider adding a HEPA filter to your furnace. You may even find that when you use one or both of these, you can open your windows and enjoy the fresh spring air once in awhile.
Use a Neti Pot
- These wonderful Yogic inventions are a life-saver for me in the spring time (and year-round as well). Readily available at your local health food shop – and often at pharmacies too – these nasal cleansing tools resemble small tea-pots. Their purpose is to cleanse mucus and allergens from the nasal passages. You simply fill them with warm, filtered water combined with a small amount of sea or other good quality salt, tip the spout of the pot into one nostril, and allow the salt water to flow out of the other nostril. Then you repeat on the other side. It may take a couple of tries to get the technique down. And you may feel a little odd the first few times you do it. I remember the first time I saw nasal cleansing demonstrated in my yoga teacher training back in 2002 – I thought “That’s so weird! I’ll NEVER be able to do that! – and now I do it every day. Try it – like me, you’ll probably be a convert.
- Caution: Be sure to clean your neti pot well and regularly, and only use with good-quality distilled or filtered water. Do not use tap water, which can contain harmful bacteria and other pathogens. While I’ve never had an issue with infections caused by nasal irrigation, it’s important to ensure you’re aware of how to prevent any issues from arising. Check out the FDA’s advice on this here.
Lubricate with Nasya oil
- You might also consider exploring the use of Nasya oil. In Ayurvedic medicine, Nasya oil is often used directly after nasal cleansing. Special Ayurvedic herbs, such as Brahmi oil, are used in combination with organic base oil, usually sesame. Sometimes essential oils like eucalyptus are added. These ingredients help to soothe and clear nasal passages and alleviate congestion in the nose, throat and sinuses. Moisturizing these areas also makes them less vulnerable to airborne allergens.
- You can purchase Nasya oil but you can also make your own using one of the many do-it-yourself recipes on the web. If you do choose to make your own, be sure to use the high quality, organic ingredients only.
- Acupuncture has been shown to be effective for alleviating seasonal allergies. But don’t wait until your symptoms are in full swing. Acupuncture can definitely help alleviate active symptoms – in fact you’ll probably feel better after even one treatment. But for lasting results, a series of treatments is usually recommended. It’s best to start in late winter – before the allergens have begun to bloom – to prepare your body to deal with allergy season. Remember how the Lungs, Liver, Spleen and Kidney organ systems need extra help to offset allergies? Your acupuncturist will assess your particular case but will most likely include points (as well as lifestyle and nutritional advice) to support these organ systems as well as points to directly alleviate your symptoms.
And if you’re interested in learning more about how to stay balanced and healthy in spring, check out my post It’s Spring! So Why Do I Feel So Unstrung? and Happy May Day! – Aligning & balancing the Wood Element.
Do you have seasonal allergies? What works for you for managing them? You’re welcome to post a comment and share your favourite tips and strategies below!