Stop spring sneezing

By Michael Côté

Spring can be a wonderful time of the year, but it is often when seasonal allergies are at their worst.

For people who suffer from hay fever or allergic rhinitis, it can feel like a constant cold with:

  • a runny nose
  • itchy eyes
  • sneezing
  • sinus congestion and pressure.

Hay fever is caused by an allergic response to allergens such as pollen, dust, and pet dander.

From a Chinese medicine viewpoint, seasonal allergies can be a malfunction of various types of Qi. As mentioned in my last article, Qi in the body refers to gasotransmitters.

The most common types of Qì involved with seasonal allergies are Wèi-Qì ( 卫气 ) and Yíng-Qì ( 营气 ). Wèi means to guard or defend and Yíng means to manage or build.

Wèi-Qì is like your defence mechanism or immune system and Yíng-Qì is similar to nourishment.

Therefore, having seasonal allergies is like having improperly trained or inadequately equipped guards. Rather than suppressing these guards, we want them to do their job well. So we give them the tools and training they need.

Acupuncture is the direction and herbs are the materials needed to accomplish the job.

Regardless of the ailment, the goal of Chinese medicine is to restore homeostasis. The ancient Chinese called it harmonizing yin and yang. Having yin and yang in harmony is essential to our health because if this equilibrium is disrupted we develop maladies.

In order to uncover these disruptions, a practitioner of Chinese medicine will ask a number of questions, take your pulse and look at your tongue. Once we determine the cause of the problem, we can then determine which treatment is most suitable.

In the case of seasonal allergies, rather than just treating symptoms, we want to discover the underlying cause to restore homeostasis. Acupuncture, herbs, or something else might be better depending what is specifically going on.

Chad, for example, came to me complaining of hay fever. He couldn’t remember which plants he was allergic to, but he experienced itchy, watery eyes and a runny nose. He had yellow phlegm that was worse in the spring and also had a history of asthma.

His complexion was red and he had a dry, red tongue with a weak and rapid pulse. I diagnosed him with Lung Yin deficiency causing a blockage of Wèi-Qì.

I prescribed Bai He Gu Jin Tang, an herbal formula to transform phlegm and Nourish Lung Yin with Yu Ping Feng San, herbs to strengthen Wèi-Qì. I also recommended a course of acupuncture treatments to move Wèi-Qì and open the sinuses.

Chad didn’t notice a difference until the fourth treatment when his symptoms went away, even though the pollen count in the air was higher than usual.

He was able to stop taking the Bai He Gu Jin Tang when his tongue became moist, but I recommended he retake Yu Ping Feng San for three months in autumn to prevent his allergies from returning the next spring. 

That’s how we approach seasonal allergies from a Chinese medicine point of view, but you may be wondering how it works from an allopathic viewpoint.

Acupuncture stimulates the nervous system, which influences hormones and neurotransmitters, which, in turn, causes the release of neurochemical messenger molecules.

The resulting biochemical changes influence the body's homeostatic mechanisms and triggers its innate healing abilities. In the case of seasonal allergies, acupuncture promotes proper immune function.

A variety of research on seasonal allergies says that acupuncture may help by:

  • regulating levels of IgE and cytokines (Ng 2004; Rao 2006; Roberts 2008)
  • promoting the release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors (Zijlstra 2003; Kavoussi 2007)
  • enhancing natural killer cell activities, modulating the number and ratio of immune cell types (Kawakita 2008)
  • increasing local microcirculation (Komori 2009).

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, there are some general guidelines you can follow to reduce symptoms which includes:

  • Reducing or eliminating phlegm forming foods. These are ice-cold foods and drinks, and greasy, fatty foods like cheese, bacon, pork, nut butters, fried food, and dairy.
  • Adding foods that dissolve phlegm. These are bitter or pungent foods such as ginger, mint, radishes, leeks, onion, mustard, black pepper, lotus root, kohlrabi, etc.
  • Limiting alcohol
  • quitting smoking
  • Doing gentle exercises such as tai chi, qi gong, or yoga.

Michael Côté, R.TCM.P, is a registered practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. He can be reached at the Okanagan Acupuncture Centre at 1625 Ellis St.

Useful links:

For a summary on the research on acupuncture and Chinese medicine for allergic rhinitis see the British Acupuncture Council website:



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