The inspiration for this blog post came to me in the middle of the night – quite literally. I woke up from a dead sleep and sneezed so hard I thought I’d given myself a hernia. When the pain subsided I started thinking about allergies, the treatment of which has become standard and routine practice for many acupuncturists. The mainstream has come to think of us as “the back pain people,” but in my experience a different perception is emerging.How many times have I heard this statement: “Oh! Acupuncture. I did that for my allergies and it worked great!” Now why would this be the case? To answer this question you first need to understand a little bit about what we’re doing when we put those tiny needles in and call it acupuncture.Essentially those needles help to stimulate the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS – think of all the nerves in your extremities). The PNS relays this information to the Central Nervous System (CNS), which consists of your brain and spinal cord. The CNS, in turn, produces a response: to release neurotransmitters which have varying effects on things like inflammation and pain. Your brain perceives that needle as something that needs to be dealt with – the squeaky wheel that needs oil would be one analogy. The thing to remember is that nothing can happen to or withinthe body without the CNS getting involved and when it does, it can be a powerful ally in the healing process.This link between brain and body is nothing new and in many instances, you don’t even need the stimulus to be physical in nature (e.g. a needle stick). Oftentimes intense emotions can also trigger the body to behave in a certain way. The classic example that everyone probably remembers from 8th grade science class is the so-called “fight or flight” response. In this scenario an individual – say one of our early human ancestors – is confronted with a stressor – for instance a giant, hungry grizzly bear – and physiology kicks in. The brain gets the message: “Hey, looks like we’re about to get eaten!” and transmits a signal to the adrenal glands to dump adrenaline (epinephrine) into the body. The physical manifestations of this adrenaline dump include things like dilation of the bronchioles (to suck in more oxygen for either running away or duking it out), slowed or stopped digestion and increased heart rate (to supply more blood and nutrients to the muscles that need them).
Sounds a lot like the mind-body connection that we acupuncturists are so fond of referencing, doesn’t it? In fact, there is an entire field of study called psychoneuroimmunology which looks at the connection between our emotions and our body’s ability to deal with infection and disease. So if acute stress can produce a physical response, perhaps the system can work in the opposite direction as well. Relieve the stress to relieve the symptoms. This is what we’re doing in the case of acupuncture for allergies.
We tend to think of allergies as the result of a deficient immune system, but what is actually going on is that the immune system is in hyper-drive. We can use acupuncture to calm down this hyper-response and re-set the function of the immune system by way of the mechanisms described above.
For any of you who suffer from seasonal allergies here in Central Texas, as we march forward toward the dreaded “Cedar Season,” I hope this post has helped to shed light for you on a possible alternative to prescription decongestants and weeks of suffering. Preventive treatments with acupuncture and herbs now can help to greatly reduce the severity of symptoms when pollen counts are at their highest.
As always, thanks for reading and stay well!
-Tama Henderson, L.Ac