Treating Asthma with Chinese Medicine

Over thirty years ago I moved to Minnesota from Hawaii. My husband and I had spent a couple of years in the islands swimming in the ocean, biking endlessly, running in the humidity, and spending Saturday afternoons sitting on the beach near our house.

Needless to say, moving to Minnesota was a shock on so many levels, but I was determined at the very least to continue running throughout the winter. In those early years, my lowest temperature limit was fifteen below. I would bundle up, cover my face and go run a couple of miles. Somehow it made me feel a little self-righteous and invincible to be running outdoors when it was so cold.

Exercise induced asthmaA couple of years into my cold weather running craziness, I began to struggle with shortness of breath. Whenever I was physically active, regardless of the temperature outside, I felt like I had an elephant sitting on my chest. To make a long story short I had developed exercise-induced asthma. It was my body’s way of telling me to lighten up on my lungs and ditch the icy workouts.

About 25 million people in the US have asthma, or about eight percent of the population. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, with about half of sufferers experiencing an asthma attack in the past year. Asthma may present as shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing. However, during an attack, the muscles surrounding the airways tighten (bronchospasm) and breathing becomes difficult. For some, an asthma attack can be severe enough to be life threatening. Treatments for asthma from a Western biomedical perspective include rescue inhalers for acute attacks, and long term medications, such as inhaled steroids, beta agonists, and leukotriene modifiers.

In Chinese medicine, the cause of asthma is something called “enduring phlegm”, which means that there is always an element of phlegm obstructing the lungs in people who have asthma. However, digging a little deeper, the underlying cause of any kind of phlegm in your body comes from issues with poor water metabolism.

In simple terms, water is metabolized at three levels in your body. In your Lungs, water is processed through respiration. If you breathe onto a mirror, you will see that the moisture from your lungs will make the mirror mist up. At the mid-level, your Chinese Spleen is responsible for metabolizing water through the digestive process. And at the lower level your Kidneys are responsible for the balance of fluids in your body, but also for elimination of water that’s not needed.

An imbalance in any of these three organ systems can lead to a buildup of water, which over time stagnates and thickens and becomes phlegm. The most common culprit is poor diet or digestion, in which eating too many rich foods, sweets, or dairy foods can bog down your digestion, to the point of generating phlegm.

Because problems with water metabolism can come from your Lungs, Spleen, or Kidneys, there are a number of patterns in Chinese medicine describing the source of your asthma. For example, you can have a Lung depletion, phlegm and heat in your Lungs, internal cold, a Spleen depletion (poor digestion), or a Kidney depletion. In addition, the pattern describing your asthma may change dramatically during an acute attack compared to when your asthma symptoms are relatively calm.

There are a number of triggers for your asthma symptoms, again depending on the underlying cause of your asthma. One of the most common triggers is inhaling cold air or being in the cold, and less frequently breathing warm, humid air. In addition, changes in the weather, pollen, smoke, and pollution may also act as triggers for asthma attacks. Internal factors that can trigger symptoms include having a cold or the flu and even stress.

Treatment for asthma in Chinese medicine involves determining the source of the problem. Where is there a water metabolism problem? What are your triggers for an asthma attack? What is your overall body constitution like? Your practitioner would incorporate acupuncture and most likely a Chinese herbal formula to treat your asthma. However, if you are having an acute attack with difficulty breathing, it’s imperative that you are under the care of a Western doctor, too. Chinese medicine can be a powerful tool in treating chronic asthma, preventing attacks and bringing your water metabolism back into balance, but Chinese medicine and Western medicine are not mutually exclusive when it comes to treating asthma.

Looking back, I realize that my running in the very cold weather was irritating to the point of disrupting the water metabolism in my Lungs. However, my asthma story has a happy ending. First, I quit running when it was so cold out. My lower limit today is about ten degrees above zero, and even then my face is covered. I also had to use a rescue inhaler for a year or two when it became difficult for me to breathe. I also incorporated some acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and breathing exercises into the healing process. Today, I don’t think about asthma and haven’t had that elephant sitting on my chest in years.

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