Growing up in Australia asthma was quite a common disease to have. In fact, allergies in general were quite common, like allergic rhinitis, which is better known as hay fever. Here in Switzerland I see a lot of patients with hay fever however it has only been the last 5-10 years that I have slowly seen a steady increase in patients coming to be treated for asthma. No one really knows why there has been an increase over the past few decades however some hypothesize that it could be genetic-related, environmental, hygiene or simply we are diagnosing more asthma than before.
There are a number of different kinds of asthma that one can suffer from, these being allergic, exercise-induced, cough-variant, occupational or nocturnal. Allergic asthma often goes hand in hand with hay fever, while exercise-induced comes when one overexerts oneself. Cough-variant is a type of asthma where instead of a narrowing of the airways and wheezing the person has severe coughing attacks. Occupational asthma obviously is caused by triggers in the workplace and nocturnal occurs at night.
From a Chinese medicine perspective asthma can be caused not only by the Lungs but also for example due to a disharmony of the Kidneys and the Liver. The Lungs are an obvious choice but the Liver is the system that is affected when the asthma is associated with allergies and comes often in the spring and summer months. The Kidneys can be involved when for example the Kidney energy is weak and does not receive the Lung Qi (air) and therefore the air ‘rebels’ or gets stagnant in the Lungs. This may seem abstract but if you understand the flow of Qi you can understand how asthma can occur.
The Functions of the Lungs in Asthma
The Lungs can be out of balance due to a variety of reasons. This can be because of a weakness of Qi (energy), because of phlegm or Qi stagnation, because of emotional reasons, with oppression on the chest, or due to timing of the Chinese organ or body clock where the Lungs are most active between 3 and 5am. A weak Qi will cause a general shortness of breath and wheezing, there may also be a feeling of oppression on the chest. The season of the Lungs is autumn and, in this time, if the Lungs are weak, the fire/summer element may overact on the Lungs causing heat and dryness in the Lungs, as well as difficulty breathing.
The Function of the Liver in Asthma
One of the Livers function is to ascend Qi, and this is coordinated with the Lungs function of descending Qi. When the Liver is in excess, with excess heat or fire, it can blaze upward and disturb the Lungs function of diffusing and descending. In the five element theory the Lungs belong to the metal element and it should control the Liver, which is the wood element. If the Liver is in excess it will counter-flow causing respiratory symptoms. The wood element is also the element of spring. It is expansive and explosive. If the element is unable to flow freely it will cause blockages and allergic reactions which include hay fever but also breathlessness and wheezing.
The Function of the Kidney in Asthma
The Kidneys is the source of Jing, our youth and fertility. It belongs to the water element and dominates in winter. The Kidneys hold our genetic make-up so if you have asthma, which has been passed on through the generations, then this may be the source element to treat. The Kidneys are also responsible for receiving Lung Qi (air) and storing this Qi. If the Kidney energy is weak it is unable to receive the Qi, causing a disfunction in the Lungs. The Lungs control inhalation and the Kidneys control the exhalation.
The function of the Spleen in Asthma
The Spleen is coupled with the stomach and is the earth element. The earth element should nourish the metal element; hence the Spleen nourishes the Lungs. If Spleen Qi is deficient then it will not nourish the Lungs, causing the Lung Qi to also be deficient. The Spleen is also responsible for the transformation of fluids. If they are not transformed and transported, the fluids will stagnate causing dampness and eventually phlegm. This blockage of fluids may obstruct the lungs causing a phlegmy cough and wheezing.
Once your practitioner has made a diagnosis, he/she will be able to best treat the underlying cause of the asthma. Acupuncture is a fantastic tool for treating this as well as Chinese herbs.