Spring Has Sprung (And So Have Seasonal Allergies)

Hello out there, lovely readers. Spring is upon us, and that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite seasonal arrival- spring allergies! We had a very mild winter here in New England, which means that the allergy season is starting even earlier than normal. I’ve been seeing people sniffling for the last two weeks, which is super early. The last two years have been just miserable for allergies, and this year looks to not be so great either. The last two spring allergy seasons were so bad because of the multiple occurrences of the polar vortex (which apparently causes trees and grass to dump all of their pollen in a massive end-of-days apocalyptic fear). This year is just going to be unpleasant because things are blossoming early, which means there is more pollen to go around! Whee!!

So what’s one to do with this abundance of seasonal allergens? Well, you can find out what Chinese medicine can do to help out with those pesky sniffles, runny noses, itchy eyes, and scratchy throats, of course!

In Chinese medicine, seasonal allergies have a couple different etiologies (I know, another shocking case where TCM diagnostics are complicated…all part of the fun of this system!). Spring allergies are often associated with the element of wind. People may become susceptible to these wind-borne pathogens because of a deficiency of spleen or lung qi (and remember, using organ pathologies in Chinese medicine doesn’t mean there’s a problem with your actual insides- it’s just a way of conceptualizing body functions). When the spleen and/or lung qi is deficient, the body’s wei qi ceases to work as well as it should. What on earth is wei qi, you might ask? Excellent question.

Wei qi is the protective qi that surrounds the outer parts of our body to protect us from pathogens trying to sneak in and cause disease. Think of wei qi as Saran wrap, lightly covering everything and preventing things that shouldn’t be coming in from entering into the body (didn’t know you had so much in common with leftovers, did you? I am a literal fountain of knowledge!).

When this wei qi is weak, unruly little things like allergens sneak into the body and cause unpleasant things- those allergy symptoms that make you curse every flower you see.

Look at those beautiful flowers, mocking you.
Look at those beautiful flowers, mocking you.

So what is one to do? Chinese medicine treatments take a multi-faceted approach. First and foremost, we work on alleviating the major symptoms to get you feeling better fast. There are a number of acupuncture points surrounding the nose, eyes, and sinuses that can help relieve itchy eyes and runny noses. Some people get a little nervous about needles in the face, but we use very small needles for these points, and honestly, the benefits usually way outweigh any hesitations people have. Plus, when I get to put needles on the side of your nose, you look like an adorable cat with whiskers, and it makes me very happy!

We also work on correcting the underlying deficiency- tonifying spleen and lung qi to strengthen wei qi in order to prevent further allergy symptoms from developing.

Lastly, we can also use herbal remedies much like our acupuncture treatments to both help with symptoms of allergies and prevent them from occurring again in the future.

There are some things that you can do at home to help minimize your symptoms as well. Avoiding all pollen in the spring is impossible, unless you can build yourself a hamster-ball like contraption from which to view the world. But there are plenty of things you can do to make things less miserable. Firstly, try to keep your home as allergen-free as possible. If you’re outside working in the yard or garden, wipe off quickly before you come in the house and then go right into the shower. The more pollen you bring into the house, the longer you’re exposed to the allergens. This goes for pets, too. Dogs are essentially walking allergen traps- if your dog is anything like my furry moron, rolling around in grass and flowers is a delight on parallel with a stay at a four-star spa. Give them a quick wipe with a damp towel before they come inside (especially if said furry friends hang out in your bedroom…you want to keep that space as pollen free as possible). You can try using a portable air filter to get some of the junk out of the air you’re breathing. This can especially be helpful in the bedroom- remember that you’re breathing in your bedroom air more than any other room in your house, so that’s a big place to reduce allergen exposure. If you have long hair, try to tie it up when you are working outside and/or wear a hat- hair collects pollen and will just increase your exposure. Check your pollen counts on the weather channel/weather app/whatever you use to tell you what it looks like outside. Pollen counts are pretty standard on most weather systems now- if it’s a really high pollen count, it’s maybe not the day to plant your entire garden. Pollen counts tend to be highest around the middle of the day, so early morning or later in the day may be a better time for you to be outside (but again, confirm this with your local pollen count levels).

Lastly, avoid a lot of dairy, refined sugar, and simple carbohydrates if your allergies are bad. These foods all increase dampness in Chinese medicine, which can in turn increase the production of mucus and phlegm that makes your sinuses achy and stuffy.

Hope you have found this helpful, and I am wishing everyone a sneeze-free spring. If you celebrate Easter, I hope you have a great holiday. Until next time, my friends…be well!


More Common Questions About Acupuncture

Hello lovely readers! First things first, my apologies for the little hiatus from my writing here. Things have been a little crazy lately- mucho school work, some technological issues, and a busy schedule at the office (which is awesome and about which I will never complain). So something had to give, and this little blog was it. But I’m here now and excited to talk to you guys about some more common questions about acupuncture. If you missed my previous post about acupuncture myths and stereotypes or one of my very first posts on the 5 most common questions I get asked about acupuncture, I encourage you to take a peek at those two. Today’s post will be just a little more information about what acupuncture is and isn’t, based on some common conversations I have had with people about the medicine.

Who can actually give acupuncture?

So this question gets a little complicated depending on where you live. Unfortunately, there is no federal definition or scope of practice for acupuncturists in every state, which means that things vary quite a bit from state to state. In California (where I went to school), acupuncturists are considered primary care providers, which means they get to order things like lab tests and imaging directly. In Connecticut, we aren’t considered primary care providers, but the state does do a good job of protecting the title of “licensed acupuncturist.” To be considered a licensed acupuncturist, you have to have undergone a certain number of educational and clinical training hours and pass a series of board exams. Connecticut requires about 2000 hours to receive the title of licensed acupuncturist, which is pretty good (the school I went to was closer to 4000 hours of study, but California has a really strong educational tradition in the field of Chinese medicine and tends to offer the longest programs).

Where this runs into problems is that other medical providers can technically offer acupuncture- even if they haven’t had the 2000 hours of acupuncture training. This is because their scope of practice covers the insertion of needles, so they can technically do acupuncture. This is actually a HUGE issue in the acupuncture community (and often gets brought up as an issue of what is usually termed “dry needling,” especially when it is done by chiropractors and physical therapists). I’ll save all that background and discussion for another post, but the issue here is that although these medical providers may indeed be able to safely insert acupuncture needles, what they are doing isn’t technically Chinese medicine. Poking needles in someone doesn’t mean you are giving them acupuncture (otherwise, if you follow that train of thought, tattoo artists are also acupuncturists). Often these providers can take weekend seminars or abbreviated courses on acupuncture. Now, in Connecticut, they aren’t allowed to call themselves licensed acupuncturists without meeting the criteria listed above, but nothing prevents them from advertising or offering acupuncture (see the subtle difference?).

So what’s the big deal with that? Chinese medicine is a whole complex system of medicine with its own system of medical philosophy, diagnostic methods, treatment protocols, and even its own language. Going to see a licensed acupuncturist vs. seeing someone who has taken a weekend course on acupuncture means that you are getting a very different and much more thorough course of Chinese medical care from the licensed acupuncturist. Now, this isn’t to say there are physical therapists and chiropractors and doctors out there who have done lots of additional training and acupuncture certifications and can really offer Chinese medicine, but it just means you have to be cautious about who you go to see. I would never feel confident injecting someone with Botox or fillers after taking a couple weekend seminars, even though I legally can put needles in people. Different areas of speciality exist for a reason- it’s not a bad thing to have to go to different providers based on what they are trained for and skilled in. Look for “L.Ac.” after someone’s name if you’re in this state. This means they are a licensed acupuncturist, and they have had thorough training in the field of acupuncture.

How often can I get acupuncture?

I’ve been getting this question a lot recently, and I love it because the answer is AS OFTEN AS YOU LIKE! Acupuncture can’t really be overdone unless you get 100 needles stuck in you daily for weeks (and if you know someone doing that, you need to run, not walk, in the opposite direction). In the hospital I interned at in China, people usually went daily for 10 to 14 days for their treatments. This is very different from the weekly appointments we usually do in America. Especially when you are just getting started with acupuncture or if you have a very acute condition, there is nothing wrong with coming in a couple times a week. Usually if I see you for two visits a week for two weeks, we make faster progress than just doing weekly treatments for four weeks. Now I understand that time and financial constraints are a consideration, so there is nothing wrong with weekly treatments at all. It’s just that there’s nothing wrong with coming more than once a week either!

Ugh. Why do you give me so much stuff to do at home?

I get it. You’re paying me to help you feel better. Why should you have to do homework? Well, my friends, it’s because lifestyle modifications are such a huge part of the Chinese medical tradition. As I have alluded to in other posts, I see you for approximately 0.6% of your total week (that’s no joke…I did math for you guys). There’s 168 hours in a week and let’s say I see you for 1 of those hours. Guess what? No matter how good I am at my job (and I like to think I’m pretty good at it), I can’t fix it all. What you eat, what your sleep is like, how you manage your stress, what you do for exercise, what weather you are exposed to, etc. all influence your health. So part of my job is to help you make improvements to the aspects of your life that are currently affecting your health.

If you’re not doing any stress relief self-care, I might recommend yoga, meditation, or journaling. If you’re eating take-out every night or skipping meals because you don’t have time to cook, I might make some recommendations for fast and easy meals that you can make in a flash. If you’re not sleeping, I might make recommendations about limiting your screen time before bed, making changes to your sleeping environment, or addressing what you can do to calm your mind before bed.

Plus, I like being bossy and telling people what to do.

Usually my bossiness comes in Post-it form
Usually my bossiness comes in Post-it form

Two final quick questions about acupuncture:

Are you a doctor?

Not yet, chickadees. But soon. There are some acupuncturists out there who are doctors and some who are not. Most of us are not. Graduating right away with a doctorate in acupuncture (obtaining what is referred to as a first professional doctorate) is very rare in the  acupuncture field. Most of the time, if you see “Dr.” in front of an acupuncturist’s name, it’s for several reasons:

  • They have a doctorate in another field (Ph.D, MD, ND, DO, DC, etc.)
  • They were educated in China or somewhere else abroad where a first professional doctorate in Chinese medicine is standard.
  • They went back to school and got a DAOM (Doctorate of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine) or some similar degree- this is what I will have in August (if I don’t go crazy first). Sometimes this is D.Ac. (Doctorate of Acupuncture) or DCM (Doctor of Chinese Medicine), or something along those lines

This lack of doctor titles will change. Many schools are actively pursuing offering a doctorate degree. It makes sense- we go to school for 3 or 4 or 5 years of very intense higher education. A doctorate is the more appropriate degree for this level of education.

Do you speak Chinese?

Regretfully, no. Most acupuncturists do not. Medical Chinese is very intense, and it is a whole separate speciality from reading and speaking regular Chinese (which itself is a very difficult language to learn, especially as an adult).

I can't read this. Let's hope it doesn't say something offensive.
I can’t read this. Let’s hope it doesn’t say something offensive.

I interned in China for a month is 2011 and was blessed with very patient and competent translators in the hospital. I could say “Hello,” “thank you,” count to 10, and order a beer, and surprisingly that got me pretty far. Most people we encountered (and my friends and I did a lot of wandering neighborhoods in Beijing) were either extremely patient with our language fumbles, eager to practice the English they knew, or as excited to play charades as we were in an attempt to converse across the language barrier.

So that’s all for now, everyone! Hope you enjoyed this. Have a wonderful week (or two) until we meet again, and be well!