Herbs, Acupuncture, Moxa, and breathing exercises that will rock your world.
Breathe Easy with Chinese Medicine
Nearly 10 percent of Americans suffer from asthma, so it's likely you or your loved ones have experienced respiratory challenges. Asthma ranges in severity from mild to severe, but all cases can significantly impact your life. In this article I'll outline how Chinese Medicine can effectively treat asthma, provide long term solutions, reduce or avoid medication side effects, and we'll walk through some helpful lifestyle habits that can help you along the way.
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways that results in coughing, wheezing, breathlessness, and chest tightness. Asthma is characterized by variable and recurring symptoms including airflow obstruction, bronchial hyper-responsiveness, and underlying inflammation. Many cells and cellular elements may be involved, particularly mast cells, eosinophils, neutrophils, T lymphocytes, and macrophages. Broncho-constriction is a characteristic of asthma in which bronchial smooth muscle contracts in response to stimuli such as allergens or cold air, resulting in narrowed airways. Airway edema may be present with chronic, excessive mucous production that may limit airflow.
In Western medicine, asthma is typically managed with inhaled corticosteroid medications and bronchodilators like beta 2 agonist medications. Corticosteroids work to decrease inflammation by suppressing immune cell reactivity, so long term use can result in problems with immune function.Side effects of corticosteroid use include decreased bone density, stunted growth and development, glaucoma and cataracts, and immune suppression. Beta 2 agonists work to dilate the bronchioles. Side effects include anxiety, trembling, headaches, palpitations, and in excessive high doses can cause heart attacks.
Western medical treatments can be life-saving for asthma patients, and for many asthma sufferers they provide adequate relief. For some patients, western treatment alone does not provide the best long term management. Chinese Medicine treatment help to reduce dependence on medication, improve lung function, reduce airway hyper-responsiveness, and reduce susceptibility to asthma triggers. For patients who have mild asthma, Chinese Medicine treatment can take them the final steps to freedom from asthma symptoms.
CHINESE MEDICINE AND ASTHMA
So how does Chinese Medicine approach asthma treatment? Chinese Medicine treatment begins with differential diagnosis of symptom patterns. The diagnosis is made based on analyzing specific symptoms, tongue diagnosis and medical pulse diagnosis. Chinese Medicine has a unique view of disease pathology which differs from Western Medicine. Because it is different, and because we don't use expensive lab equipment and tests many people have the idea that Chinese Medicine is less specific and accurate. In some cases I would agree with that, but in the case of many chronic illnesses Chinese Medicine is actually more specific in diagnosis and treatment.
Let's break it down with asthma. In Western Medicine asthma is defined as above, a chronic disorder of the airways caused by airway obstruction, broncho-constriction, and inflammation. This disease category contains patients who have different Chinese Medicine pattern diagnoses. So even though Western Medicine observes that some patients have different triggers, the treatment given is the same. Whether the asthma is triggered by cold exposure, by exercise, by heat exposure, by food items, etc the treatment is the same. With Chinese Medicine treatment we narrow down exactly what type of asthma the patient is experiencing, and give specific treatment for that type. That's how we see excellent results.
This relates to the fundamental basis of Chinese Medicine philosophy is that we can treat the symptoms or we can treat the cause of the disease. These are termed respectively the "branch" and the "root." We are looking not just to answer "what is this problem?" but also, "why does this person have this problem?" So in the case of chronic illness especially, Western medicine often has a sound answer for the first question but little to offer for the second question. Usually you'll hear an answer like, "complex variables including genetic and environmental factors." That's not a bad answer but it's not very helpful because there's no further action to take. You're given the same medications, and then hope you respond well.
With Chinese Medicine we have specific answers to "why does this person have this problem?" You might not like them, or be able to relate to them since they come from a different medical system, but the good news is that there are actions to be taken to address and correct why you, specifically, have asthma.
The treatment is specific to the diagnosis, and that is the beauty of Chinese Medicine.
You might come in with asthma and your pattern diagnosis may be Taiyang-Yangming Shang Han pattern, and you would given the herbal formula 葛根汤 Ge Gen Tang. Your friend may come in and be diagnosed with Shaoyin pattern and would be given 腎氣丸 Shen Qi Wan. I know, that's literally Chinese to you. But the point is you both have asthma, but you are not given the same herbal formulas. And we wouldn't expect to give you the same formula and get the same results.
CORRECTIVE VS PALIATIVE CARE
It's important to mention that there is an important difference between corrective and palliative care. If you are given a medication to take for the rest of your life, that is palliative care. There is no expectation that the treatment will make the condition go away, but the treatment will palliate the symptoms. Sometimes palliative care is the only option, for example when a condition has progressed beyond the point of being reversed. In the case of asthma however, many patients' asthma can be corrected with proper treatment.
Chinese herbal treatment in many cases is corrective rather than palliative. If the root cause of illness can be identified and treated properly, then the illness subsides and there is no further need to keep taking herbs.
CHINESE MEDICINE TREATMENT MODALITIES
When it comes to asthma treatment, Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, moxibustion, and cupping are all useful modalities. Most patients do best with a combination of herbal medicine and treatments like acupuncture, moxibustion, and cupping. Internal herbal medicine works to strengthen lung function, modulate immune activity, decrease phlegm production, open airways and soothe bronchospasm. Moxibustion, heat therapy that involves burning Artemesia flos over the body, has been shown to out-perform standard Western medications like salmeterol. Cupping on the chest and upper back improves circulation of blood and body fluids and can help expectorate and break up phlegm lodged deep in the lungs. Acupuncture helps to regulate immune response, encourages para-sympathetic nervous system response, and improves blood circulation throughout the body.
Curative effect of heat-sensitive moxibustion on chronic persistent asthma: a multicenter randomized controlled trial. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24660579
In addition to seeking Chinese Medicine treatment, what can you do to improve your breathing?
You've undoubtably heard that exercise is important for improving lung function. But how you exercise is very important. In order to strengthen and improve your respiratory and cardiovascular health you want to gradually challenge your lungs to improve. Over-exert yourself too frequently and you will break yourself down and ultimately make it less likely for you to keep going. Give yourself exercise challenges that you can win. If you are running for exercise, run so that you feel good when you are done, not tired and wiped out. Over time many small wins lead to increased stamina and strength.
Have you ever seen a Shaolin monk break bricks and stone tiles over their head? They don't just get up and do it one day. It takes careful training. If you stress a bone, like the skull in that case, it will cause the bone to grow thicker and harder. Those monks start by hitting their heads with soft bean bags. Over time, the bone grows stronger and thicker and can tolerate greater stress. In time even a solid stone tile will yield to the bone's strength. This only works if the stress is smaller than the body's ability to overcome it. Break the bone too soon and it's all over. It's no different with strengthening the lungs. Many small exercise challenges over time lead to improved health.
The most important aspect of diet with regards to asthma is reducing phlegm producing food and reducing known asthma triggers. Dairy is one of the most significant mucous forming foods, and if you suffer from asthma you will likely do better with reducing or eliminating dairy foods in your diet. Butter is generally not an issue, but reducing cheese, milk, ice cream, and yogurt consumption will reduce phlegm and congestion. Sugar has a significant deleterious effect on immune modulation, and reducing sugar consumption will benefit most asthmatics.
3. BREATHING EXERCISES
Have you ever heard of the Buteyko breathing method? I would not be at all surprised if you haven't because it's not glamorous, it's not sexy, and it challenges fundamental cultural ideas we have about breathing. But it works, and it has helped a great number of asthma sufferers worldwide. I'm going to do my best to explain the breathing method and my take on how it works, but for instruction and more detailed information I recommend visiting https://buteykoclinic.com/ to learn more.
The perfect person breathes as if he does not breathe.
- Lao Tzu
What is the Buteyko breathing method? The core practice of this method involves reducing breathing volume to reduce airway inflammation and improve gas exchange. In other words, breathe less. It's a very foreign concept given that we are always told to "take a deep breath" to relax and that asthmatics often feel out of breath. And personally, it made no sense until I tried it.
Buteyko teacher Patrick McKeown points out that normal breathing volume in a healthy individual is 5 to 6 liters of air per minute. Breathing volume in asthmatics averages 10 to 15 liters of air per minute. This increase in breathing volume is presumably due to compromised lung function. One would think that improving lung function is the only way to reduce this increased volume, but the Buteyko method uses exercises to reverse engineer this problem.
Try this while you read. Breathe through the nose only. Breathe in and out as slowly, quietly, and gently as you can. Focus on the gentle movement of air through your nose, so gentle that it barely disturbs the hairs in your nose. Reduce chest movements. Let any movement come from the diaphragm and belly.
Now, several things happen when you breathe this way. As the volume is reduced, the airflow turbulence is reduced which decreases inflammation of the airways. Calm nasal breathing stimulates the release of nitric oxide in the nasal cavity. Nitric oxide opens up the airways and increases oxygen uptake in the blood. Slow and gentle breathing encourages relaxation and para-sympathetic nervous system dominance. When we are calm, we naturally breathe slowly and gently. When we are stressed, we naturally breathe heavily. Thus, when we are stressed if we breathe slow and quiet we will encourage a relaxed state.
This breathing method is highly useful for anyone with respiratory challenges, sleep apnea, chronic stress, and also for acid reflux. These exercises stimulate diaphragmatic breathing, which is widely underdeveloped in modern times. Many of us primarily breathe with our accessory breathing muscles, the intercostal muscles of the chest, scalenes and pectoralis minor. This is not only a contributing factor to neck tension, but a primary factor in acid reflux due to weak diaphragm muscles causing hiatal hernias.
I highly encourage you to learn more from the Buteyko clinic. Patrick McKeown has a variety of inexpensive books and instructional DVDs. Here is a youtube video to learn a bit more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKaUEVnducI
Using the Buteyko breathing method to improve breathing habits combined with Chinese Medicine treatment to address the underlying problems like weak lung function, allergies, and chronic congestion is an absolute slam dunk for treating asthma and respiratory disorders.
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