We all recognize the symptoms of asthma—wheezing, phlegmy rattling—because we all know someone who suffers from it. It occurs as recurrent attacks ranging from mild to life-threatening, and unfortunately, certain forms of it get worse during the seasons many of us enjoy most—spring and summer. Fortunately, relief can be obtained with acupuncture and Chinese herbs.
There are typically two types of asthma—extrinsic and intrinsic—and both will respond to acupuncture. Intrinsic asthma is caused by factors such as chemicals, cold air, exercise, infection and emotional upset. Extrinsic asthma is allergy-related and is triggered by pollens, dust, molds and animal dander.
During an asthma attack, the walls in the bronchioles of the lungs become swollen, or edematous. The smooth muscles of the walls constrict, narrowing breathing passages, and the bronchioles secrete excess mucus, creating obstructive plugs. During an allergy-related asthma attack, there is an increase of histamine and other inflammatory chemicals in the blood. In intrinsic asthma, there appears to be a hyper excitation of the parasympathetic nervous system. The result in both cases is swelling or edema of the mucosal walls of the bronchioles, increased bronchial smooth muscle contraction, and hyper secretion of bronchial mucus with obstructive mucus plugs.
Studies in China involving acupuncture have shown that needling the acupuncture point St 36 (Zusanli) on a healthy subject increased ventilation capacity by 6.6%. The maximal breathing capacity increased 20%, with a 22% increase in the volume of expiration. Acupuncture appears to act on the nervous system by relieving excitation of the parasympathetic nerves while raising the level of excitation of sympathetic nerves. This causes the bronchioles to expand and mucus membranes to contract, leading to improved breathing. Acupuncture also appears to reduce the level of inflammatory chemicals in the blood, thereby reducing allergic responses.
The effects of acupuncture are cumulative. After a series of treatments, one often notices a reduction in the frequency and severity of attacks. Acupuncture has the effect of strengthening a person's constitution and overall health so that their allergic response is reduced.
Chinese herbal formulas serve as a useful adjunct to acupuncture in relieving asthma. In fact, when I received advanced herbal training in China, half of the patients I saw were suffering from asthma or bronchitis. Many asthma formulas contain herba ephedra (Ma Huang), which has the effect of expanding constricted bronchioles. Other herbs are used to reduce phlegm production, combat infection, moisten the lungs and astringe coughing. There are many different types of asthma in Chinese medicine, and different herbal formulas are appropriate. It is best to consult a trained practitioner before selecting a formula.