Alcohol, Allergic Rhinitis & Chinese Medicine
by Bob Flaws
On April 19, 2010, Ananhad O’Connor published an article in the Health section of the New York Times. In this article, Ms/Mr.(?) O’Connor quotes a number of studies which show that drinking alcohol can worsen allergic rhinitis (AR). The author of this article explains this due to alcohol’s containing histamines and sulfites. However, the fact that drinking alcohol worsens AR also makes perfect sense according to pure Chinese medical theory.
In Chinese medicine, alcohol is described as acrid and hot. While it moves the qi and quickens the blood, it also engenders fluids. This means that alcohol tends to engender dampness in the body if drunk to excess or in a person who already suffers from dampness. As it happens, I just published an explanation of the disease mechanisms of AR on Facebook today. According to Qiao Lian-jun et al. on page 285 of Shan Dong Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Shandong J CM), issue #5, 2004:
“The internal causes of the onset of this disease are mainly natural endowment insufficiency with peculiar body substance or damage due to enduring disease, drinking and eating, and/or bedroom taxation resulting in vacuity of the three viscera of the lungs, spleen, and kidneys. The external cause is mostly contraction of wind cold evils attacking and assailing.”
The lungs, spleen, and kidneys are the three viscera which control the movement and transformation of water fluids in the body. If one or more of these viscera (and especially the spleen and/or kidneys) are vacuous, fluids and humors collect and transform into dampness. If dampness then endures, it congeals into phlegm. It is a given in Chinese medicine that everyone who suffers from AR has hidden or deep-lying phlegm in the lungs. It is an innate predisposition (i.e., former heaven natural endowment) to lung, spleen, and/or kidney vacuity which also predisposes one to AR. This is the peculiar (or idiosyncratic) body substance mentioned by Qiao et al. in their article. This is the Chinese medical way of describing an atopic terrain or constitution. Such a former heaven predisposition to lung, spleen, kidney vacuity predisposes one to phlegm dampness. In addition, lung vacuity (due to spleen vacuity) includes a defensive qi vacuity which leads to easy contraction of external evils. When wind cold evils take advantage of vacuity and enter the body, they block and congest the free flow of the lung qi. Thus the lungs lose their depurative downbearing. Instead, lung qi counterflows upward, drafting upward the phlegm rheum deep-lying within. This produces the clear, runny snivel, nasal congestion, and sneezing characteristic of AR.
According to Chinese medical theory, if alcohol tends to cause or aggravate dampness, it can add to the deep-lying phlegm rheum in the lungs. Because the spleen is the root of phlegm engenderment and the spleen is averse to dampness, drinking alcohol can damage the spleen which, in AR sufferers, already tends to be vacuous, weak, and encumbered by dampness. So it is easy to see why drinking alcohol can aggravate AR.
Interestingly, the New York Times article also mentions that women are more susceptible to this effect due to alcohol than are men, and Chinese medical theory also easily explains this. Women’s spleens tend to be weaker than men’s for two reasons. First, women’s life-gate/ministerial fire tends to be less exuberant than men’s. Since spleen yang is rooted in life-gate/ministerial fire, this predisposes women to a colder, more vacuous spleen. Secondly, women use and lose blood via menstruation, gestation, parturition, and lactation in a way men do not. Since the spleen is the latter heaven root of the engenderment and transformation of qi and blood, this puts an extra burden on women’s spleen function which also makes for easy spleen vacuity. If drinking alcohol worsens this inherent tendency to spleen vacuity, it will also worsen both any deep-lying phlegm rheum in the lungs and a lung qi/defensive qi vacuity.
As an extension of this, because the spleen tends to become clinically vacuous and weak in females at around 35 years of age, we can also see in clinic that women become more susceptible to the ill effects of alcohol as they age. In other words, women who had little problem with AR in their young adult years often report an occurrence or worsening of AR after their mid-30s.
Blue Poppy Originals’ formula Modified Astragalus & Ginseng was created by the famous Li Dong-yuan eight hundred years ago specifically to prevent allergic rhinitis due to spleen vacuity with phlegm rheum. While I can’t guarantee that taking this formula will allow women to drink wine and not have AR, I have seen it successfully prevent seasonal allergic rhinitis in many, many women.