Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for Asthma
Asthma is a common, chronic disorder of the respiratory system, often caused by a response to cold, exercise, emotional distress, an allergen, or some other agent or event. An estimated 17 million Americans are affected by the disease. Asthma cannot be cured, but it can be controlled by a number of medications and/or by managing the environmental conditions to which one is exposed. Without proper treatment, asthma attacks can become very severe and, in relatively rare instances, can result in death. Practitioners of alternative and complementary medicine often suggest the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as an effective treatment for asthma and its symptoms.
How Is Chinese Medicine Used to Treat Asthma?
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) views asthma as a condition that develops when the body does not produce enough of a quality, called defensive Qi (pronounced ‘chee’). Defensive Qi protects the body from attack by external factors, such as heat and cold. Defensive Qi is a type of energy produced by the kidneys and distributed by the lungs over the surface of the body. When either the kidneys or lungs (or both) do not function properly, the amount of defensive Qi available is reduced and the body becomes more susceptible to diseases, such as asthma.
Acupuncture Treatment for Asthma
One method for dealing with this problem is with acupuncture, which is used to calm the body and relieve the symptoms of an asthmatic attack. Modern practitioners believe that acupuncture can help relax the parasympathetic nervous system and increase the release of neurotransmitters to the brain. In any case, some patients report improvement in their condition almost immediately after an acupuncture treatment.
Several forms of acupuncture treatment are often used in the management of asthma conditions. Body acupuncture is often used in points to strength the Kidneys and Lungs, and to aid in spreading the Defensive Qi over the body. These include Kidney 3, Lung 9, Bladder 13, Stomach 36, and Lung 7. Auricular (ear) acupuncture is also commonly used, especially in the case of an acute asthma attack. Auricular points may include Lung, Kidney, Shen Men, Point Zero, Asthma, and Antihistamine. A variety of point combinations may be used depending on the exact nature of the asthma condition, as well as the constitution of the patient.
Chinese Herbal Medicine for Asthma
Chinese herbs are also widely used for the treatment of asthma. Practitioners believe that various herbs strengthen the lungs and the immune system, reducing the severity of an asthma attack and the likelihood of its return. Most herbal remedies consist of some combination of herbs designed by a practitioner to meet the specific needs of a patient.
Some of the herbs that may be included in such formulations and the effect they produce include:
- ephedrae (ma huang) and cinnamon twigs (gui zhi), for improving the flow of qi through the lungs and dispelling the cold factor
- mustard seed (bai jie zi), ginger (gan jiang), and asarum (xi xin), for restoring lung function and warming the lungs
- magnolia bark (hou po), for improving lung function
- apricot seed (xing ren), lepidium (ting li zi), and pinelliae (ban xia), to eliminate phlegm and reduce wheezing
- schizandra (wu wei zi), to prevent loss of qi from the lungs
- lumbricus (di long), to dilate the bronchioles and relieve wheezing
- licorice (zhi gan cao), to improve the supply of qi, reduce coughing, and eliminate pain
In many cases, classical Chinese herbal formulas are used in the treatment of asthma, including:
- Yu Ping Feng San – “Jade Screen Powder” to increase resistance to colds
- Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan – “Golden Cabinet Kidney Qi Pill” to strengthen Kidney Yang energy
- Su Zi Jiang Qi Tang – “Perilla Fruit Decoction for Directing Qi Downward” to transform cold-phlegm, descend Qi, and stop wheezing
- Ding Chuan Tang – “Stop Wheezing Decoction” to clear hot phlegm and stop wheezing
What Is Chinese Medicine?
The term Chinese medicine refers to a variety of procedures developed in China over the last 2500 years for the treatment of medical conditions. The practice is often described today as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to distinguish it from modern, more scientific, medical procedures. TCM includes techniques such as acupuncture, massage, and qi gong, as well as the use of herbal medicines. Traditional Chinese Medicine differs from modern medical practices most common in the United States in its fundamentally different view of the composition and function of the human body. Growing out of a variety of traditions, TCM makes use of concepts such as yin and yang (complementary but opposing factors at work in the body), Qi (a breath-like life energy in the body), the five elements (properties of various organs of the body), and the three jiaos (three primary regions of the body). Diseases are understood in TCM as less caused by pathogens, and more as disruptions in the normal and proper balance of elements that make up the body; due to an imbalance, a pathogen may invade the body. Treatments are designed, therefore, to restore that balance.
What Is Asthma?
The respiratory system of some individuals is especially susceptible to attack by a variety of agents and events. Although researchers are not certain about the cause of this sensitivity, they strongly suspect that genetic factors are involved. Research for the gene (or genes) that may be responsible for asthma is continuing. An asthma attack occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to the presence of foreign bodies (allergens) in the respiratory system, or to conditions such as cold temperatures or stress. Passageways in the lungs (bronchioles) become inflamed and fill with mucous, making breathing more difficult. Irritation of the bronchioles causes surrounding muscle tissue to contract, further constricting the bronchioles. Exhaling air from the lungs becomes more difficult, causing the wheezing and coughing that is characteristic of an asthma attack. The severity of asthma attacks varies widely among individuals, ranging from brief, intermittent events that are relatively easy to treat to persistent and severe attacks that may be life threatening.
The first line of defense against asthma attacks is discovering and protecting oneself against conditions that may trigger an attack.
Leung, Ping-chung, and Charlie Chang-li Xue, eds. Chinese Medicine: Modern Practice. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific Publishing Company, 2005.
Macicocia, Giovanni. The Practice of Chinese Medicine: The Treatment of Diseases with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier, 2008.