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Breathing Easier With TCM

It’s been likened to trying to breathe through a straw – you just can’t get enough air. The harder you try, the worse it gets, and then, panic sets in.

Although the severity and frequency of asthma attacks vary from person to person, a feeling of breathlessness and tightness around the chest are common symptoms of this respiratory ailment that affects 235 million1 people, including children, worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation.

But while asthma cannot be cured, it can be managed so that asthma patients live full and active lives.

Anatomy of an asthma attack

Type Cause Symptoms Treatment
Cold-type asthma Latent phlegm, triggered by cold environments and food Wheezing, tightness in the chest, a slight cough with white phlegm, chills and a pale complexion Therapies that help clear the lungs, expel cold, eliminate phlegm and ease laboured breathing
Heat-type asthma Heaty phlegm, triggered by eating heaty and oily food, or when a wind-heat pathogen is contracted Coarse breathing, a chesty cough, thick yellow phlegm, agitation, perspiration and a reddish complexion Therapies that clear heat, clear the lungs, eliminate phlegm and ease laboured breathing
Heat enveloped by cold asthma Latent heaty phlegm in the body, and concurrently contracting a wind-cold pathogen A mix of cold and heaty symptoms such as wheezing, rapid breathing, cough, chills, fever, headache, body aches, and an absence of perspiration Therapies that expel wind and cold, and eliminate heaty phlegm
Wind-phlegm type asthma Stagnation of phlegm in the airways, and concurrently contracting a wind pathogen Wheezing sounds that resemble whistling, thick sticky phlegm or a white bubbly phlegm which is difficult to expectorate, tightness in the chest, a reluctance to lie flat due to difficulty breathing, and itchy nose, eyes and ears Therapies that expel wind and phlegm, and that ease laboured breathing

Identifying the right triggers

Asthma attacks take place when the airways are inflamed and narrowed, making it difficult for air to flow in and out. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners believe that the root causes of this condition fall into three main categories.

External pathogens: in TCM, there are six categories of external pathogens – wind, heat, damp, fire, dryness and cold – that act alone or in combination. The two combinations to be blamed in the case of asthma are wind-cold and wind-heat, which are also responsible for two other common respiratory ailments, the common cold and the flu. Other external pathogens that trigger asthma attacks include allergens like pollen and dust.

Diet: a diet high in sweet and fatty food, or seafood, can impair the function of the spleen and trigger the production of excess phlegm, which is closely linked to asthma. Cold drinks and raw food can do the same.

Deficiency in vital qi: a deficiency in vital qi in the lungs, spleen or kidneys can lead to recurring asthma attacks. A deficiency in lung qi can result from recurrent bouts of the flu or cough, while a deficiency in kidney qi is usually attributed to congenital weakness.

These root causes trigger one of five types of asthma, each with own its unique symptoms and treatment protocol: cold-type asthma, heat-type asthma, heat enveloped by cold asthma, wind-phlegm asthma and deficient-type asthma (see table).

A TCM physician must first determine the type of asthma that the patient is suffering from, explains Eu Yan Sang physician Benjamin Xiao. “This is crucial as treatment differs for the different types of asthma,” he says. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ in TCM treatments as they are tailored to each individual’s needs.”

Generally speaking, certain groups are more vulnerable to particular types of asthma, he says. Deficient-type asthma, for example, tends to occur more frequently in children and the elderly than in healthy adults.

“In young children and people with a weak constitution, lung, spleen and kidney qi are often deficient,” says physician Xiao. “For young children, organ function has not yet matured and this affects the production of organ qi. For the elderly, kidney qi gradually depletes due to the natural ageing process, resulting in a deficiency in these organs.”

Those who suffer from allergies, meanwhile, are more susceptible to the wind-phlegm type of asthma as they are more prone to wind pathogens.

Body constitution also has a role to play. “In TCM, every individual has a unique body constitution. In general, people with the yang body constitution will be more susceptible to heat-type asthma while people with the yin body constitution are more susceptible to the cold-type asthma,” says physician Xiao.

Staving off attacks, boosting resistance

While herbal medications are commonly used to manage asthma, TCM therapies like acupuncture, moxibustion and tui na can also help alleviate symptoms and strengthen the immune system. “These therapies, which involve the stimulation of acupoints, can help invigorate lung, spleen and kidney qi. When stimulated, specific acupoints can also help alleviate asthma-related symptoms,” says physician Xiao.

Besides reducing the severity of asthmatic episodes and prolonging the time between attacks, TCM treatments also help raise energy levels and relieve any non-specific symptoms such as aversion to cold, thirst and increased perspiration.

Often, TCM and western medicine play complementary roles in the treatment of asthma. While western medicine seeks to alleviate symptoms like wheezing and difficulty breathing during the acute phase of an asthma attack, TCM works to improve the body’s natural resistance to the ailment, and enhance immune function.

According to a study published in the April 2017 edition of the peer-reviewed The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine2, “In patients with allergic asthma, additional acupuncture treatment to routine care was associated with increased disease-specific and health-related quality of life compared to treatment with routine care alone.”

As always, a qualified TCM practitioner is in the best position to determine the most effective treatment protocol for a particular patient. Along with treatment, those who suffer from asthma should also avoid exposure to tobacco smoke, adhere to a healthy diet, exercise regularly and learn to manage stress, says physician Xiao.


1 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs307/en/
2 http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/acm.2016.0357