Olivier Lejus explains how Eastern medicine approaches this troubling disease now affecting 10-15% of Australian children
Australia is well known for having one of the highest incidences of asthma in the world. It is estimated that over 10-15% of children will experience recurrent asthma attacks, which in most cases will have to be managed throughout their lives.
Asthma is an obstructive respiratory disease characterised by recurrent attacks causing difficulty in breathing (dyspnoea), wheezing and prolonged exhalation with shortened inhalation. In most cases, an allergic reaction to specific agents, for example pollen or dust mites, causes a build up of phlegm which accumulates in the lungs, gradually blocking the airways and causing difficulties in exhalation. For many kids, these acute episodes occur before six years of age resulting from genetic disposition with infection, allergy or other external factors.
Allergic asthma is the result of acute sensitivity to an allergen, so the symptoms occur immediately on contact with the irritant, while infective asthma is a delayed reaction to specific viruses or bacteria weakening the immune system.
Numerous research studies have identified several pathogenic causes for these alarming statistics in Australia. They include a diet heavily based on mucus generating dairy products and sweets, and a hot and humid climate in several States that facilitates the formation of allergens in the air. There is also a genetic component in this disorder since over 60% of the family members of those affected suffer from the same condition. In addition, emotional disturbances, such as stress, depression, or insufficient love can be a significant factor in juvenile onset.
The typical attack is marked by a sudden onset with shortness of breath, audible phlegm build up in the throat, pale complexion, respiratory distress and cold sweat on the forehead.
Aerobics exercises have been prescribed for decades in this country as a way to build up the lung capacity of young asthma sufferers, and many past Australian swimming champions have come from this genetic pool.
Nowadays, the approach of Western medicine is to manage the symptoms with Ventolin-type devices, using bronchodilator drugs to relieve the spasm of the bronchial muscle, and facilitate the opening of the airways. In the most severe cases, a hydrocortisone injection can be administered to lessen the symptoms. Another approach is the gradual injection of minute quantities of the specific allergic substances over several months to get the patient's body to build up its own defence mechanism. Unfortunately, these treatments have their side effects that make a less conventional approach worth investigating.
In many forms of Oriental traditional medicine, the cultivation of the breath is the foundation of life and overall health. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, as well as in yoga, pranayama breathing exercises including nadi shodana, or alternate nostril breathing have been fundamental therapeutic tools for many centuries.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on the harmonious circulation of Qi throughout the body. While the Chinese character for Qi is often loosely translated as energy, it can also be interpreted as air or breath. In China every day millions of people practise a form of gentle exercise called Qigong to regulate the circulation of this precious substance throughout the body and attain longevity.
According to the principles of Oriental medicine, the lung energy controls the inhalation and sends the breath to the kidney, which grasps it and sends it back to the lung in return as we exhale. The efficient pumping action between these two organs is essential for our respiratory system and general health. This explains why respiratory disorders can be caused in oriental terms by a weakness of the lungs, or the kidneys.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are several causative factors for this respiratory dysfunction. The first is an inherent weakness of the function of the lungs causing fluid retention in pulmonary tissue. Alternatively, the digestive system can become dysfunctional due to poor diet, especially the excess intake of cold and damp food, like diary products, ice cream, or sweets. This causes the retention of water, and ultimately the formation of dampness and phlegm in the body. As we have seen with the kidneys having a partnership with the lungs in the respiration exchange, an inherent weakness in that organ will impair its ability to efficiently control exhalation, and the regulation of fluids. This fluid disharmony will often manifest in other parts of the body, and many asthma sufferers will exhibit evidence of skin conditions such as eczema, or pale complexion, poor muscle tone, or excess weight. In fact, both skin and respiratory diseases often have the same cause in Chinese medicine and their treatment approach is in most cases quite similar.
The acute stages can be caused by any three exterior pathogenic factors: wind, heat or cold, so the practitioner will examine the patient's skin complexion, tongue coating, and pulse quality to accurately diagnose which one is the causative factor.
During the remission stage between asthma attacks, the treatment strategy will be different. It will be the time to strengthen the lungs, kidneys and the spleen to build up their pathogenic resistance. We will be exploring this topic in more depth, and discussing practical treatment strategies in the next issue of NOVA Magazine.
Olivier Lejus MHSc (TCM), BHSc (Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney.