by Doctor of Chinese Medicine, Jade Ouk
Spring is a time of vigorous new growth—correlating to Wood energy in Chinese Medicine (CM)—so if one has missed appropriate nourishment and rest during winter—represented by Water energy—your Wood is likely to be brittle, susceptible and unprepared for the demands of the Spring environment. Most commonly, this manifests with Spring’s vibrant energy flaring up atopic conditions which include hayfever (allergic rhinitis), allergic asthma and atopic dermatitis (a type of eczema). To help prevent flare ups or support treatment towards resolving your atopic condition and continue long-term success, here are some CM tips on how simple food choices can help or hinder things.
Foods that exacerbate disease from a Chinese Medicine point of view
“Fa wu” literally translates as food that “emits substance”, meaning “a specific category of food that enhances or worsens a disease rather than prevent it” (1). Shellfish is one of these foods and, having suffered eczema from when I was a baby up until I discovered Chinese medicine as an adult, my personal experience mirrored this as I was always acutely aware of steering clear of prawns and lobsters for one bite would bring on an itchy then swollen throat and asthma at worst. Interestingly this didn’t happen to me during my recent holiday in Portugal and perhaps it’s because I’m now clear any eczema.
Here are the basics:
As wonderful Cologne-based Chinese Medicine doctor Sabine Schmitz explains in her article, “Skin Conditions and Chinese Medicine Dietary Therapy”, there is a theory that the high content of purines in shellfish may be the cause but that regardless, from a CM point of view shellfish can heighten pre-existing pathogenic “heat” in the body that is considered a predominant factor in psoriasis and other skin rashes. Alcohol, smoking, red meat and strong spices are also considered “heaty”. Excessive “heat” can also be a driving factor causing reflux, headaches, and difficulty sleeping.
Fatty foods, and sweet and sugary drinks are also thought to exacerbate the CM concepts of “Damp and Heat” in the body which are considered key contributors to many skin problems such as weepy eczema, boils, pustular acne, certain gynaecological issues, excess mucous, brain fog and many other problems (1, 3, 6).
Foods such as raw fruit smoothies, uncooked vegetables, icecream or even too much seafood are thought to be “cold” in CM and therefore place more strain on digestive fire, generating more “Damp” or pathogenic fluid by-products (1, 3, 6).
These foods may be hard to resist but refrain to see the difference. And the key is in the quantity of these elements and how they are balanced, rather than total elimination.
For hayfever (allergic rhinitis) & hives (urticaria)
Consider getting an allergy test and avoid triggers.
An infusion of Chrysanthemum flowers, goji berries, mint and mulberry leaf into a tea are part of a traditional formula used to help cool itchy dry eyes and throats (2) that typically flare up during Spring and hayfever season. These ingredients can be found in Chinese grocery stores and mulberry leaves can be used crushed fresh from a tea. Of course, these are also available from Chinese raw herb dispensaries.
Urticaria (hives), whether cold triggered or not, has long been known as Wind Rash Patch in CM with a multi-pronged approach required through herbal formulas to rebalance the body by affecting the deeper layers of the body at the “blood level” through to the fluids and superficial skin level to stop itch and rashes that move around the body (Wind) . This comes from the adage, “to treat wind, first treat the blood. When the blood moves, the wind will naturally be extinguished” (2). Often, lotus root is used to help cool and move the blood (2). Lotus rootlets can be found in jars or the larger roots themselves at most Asian grocery stores. It’s an easy neutral flavoured addition to a stew or soup. However, with cold urticaria, often warm blood moving is required, so working up a natural sweat can help.
Whilst this article is on basic food tips, it seems negligent to not mention that The Acupuncture Evidence Project has found that acupuncture may be used to improve quality of life and reduce the reliance on pharmacological options in particular for allergic rhinitis (4).
See your GP for emergencies, otherwise the below are supportive and preventative therapies:
Medical Qigong and Taichi recommends circular arm movements to expand chest muscles and support lung health alongside daily light exercise such as walking to increase mind-body connection for lung capacity and fitness (6, 7).
Avoid triggers if known (eg dust mites, certain pollen, certain chemicals in pet/animal hair, certain foods) and consider getting an allergy test.
A simple reishi and enoki mushroom broth with onion and celery can help nourish the deeper reserves of the body and Lung Yin through the mushrooms, help expand Lung Qi with the onion whilst keeping Heat and Phlegm at bay with the celery (2,3). Enoki is available in most supermarkets and grocery stores whilst true quality reishi is best bought from a specialised supplier or Chinese herbal medicine dispensary.
Some acupuncture trivia: there is an acupuncture point named Ding Chuan that translates to “stop wheeze” and there are points on the Lung channel dedicated to irrigating the lungs (5).
Avoid “Fa Wu” foods and give the best chance for your skin to be free of irritants from the outside too by avoiding physical contact with chemicals (including juices from food or fertilisers) and excessive washing (use gloves whenever possible). This is particularly important for those with hand eczema and pompholyx eczema.
If one is too heaty such as with constipation, eating pan fried or wilted dark green leafy vegetables, winter melon, bitter melon, daikon, and celery can help. Daikon will need to be boiled first (3).
If the opposite occurs where stools are loose with undigested food, then eating baked or stewed lotus seeds, Japanese mountain yam (or Shan Yao as it’s known in CM) and potato can help (3).
Barley water or eating cooked barley is also great for any kind of eczema as it gently drains unwanted fluids (Damp) from a Chinese medicine point of view that is so central to the pathology of eczema. And Japanese mountain yam aka Shan Yao, can also be highly beneficial for boosting your body’s ability to process fluids and support “Spleen Yin” which may correlate to many things including smooth sealed skin. (3).
Of course, eating cooked fresh unprocessed foods will make a big difference, giving your body a break from having to deal with everything else in highly processed foods
For long-term sufferers of eczema, ensuring enough nutrition from collagen rich foods and fish oil is also essential for helping the skin and body repair itself (3).
Also find ways to keep on top of mental and emotional stress as this wreaks havoc on health and is such a common trigger cited by eczema sufferers. Rosebuds (eg in a tea) are used in CM to help gently move Qi to prevent stagnation that is considered a key contributor to stress. In addition, acupuncture has been found to help reduce chronic workplace tension headaches and migraines (4).
There are so many other tips and tricks to help support wellbeing with all kinds of cuisines using the CM framework on food energetics, and it brings great joy when patients enjoy their food – ultimately so foundational to wellbeing. For further reading on food and lifestyle principles from a CM perspective, I highly recommend Live Well Live Long by Peter Deadman, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi by Peter M. Wayne with Mark L. Fuerst, and Welcoming Food: Diet as Medicine for Home Cooks and Other Healers Book 1 and Book 2 by Andrew Sterman. Bon appétit!
Schmitz, S., (2019). “Skin Conditions and Chinese Medicine Dietary Therapy”, Journal of Chinese Medicine, Issue 121, p.53-56
Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica 3rd edition by Dan Bensky, Steven Clavey and Andrew Stoger
Welcoming Food: Diet as Medicine for Home Cooks and Other Healers Book 1 and Book 2 by Andrew Sterman
McDonald J, Janz S. The Acupuncture Evidence Project: A Comparative Literature Review (Revised Edition). Brisbane: Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association Ltd; 2017.
A Manual of Acupuncture by Kevin Baker, Mazin Al- Khafaji, and Peter Deadman
Live Well Live Long by Peter Deadman
The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi by Peter M. Wayne with Mark L. Fuerst