Food allergy now affects 1 in 10 infants and about 2 in 100 adults in Australia, with Australia having one of the highest allergy rates in the world, and can be genetic. Food intolerance is even more common, with surveys suggesting up to 25% of the population believe they have a food intolerance. Common food allergies/ intolerances include sensitivity to gluten, lactose, dairy products and peanuts.
What Causes Food Allergies? A Western Perspective
Food allergy is the immune system’s reaction to food, and food intolerance is the inability to digest food. A food allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to a food substance that is normally harmless, and triggers the production of allergy antibodies. This then leads to the release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine, which opens up blood vessels, and causes swollen membranes, leading to symptoms such as swelling in the face/ eyes, hives and abdominal pain/ vomiting.
What Causes Food Allergies? A TCM Perspective
In comparison, traditional chinese medicine (TCM) offers different theories for it. According to TCM, food intolerance/ allergies are generally due to imbalances in the digestive system and body’s defense system. The digestive organs that are affected according to TCM are the Spleen and Stomach, and if the intolerance/ allergy manifests with a feeling of tiredness or abdominal pain after eating, it may be due to the poor digestive functions not efficiently processing and moving the food properly to convert into proper energy for the body. If the allergies manifest skin reactions, it is due to inflammatory reactions arising from the digestive system, combined with a weakness in the Lung organ system. It is associated with the skin organ, as it is the primary organ that maintains a boundary between the external environment and the body’s internal environment, by taking in vital materials (e.g. oxygen) and excreting wastes (e.g. carbon dioxide). This is likened to the function of the skin as a barrier between the inside and outside, thus linking with the body’s defense system.
Managing Food Allergies/ Intolerances with TCM
In TCM, it is believed that food allergies/ intolerances are merely a state of digestive imbalance and weakened defense system, so people can gradually recover/ grow out of them, depending on whether their condition is complicated by other underlying/ pre-existing imbalances. The goal of treatment is to restore normal digestive functions, improve Lung function and strengthen the defense system.
Herbal formulas are available to help with this, and they may include the following chinese herbs* to address the imbalances:
Huang Qi (Astralagus)- immunomodulating & anti-inflammatory effects, builds Lung Qi
Ling Zhi (Ganoderma Lucidum)- enhance immune function
Gan Jiang (Zingiber officnale rhizome)- anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that benefits digestion
Gui Zhi (Cinnamon twig)- warming herb that benefits the Stomach
Huang Lian (Rhizoma Coptidis)- promote gastrointestinal health
*Please note that chinese herbs are combined in a specific way and prescribed as a formula to treat patient health concerns, by TCM practitioners. Not all herbs/ formulas are suitable for everyone. Please consult a TCM practitioner before using them yourself.
TCM Dietary/ Lifestyle Advice
If you have food allergies/ intolerances, we advise that you can incorporate the following to help with managing them, as part of your daily dietary/ lifestyle habits:
Avoid food that are triggering the allergies/ intolerances (e.g. seafood, dairy products)
Avoid oily, greasy spicy food
Have warm, cooked, easily digestible food (e.g. rice, soups, steamed cooked vegetables, lean meat). Avoid cold food (e.g. cold salad, ice-cream, sashimi)
Have regular balanced meals
Do regular exercise