Allergies: The Ayurvedic Picture
Why is it that the blossoming of spring means freshness and beauty for some but spells misery and allergy nightmares for others? The sneezing, hay fever, coughing, wheezing, red and itchy eyes, and skin rashes, hives and eczema can be enough to drive a person mad, often leaving them feeling imprisoned indoors. But allergies don’t affect everyone equally, and Ayurveda shows us a few simple principles to help us understand this disparity.
Ayurveda relates allergies to the concept of asaatmya, or intolerance of an unfavorable substance1. Exposure to the substance can happen in a variety of ways: inhalation, ingestion, injection, and topical contact. These exposures cause the immune system to start reacting, forming antibodies which lead to a cascade of events eventually manifesting as the symptoms of allergies: congestion, itchy eyes, wheezing, hives and skin rashes. This involvement of the immune system is related to a disturbance in ojas and can even affect less visible systems such as the gastrointestinal system. The quality and quantity of ojas can be affected by vitiated doshas, leading to an overactive immune response.
But why does this happen in some people and not others? As Ayurveda explains it, the agni, or digestive fire, is also affected in those who have allergy manifestations. When the agni becomes suboptimal, it is unable to appropriately process what comes into the system, and the undigested materials become toxic residue, or ama. This ama clogs the channels and disturbs the immune system, affecting its natural intelligence. As the disturbed immune system responds to allergens, by producing histamines, it further clogs the channels, creating more ama. This vicious cycle keeps the person experiencing allergic symptoms, including heaviness, congestion and sinus infections. And if the vitiated doshas, particularly pitta, and ama circulate throughout the system, the person will experience skin manifestations such as hives, urticaria, eczema and rashes. The accumulation of pitta and ama in the respiratory system can cause wheezing and asthma-like symptoms, and can lead to diarrhea, malabsorption, inflammation, and other irritable bowel-type manifestations.
The build-up of ama is also aggravated by unprocessed emotions and thoughts. In addition to food and drink, the agni must also process the thoughts and emotions that arise within a person as a result of their experiences. When these are not digested, there is also toxicity left behind. It is particularly the emotions of sadness and grief that are associated with the lungs and respiratory system, though much more can be involved. Just like the body’s intolerance (asaatmya) to allergens, it may well be a reflection of the person’s intolerance to something in his or her life.
Finally, accumulated kapha dosha also adds fuel to the allergic picture. Triggered by the change in seasons (from winter to spring), the stored kapha melts and begins an immune response that adds to the congestive symptoms experienced during the spring.
To address this entire allergic picture, one can follow several general guidelines:
- Boost the agni (digestive fire)
- Cleanse ama (undigested toxic residue)
- Balance any vitiated doshas
- Use rasayanas to support the immune system and healthy ojas
- Avoid/limit allergen exposure
In addition to these tips, there are two basic Ayurvedic practices that can support uncongested breathing and sinus health: nasya oil and neti pot. (They are not to be administered at the same time.) A regular practice with neti pot helps remove the natural irritants that enter into the nasal passages and sinuses. Applying nasya oil also lubricates the nasal passages and forms a protective barrier against irritants and pollutants that would otherwise come into contact with the mucous membranes of the nose.
In the next Banyan Vine, we will look at Ayurvedic herbal remedies that help support proper function of the immune system.
- Singh, Sarvesh Kumar et al. "Ayurvedic Concept of Allergy in Reference to Diet and Regimen". Journal of AYUSH. Volume 2, Issue 2, ISSN: 2278-2214.
- Tripathi J.S., et al. "The Concept and Practice of Immunomodulation in Ayurveda and the Role of Rasayanas as Immunomodulators". Ancient Science of Life. Vol. No. XIX (1&2) July, Aug, Sept, Oct 99.