July/August 2011 Issue
By: Chris Bessent DVM with Jean Scherwenka
Chinese Herbs For Allergies
Stanley, an eight-year-old Golden Retriever, owes his life to Chinese herbs. “I got Stanley when he was a year old, just a baby,” says Nancy Schaff, Stanley’s mom. “The first year he was fine, the second year he was itchy, the third summer he was miserable, and by the fourth sum- mer he looked like a bloody piece of raw hamburger meat. I almost had to euthanize him.”
Stanley’s allergy tests identified a list of food, insect, and inhalant al lergens, including chicken, carrots, rice, grains, fleas and flea saliva, cats and cat dander, mold, grasses, and trees. Schaff eliminated what allergens she could and used topical medications and the corticosteroid Prednisone to treat Stanley’s remaining symptoms. The topicals did not work, and the pharmaceuticals gave the dog polyuria/polydipsia (PU/ PD), a condition causing excessive thirst and passage of large volumes of urine. Added to his misery of itchy raw spots, weepy lesions, and a stinky, gooey coat, poor Stanley was now having frequent and unavoid able accidents.
When a friend suggested Chinese herbs, Schaff brought Stanley to our clinic for a consultation. We recommended treating him with one of our Chinese herbal formulas. The herbs worked, and without causing any negative side effects, they gave Stanley his life back.
How Do These Herbs Work?
Animals can develop allergies to different types of allergens – food, inhalant, insect – and exhibit a variety of symptoms including itching, swelling, weepy lesions, panting, irritable bowel, restlessness.
Western medicine tends to treat these symptoms with topical medicines and steroids. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sees the same symptoms, but recognizes them as signs of an underlying, more serious disharmony within the animal’s body. To effectively treat an allergy, you must first address the underlying disharmony that has caused the allergy to occur.
According to TCM, liver Qi stagnation is the root cause of allergies. First of all, the liver should work as a pump to provide the smooth flow of Qi (pronounced “chee”) or life energy throughout the body. When a dog has a smooth, even flow of Qi, he enjoys good health.
Disharmony in a dog‘s body can develop, as it did with Stanley. When- ever Stanley encountered mold for example, his hypersensitive reaction to this allergen created an overheating in his body. This heat or inflammation can move to a number of places. In some dogs, it goes to the gut and causes stomach problems; in others, it goes to the bladder and shows up as recurring bladder infections. In Stanley’s body, the heat and inflammation went to his skin and caused skin allergies.
Here’s what happens: in nature when a warm front meets a cold front, we experience a windy day. In Chinese Medicine, the same thing occurs in the body. Stanley’s allergic reaction or heat met with his normal cool body temperature and created a “wind” that increased his surface sensitivity to the external environment. This “wind” in Stanley’s body manifested as itchy skin.
According to TCM, a healthy animal will have the perfect balance of two forces in his body—Yin (fluids) and Yang (heat). Liver Qi stagnation and allergic reactions turn up the Yang, which burns off the Yin, and this imbalance creates phlegm. The accumulation of phlegm in Stanley’s body caused the foul odor and greasy or gooey feel to his coat. First you need to turn down that heat, and then replenish the fluids, and a proper Chinese herbal formula will do both.
Using milk thistle can also help to avoid and reverse Liver Qi stagnation in an allergic dog. If the liver has been damaged by the use of corticosteroids, milk thistle also works to nourish and strengthen the liver. Freshly ground milk thistle also has high levels of antioxidants which seek out and destroy free radicals in the body.
Finding Food Allergens
Stanley’s allergy tests identified his food allergens, but in the absence of tests, you can identify allergens at home through a simple process of food elimination. To do this, first reduce your dog’s diet to rice and boiled hamburger. Wait until all of his allergy symptoms clear, and then slowly reintroduce the foods one at a time from his previous diet. Allergic reactions can take a few hours or up to several days to appear, so if after a week he shows no symptoms, introduce another food.
If any of the dog’s previous symptoms return during this process, permanently eliminate the food most recently added to his diet, because your process has identified that particular food as one of his allergens. Continue adding foods one at a time until you have identified enough problem-free items to maintain a healthy diet for your dog.
From the Chinese medical perspective, food is medicine. Some are cooling, others are warming, and to help bring down inflammation or heat in an allergic dog’s body, cooling foods such as fish, duck, or rabbit are called for. Warming foods like venison and lamb should be avoided.
What About Inhaled Allergens?
While we can remove the offending food or foods from an allergic dog’s diet, we can’t control the inhaled allergens from pollen, dust mites, mold, grasses, or trees. To help a dog live comfortably with these sub- stances, Western medicine focuses on the dog’s allergic reactions – itching, hives, lesions – which the Western veterinarian will typically treat with antihistamines and corticosteroids.
Corticosteroids work well the first year by bringing down the itching. The dog feels great and only needs a small amount of medicine. How- ever, steroids negatively affect the liver over time. The following allergy season, the dog will likely have developed more allergies and will suffer a longer season with worse symptoms. Now, stronger doses of steroids and antihistamines are needed to relieve his allergies, and the cycle of symptom suppression continues, while his allergies get worse with age.
The dog typically becomes allergic to just about everything; his symp- toms often continue year round. While we can see the dog’s allergies worsening over time, what we cannot see is the result of this treatment choice – the negative effects on his liver.
Chinese Medicine’s broader perspective calls for herbal formulas specif- ically designed to resolve the underlying disharmonies that cause a dog’s allergies. The formula prescribed to Stanley, Herbsmith Clear AllerQi, offered a combination of Chinese herbs with cooling and Yin-tonifying properties to decrease Stanley’s inflammation and to restore his smooth, even flow of Qi.
When using Chinese herbs the effectiveness is in the combination of the herbs. This means that the sum is greater than the individual parts. However, it is interesting to break down the formula and look at the individual herbs and see the actions that they play.
Think of your body as a simmering pot of water. What you want is a gentle simmer – not boiling out of control, but not lukewarm. The gentle simmer is balanced and healthy. The allergic dog’s body is like a pot boiling out of control. Chinese herbs can be used to bring the body back to a gentle simmer. It is the actions of these four groups of herbs together that completes the action.
Herbs that decrease the heat in the body include Scutellaria, Gentiana, Gardeniae and Bupleurum. Herbs that act to “add water to the pot” are Rehmannia Root and Angelica. To settle the spirit (calming the urge to itch) use Jujube Seed and Longan Fruit, and to eliminate Phlegm, add Plantago and Alisma.
In the early stages of allergies, the dog responds quickly to the herbs. However, when his liver shows negative effects from long-term steroid treatment, it becomes more difficult to resolve his liver Qi stagnation, and the herbs will need more time. In either case, the herbs will not cause any negative side effects.
Stanley’s case is extreme. Four years ago, Schaff ’s patience in her search for solutions and her willingness to try the unfamiliar represented a labor of love that paid off for her and her dog. Today, Stanley takes his daily dose of Chinese herbs in applesauce and enjoys his life to the fullest.
The most important thing to remember about Chinese herbal blends is that they do not just treat the symptoms of allergies. They address the root imbalance, making for a happier, healthier dog.
It’s really about the underlying disharmony, and when you resolve that, the symptoms of the allergies go away.
Chris Bessent, D.V.M. practices holistic veterinary medicine, utilizing Chi- nese herbs, acupuncture, food therapy and chiropractic on all animals. After more than a decade of using Chinese herbal combinations in her practice, Dr. Bessent channeled her wealth of knowledge and experience into founding Herbsmith, Inc.
Jean Scherwenka loves dogs, writing, and the opportunity to combine the two. Her articles have appeared in Dog Fancy/Natural Dog; Animal Well- ness; and Fetch Magazine.