Our immune system is a complex and wonderful system. When in balance, it does a seamless job of identifying and eliminating potential threats to our health, such as toxins, bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. However, sometimes our immune system responds too vigorously to a substance in the environment that is usually harmless, such as pollen, animal dander, or mold. As the body acts to eradicate the perceived threat, we can experience the uncomfortable symptoms of an allergy reaction, including a runny nose, nasal congestion, coughing, and itchy, watery eyes. In addition, an exaggerated immune response can lead to symptoms in the lungs (asthma) and skin (hives, eczema). Allergies affect a large percentage of the population at one time or another and can significantly limit activity. Although the body can mount allergic responses to many things, including food, medicines, and other foreign material, in this article we will discuss the common phenomenon of environmental or seasonal allergies.
You may wonder why one person can spend an afternoon walking through blossoming fields without any symptoms, while someone else can’t step out the front door without experiencing severe allergic symptoms. Heredity is one of the major distinguishing factors. As scientific research has found, your risk of developing allergies increases by approximately 30% if one of your parents is allergic. If both of your parents have allergies, your risk is greater than 60%.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, in addition to inherited tendencies, several other key factors determine whether a person experiences an allergic reaction and how severe that reaction will be. These include the strength of the individual’s digestive fire, or inner resilience (known as agni), the quantity of allergen that enters the body, and a person’s current state of balance/imbalance in the doshas. (Learn more about doshas here.) Fortunately, there are techniques to strengthen our agni, avoid allergen exposure, and improve our state of doshic balance. By addressing all of these factors, we can help prevent allergies as well as keep them under control.
Ayurveda considers a strong agni, or digestive fire, one of the most important factors for our health. When our agni is strong, we can take in energy and information from our environment, extract whatever is beneficial to us, and eliminate everything we don’t need. In addition, when agni is burning brightly, our body won’t mount an aggressive response to foreign material such as pollen, but will instead remove it in a healthy, beneficial way. In other words, our body is more resilient to the changes in the environment.
One way to keep our agni strong is to develop a regular meditation practice. When we calm the mind and body, we are less likely to respond to foreign “invaders” aggressively. We increase our ability to take in nourishment from our environment, as opposed to seeing them as threats. Other mindfulness practices, such as yoga and conscious breathing also strengthen agni.
One breathing technique that is useful for strengthening agni is ujjayi, or ocean’s breath. Ujjayi (pronounced oo-jai) is an ancient yogic breathing technique that helps calm the mind and body. Ujjayi has a balancing influence on the entire cardiorespiratory system and releases feelings of irritation and frustration.
Here is how to perform ujjayi breath:
Another important way to strengthen agni is to eliminate ama, which is a Sanskrit word for toxicity. Ama includes both physical and emotional toxicity that accumulates in our physiology and can interfere with our natural healing. One herb that is helpful in treating allergies by cleansing ama is triphala. The recommended dosage is 500−1000mg, taken at bedtime. You can learn more about strengthening agni and eliminating ama here.
Another step to controlling and preventing allergy symptoms is to be mindful of how much of the aggravating allergen is in our environment and making conscious choices to eliminate them as much as possible. According to Ayurveda, we are in constant dynamic exchange with our external environment. When we put ourselves in an environment where we have high levels of exposure to an allergen, it becomes difficult to control symptoms, despite our best efforts.
While it is sometimes difficult to completely avoid an allergen, you can protect yourself from direct contact with it by using a few Ayurvedic healing practices. One effective practice for prevention and treatment of allergy symptoms is using a neti pot to perform a gentle saline rinse. A neti pot is a small container with a spout that is placed in your nostril as you tip your head sideways, allowing warm salt water to flow in one nostril and out the other. By performing this saline rinse once or twice daily, you can flush out any foreign material that has come into your body through the nasal passages.
After using the neti pot, it is very helpful to follow up with an Ayurvedic technique known as nasya, which consists of applying a few drops of oil to the nasal passages. The oil forms a protective layer on the nasal tissues and prevents allergens from directly attaching themselves to nasal membranes. Learn more about nasya and watch a video about how to use a neti pot here.
A person’s primary dosha, or mind-body constitution, can often predict which allergy symptoms will manifest, so it’s important to understand your dosha type as well as your current imbalances. If you don’t know your primary dosha, you can find out by taking the Chopra Center’s Dosha Quiz here.
In addition to understanding our primary dosha and individual tendencies, it is important to understand that each of us has all of the doshas within us and can therefore experience imbalances in of any of the doshas. Different types of allergy symptoms represent imbalances in different doshas. By recognizing this, we can more specifically guide the treatments.
In Ayurveda, the typical allergy symptoms in the spring season – congestion, runny nose, watery eyes, and sneezing – are described as an accumulation of the Kapha dosha, which is made up of earth and water elements. This leads to the feeling of “heaviness” and excessive mucus in the head and sinuses. Other symptoms are sluggishness and feeling tired. For the classic Kapha-type allergy symptoms, there are several simple and effective therapies that will relieve acute symptoms.
As mentioned above, the neti pot is a useful tool in treating allergies. In addition to the benefits of removing allergens, from a doshic perspective, it is especially effective in decreasing Kapha in the head and sinuses. The use of nasya oil with invigorating scents, such as eucalyptus, camphor or juniper, can act as a natural decongestant, thus reducing the symptoms of heaviness.
Other treatments that help relieve acute Kapha allergy symptoms include the use of pungent and bitter (astringent) herbs and spices to reduce Kapha, including ginger, cayenne, pepper, basil, cumin, cardamom, sage, turmeric, and cinnamon. An easy remedy is drinking hot honey water, or ginger lemon tea. A classical Ayurvedic herbal treatment to reduce Kapha is trikatu, which can be taken daily. In addition, treatment should be geared toward lightening the body in other ways, such as daily exercise and use of a dry sauna.
When allergy symptoms occur in the summertime, the underlying source is often an out-of-balance Pitta dosha. Pitta is governed by the elements of water and fire, and in the summer, excess heat can produce inflammation in the respiratory tract or skin. These symptoms are usually rash, headache, burning or red eyes, and inflammation in the sinuses and airway (sinusitis, bronchitis).
To pacify Pitta and the resulting allergy symptoms, Ayurveda recommends ingesting cooling herbs, such as coriander and cilantro. In addition, herbs such as shatavari, guduchi, amalaki, and neem may be helpful. Ingestion of clarified butter, or ghee, as well as aloe, can calm the inflammatory reaction that is typical of Pitta imbalance. From a biochemical perspective, these herbs contain healthy anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that support our immune system.
When Vata is out of balance, the allergic symptoms include headache, wheezing, sneezing, and generalized muscle aches. These may be seen more typically in the fall as the air becomes cold and dry. This is due to the accumulation of the lighter elements of space and air in the mind-body physiology. Other manifestations of this Vata imbalance include dry cough, restlessness, and dry eyes.
To balance the excess space and air elements, it is important to stay hydrated and drink warm liquids, such ginger tea with honey. To bring Vata back into balance, use calming herbs such as ashwagandha, which is also an immune modulator that calms the immune system’s response to allergens. Another useful tool in calming Vata is performing a self-massage, or abhyhanga. Find instructions for a self-massage here. The most nourishing and warming oil for balancing Vata is sesame.
When our agni is restored, we avoid aggravating allergens and ama (toxicity) by making conscious choices, and we maintain balance of our internal energies, or doshas, we are less likely to experience ill health, such as allergies. Instead of seeing our environment as a threat, we can begin to calm the excitability of the immune system and, instead, experience our connection to the external world as nourishing. Ayurveda provides us with the tools to experience this connection and move closer to our natural state of health and balance.
Sheila Patel, M.D. is a board-certified family physician who is passionate about bringing holistic healing practices into the Western medical system. Before coming to the Chopra Center, she practiced full-spectrum family medicine, from prenatal care and deliveries to ER coverage and primary care for all ages. As the Chopra Center’s Medical Director, she offers integrative medical consultations that combine the best in conventional medicine with the wisdom of Ayurveda. Her special interests include preventive medicine and mind-body medicine, with an emphasis on Ayurveda.