Qi Gong and Tai Chi for Allergies

Allergies afflict more than 50 million people in the United States and cause a variety of health issues ranging from mild sneezing and discomfort to severe and even life-threatening reactions. Chinese qi gong—a family of exercises that includes the martial art taijiquan, known in the West as tai chi—has been used for centuries in China to promote health and has been found to be effective in treating a variety of ailments from hypertension to server depression. Qi gong and tai chi, which have been clinically shown to improve the function of the immune system, are also used in the treatment and/or prevention of allergies.

How Do Qi Gong and Tai Chi Affect Allergies?

Allergic reactions occur when a person’s immune system reacts to the presence of an external stimulus and often involves skin irritation, respiratory problems, and a host of other physical issues.

Tai chi and qi gong help alleviate allergy symptoms in two ways:

  • Breathing: Tai chi and qi gong involve a variety of breathing exercises that, when practiced regularly and in specific sequences, help to improve breathing ability.
  • Immune Function: Tai chi and qi gong have been shown in clinical trails to have a positive effect on immune system function, thereby strengthening the body to be more tolerant to allergic reactions.

Breathing is a central focus in practicing tai chi and qi gong. By learning to control breathing, the practitioner strengthens the muscles and other systems involved in the breathing process. Breathing control also initiates a general sense of relaxation. Improved breath control can help patients suffering from respiratory illness and allergies, alleviating such symptoms as shortness of breath, buildup of phlegm and mucus in the breathing passages, and clogged sinuses.

In a 2003 study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, researchers found that qi gong training significantly increases levels of monocytes and lymphocytes, types of white blood cells involved in the immune response. In a 2005 article in the journal Neuroscience, researchers also found that qi gong practice has a statistically significant effect on concentrations of neurochemicals, which are important in modulating immune system function. Studies like these, while still rare, indicate some of the potential physiological benefits of qi gong and tai chi practice.

There are many different types of tai chi and qi gong, each of which has different physical effects. Specialists in Traditional Chinese Medicine, such as acupuncturists, can help determine what types of exercise are best for treating allergies and related symptoms.

What Causes Allergies?

More than 20 million Americans suffer from some sort of chronic allergy problem. Allergies are classified, medically, as immune system disorders in which the body has an unnecessarily severe reaction to a substance, called an “allergen,” in the environment. There are thousands of substances that are potential allergens including various types of plant pollen, dust, mold, and substances found in certain types of food. Mild allergies are common. But severe allergic reactions, such as the common allergy to peanuts, can be fatal if untreated.

Though there are hundreds of symptoms related to allergic reactions, most can be grouped into one of a few basic categories, including:

  • Nose and Throat: Common allergy symptoms may include runny nose, sore or itchy throat, nasal discharge, coughing and/or sneezing.
  • Eyes: Many allergens affect the eyes and the sinuses and can cause itching and/or watering of the eyes. Some allergens can cause discharge from the tear ducts.
  • Skin: Allergic reactions on the skin may manifest themselves with hives or other types of welts. Some skin reactions manifest as areas of sensitive skin that may be accompanied by itching or burning sensations.

There is significant evidence to suggest that many types of allergies are, in part, genetically inherited. Allergies to specific substances commonly run in families, as is the case with certain allergies to insect bites and also with peanut and other types of food allergy.

What is Qi Gong?

Qi gong is an ancient system of Chinese exercise that is believed to help practitioners learn to manipulate “qi” or energy that is produced by living things and is believe to be connected to a variety of biological processes. The term “qi gong” literally translates as “the acquired skill of energy.” Tai chi, which has become a major fitness trend in the United States, is a type of qi gong that combines energy and breath training in conjunction with martial arts movements and principles.

In Chinese philosophy, qi gong training allows the practitioner to more effectively harness qi from the environment. If the individual is suffering from an illness or other malady, he can learn to direct the qi to different parts of the body, which is believed to have a healing effect.

Some Western physicians and scientists reject the idea of qi, because scientists have been unable to confirm the existence of qi in the body. Yet controlled studies indicate that qi gong practice has significant health benefits. By improving overall health and fitness, qi gong helps to prepare the body to fight off harmful agents in the environment. In addition, by concentrating on breathing and breath control, qi gong can be highly effective for persons suffering from respiratory ailments, including many types of chronic allergies.

Finding a Professional

Few states regulate the practice or teaching of qi gong, but reputable teachers will have documented permission from their own teacher or from the institution where they trained. A good way to find a reputable qi gong teacher is to contact licensed specialists in Traditional Chinese Medicine, such as an acupuncturist or Chinese herbalist, and ask for recommendations.

Additional Resources

Jahnke, Roger. “The Healing Promise of Qi.” New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Myeong Soo Lee, Mo Kyung Kim and Hoon Ryu. “Qi-Training (Qigong) Enhanced Immune Functions: What is the Underlying Mechanism?” International Journal of Neuroscience. 2005, vol. 115, no8, pp. 1099-1104.

MS Lee, et al. “Effects of Qigong on Immune Cells.” The American Journal of Chinese Medicine (AJCM) 2003 Vol: 31 Issue: 2 (2003) Page: 327–335.

Articles on allergies and basic allergy treatment options can be found by visiting the National Institute of Health (NIH) and utilizing the Medline database.

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