Why the liver organ could be at the root of your spring allergies – and how TCM can help

Whilst out walking in Malvern recently, I notice spring shooting up everywhere: it’s slowly getting warmer, the trees are budding and the flowers are starting to pollinate. But despite all the new life and beauty around us, spring is a challenging time of year health-wise for many people. Existing conditions are often more pronounced in spring, while allergies like hayfever and skin problems such as eczema, rashes and rosacea tend to flare up. Symptoms include a runny nose, streaming eyes, itchy skin and sneezing, which can make spring a time of year that many people dread, rather than look forward to. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this blog, I’ll explain the vital but often unknown role the liver plays in spring allergies, and some natural ways Chinese medicine can help.   

The liver’s role in spring allergies

When our body’s mast cells detect an allergen such as pollen, the hormone histamine is released into the bloodstream as defence. Histamine is a normal immune response, and its presence is necessary and healthy. Yet too much histamine becomes an irritant and allergies, rashes, hives and insect bites become itchy and inflamed because of excessive levels of histamine. Since the liver is responsible for breaking down histamine in the body, people who suffer from allergies – at springtime and other times of year – may have an underlying liver imbalance, making the body unable to properly process histamine and causing allergic symptoms appear as a result. As a side note, histamine is also released during menstruation, and due to its role in detoxifying blood, the liver can also be at the root of uncomfortable pre-menstrual symptoms in women such as tiredness, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and emotional disturbance. 

The liver in traditional Chinese medicine

According to the 5 elements theory of Chinese medicine, in the human body the season of spring is represented by the liver organ, so now is an ideal time to nourish and support its function. As well as its role in regulating histamine, the liver has many important functions in the body, including storing and detoxifying blood and ensuring the smooth movement of Qi, or vital life energy, throughout the system. In Confucius’ time, the liver was referred to as ‘The General’ due to its protective function over the whole body, while mast cells can be thought of as ‘troops’ that monitor our blood and check for aggressors or invaders. Simply put, when ‘The General’ is healthy and in good shape, so is the whole army (or body).  On a psychic level, the Liver house the Ethereal Soul (Hun) which performs a very important role in our mental and spiritual life by providing the Mind (Shen) with inspiration, creativity, life dreams and a sense of direction in life.

Natural ways to treat spring allergies

April is the month when many people visit the chemist to stock up on antihistamine pills and treatments. Whilst these can be effective, they simply suppress the production of histamine without addressing the root imbalance, which often lies in the liver. In Chinese medicine, when spring allergies are present, herbal medicines are prescribed to support and enhance liver function – tonifying the organ and making it more resilient so it can better deal with allergens, toxins and pathogens. From a biochemical perspective, the liver evolved to detoxify plant-derived toxins so we could survive in the wild. Because of this evolutionary adaptation, the herbs used in Chinese medicine are easily absorbed and transform into new biochemical molecules that the body can use to rebalance itself. Over time, patients can expect to see an improvement in their symptoms, and in a best-case scenario, conditions may resolve and disappear completely. 

Herbs that support liver function

Many Chinese herbs used to treat spring allergies are hepatoprotecive, meaning they help the liver regenerate and enhance its ability to shield the body from toxins and pathogens. Chinese herbal treatments aim to address both the disease and its underlying cause, and liver-related issues are typically divided into two categories: excess and deficiency.

With excess conditions caused by ‘Liver Toxic Heat’, allergic symptoms include rhinitis, throat itchiness, rashes, hives or red eyes. Typical prescriptions include the herbs Xin Yi Hua (Magnoliae Flos), which has a direct effect on mucosal surfaces in the mouth, throat, sinuses and digestive tract, and Ye Ju Hua (Flos Chrysanthemi lndici), which eliminates toxins, reduces inflammation and calms the liver. The pharmacological action of these herbs is anti-allergic and anti-bacterial, and they also help gently stimulate the nervous system and lower blood pressure.

Magnoliae Flos

With conditions deficient in Liver Blood, symptoms include scanty periods with PMS, tiredness, insomnia and depression, dizziness, tinnitus, palpitations, blurred eyes or floaters, sallow face, weak nails, hair loss and dry stools. Typical prescriptions include the herb Ye Jiao Teng (Caulis Polygoni Multiflori), also known as ‘vine of the night’ because of its ability to treat insomnia, and which also nourishes blood and calms the heart and liver. He Huan Pi (Albizia cortex), delightfully known as ‘collective happiness bark’ is also prescribed due to its effect on mood, temper, depression and menstrual symptoms.

Albizia julibrissin