Roughly 15 million Americans, and 6% of children and 4% of adults worldwide are afflicted with a food allergy and no known cure exists. According to a 2013 study released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number of people who live with food allergies rose nearly 50% between 1997 and 2011. Some studies have also shown that a dramatic rise in the number of people who suffer from food allergies has a direct correlation to a country’s socio-economic development and, as such, managing both occurrence and treatment is a growing universal concern. Over 170 foods are known to provoke an allergic reaction, 90% of which are peanuts, wheat, cow’s milk, soybeans, eggs, fish, and shellfish and vary in symptoms from urticaria, gastrointestinal upset or distress to failure to thrive, anaphylaxis, and even death. These symptoms can be further differentiated into Ig-E and non-Ig-E mediated responses, the former being related to exposure through the facial orifices, mucosa, and skin, whereas the latter is triggered through interaction in the lower-gastrointestinal mucosal lining. Although the non-immune triggered allergies generally pose a less-serious immediate health risk, they are nevertheless an important template with which to approach a wide-spread disease and will be the focus of this paper.
Despite roughly 20% of the world’s population having some sort of food allergy and its biomedical mechanism being well understood, prevention and cure are not. Within the framework of Traditional Chinese Medicine food allergies are not a recognized disease category nor is there any pattern differentiation, although it is reasonable to accredit generalized ‘middle jiao deficiency’, especially in the case non-immune mediated allergy response, or alternatively some sort of Wei Qi deficiency in the case of immune-mediated allergy response, as the pathomechanism of the disease. Because of this lack of definition given to food allergy, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine have not offered adequate provision or unified treatment method to address the symptoms. But similar to other biomedical disease patterns, food allergies offer an example of how the integration of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine could be exponentially beneficial to both treat and prevent food allergies. Research supports the use of feng mi, or honey, as a single herb prophylactic, probiotic, or prebiotic in small daily doses and, when combined with tonifying Chinese herbal formulary such as fresh astragalus and cinnamon twig as well as regulating acupuncture treatments food allergies could possibly be eradicated, if not mediated to the point of remission in many individuals.
According to Ustunol (2001), honey has been shown to be both prebiotic and a probiotic that contributes to the growth of Bifidobacterium, a type of bacteria beneficial to gastrointestinal health. Accordingly, Elazab et al. (2013) described the mechanism by which Bifidobacterium longum (B. longum), a beneficial flora that exists in the gastrointestinal tract and the vagina, was shown to moderate the effects of non-Ig-E mediated food allergies. Although the use and efficacy of probiotics is largely debated in the scientific community because only recently has there been supportive research to support any claims, probiotics have been frequently used and promoted in a variety of consumer markets. In its role as a probiotic, honey can not only help contribute to intestinal health but help to prevent the onset of non-immune mediated food allergies by promoting the health of the intestinal mucosal layer. Furthermore, honey has also been been shown by Ustunol to have prebiotic qualities similar to that of inulin, fructooligosaccharide, and galactoligosaccharide. Honey contains many non-digestible oligosaccharides in different forms and, under controlled growth conditions, it was proven to enhance the growth of B. longum under the same test circumstances (see figure 1). As such, we can surmise that honey such contributes to the health of the digestive system while simultaneously strengthening the immune system.
From a Chinese Herbal Medicine perspective, honey (feng mi) is used as a single herb or in combination with an herbal formula to tonify middle jiao qi in order to relieve pain due to gastrointestinal distress. In accordance with the research synthesized above, in its unprocessed form honey is believed to possess antibiotic qualities (Chen 2004) and, traditionally, its use parallels what we now know about honey’s most common use as a harmonizing binder in the preparation of herbs. And to honey an addition can be made of raw astragalus (huang qi) and cinnamon cassia twig (gui zhi), both of which are known to be immunostimulants. The former has been shown to increase white blood cells in mice (Chen 2004) when used in subcutaneous injection as well as inhibit the growth of several gastrointestinal Bacillis strains. Traditionally astragalus is known to tonify the wei qi in order to firm the exterior, an aid to the prevention of one sort of food allergy trigger. Likewise, cinnamon twig has been shown to have an antibiotic effect when ingested and, as such, these three herbs constitute a foundation for the herbal medical treatment of food allergy, which can be modified to treat the specific symptoms as they manifest on the skin or in the digestive tract alone or in combination with other herbs and acupuncture.
In conclusion, a look back to connect the dots. Food allergies affect nearly one-fifth of the world’s population and that number is rapidly increasing. Currently there is no known cure for food allergy and the main form of prevention is avoidance, which can be disruptive to the daily life of the person affected as well as those who come into contact with them. Chinese medicine is often known to act according to methodological framework that fills gaps left by the methodology of Western-biomedical framework but, in the case of food allergy, Chinese Medicine has fallen short of addressing the specifics of the disease in terms of a consensus on how to approach treatment or prevention. Recent research has, however, provided a new perspective into how the use of honey, an herb commonly used in Chinese Herbal Medicine for harmonizing the effects of other herbs, can act to not only benefit gastrointestinal microflora for digestive health but also help the intrinsic strength of the immune system. Honey has been found to possess many of the qualities of more commonly known probiotics in addition to being recognized for having prebiotic traits while, nearly simultaneously, research has shown the beneficial relationship between the use of probiotics, the consumption of prebiotics, and the reduction of food allergy symptoms. Combined with the regulatory effects of acupuncture, the use of honey as a single herb could help to advance the progress of eradicating food allergy altogether.
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©2013 E. Sablosky