Discussions on the Potential Clinical Applications of Coffee and Black Tea for Asthma as compared to Traditional Chinese Medicine Formulas
By: Matthew Sabey Smith, DACM, MSOM, LAc., Dipl.Ac., CPT
***Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is not meant to be used as medical advice or the treatment/cure of any disease. If you are considering using any of the following information, first consult your medical provider. ***
Quite often, like any person, you may have searched the internet for ideas about how to deal with your asthma. Between your wheezing and whistling, your little thumbs are typing as fast as possible to find a solution because you happened to forget your inhaler before you got on the plane. Well, now you’re stuck, your doctor isn’t available over the phone and you need relief in order to get the seemingly unattainable oxygen into your lungs while all you want is to lie down in peace. Well maybe you came across caffeine as a quick, fast acting relief? Let’s check it out.
As you probably already know, asthma is a very common condition that is everywhere. Asthma can have a number of triggers such as environmental factors, poor air quality, allergens, colds and flu as well as dietary factors. But while you are having an asthma attack, you don’t care about any of that, you just want to breathe in peace. An asthma attack is commonly when a person is wheezing (whistling sounds coming from the lungs) and it is hard to catch a full breath. Asthma is commonly known as an inflammatory condition that creates a closing of the airways and bronchial tubes.
Asthma in Traditional Chinese Medicine (A Very Brief Overview)
To a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, there are different types as asthma. Commonly in TCM, asthma is typically caused from an excess or deficiency condition deficient condition. With asthma there are a few factors that play a role in TCM. The lungs, kidneys, liver and spleen systems all need to be working properly in order to keep asthma from affecting someone. When there is an issue with any of these systems, it commonly can create asthmatic conditions. The lungs need to be functioning for what reason? So that they can retain the air properly and correctly work with the entire pulmonary respiratory system in order to use oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. When the lungs do not work properly, people will experience abnormal sweating, excessive dryness in the throat and skin and struggle breathing in. For an excess lung condition the lungs will feel hot, the person may have a cough and it could be accompanied by yellow phlegm or sputum (not fun at all!). Deficient patients will likely have a runny nose, and won’t be able to stop cold sweats and will feel physically cold.
Patients who have signs of asthma relating to the kidneys would likely be more due to a deficiency issue. When the kidneys are weak, then in TCM the kidneys cannot grasp the “lung qi” downward and the patient will also experience wheezing, may have low back pain or weak knees associated with it.
Patients who have signs of asthma relating to the spleen function, there is likely a lot of fluids (dampness) associated with the asthma. When asthma is associated with a lot of mucus buildup, typically this is a sign the spleen is not able to transform and transport fluids properly and the result is excess “dampness” and mucus that is in the lungs.
Patients who have issues with asthma relating to the liver system will have stress and frustration. Stress and frustration, while an emotional component, can create wheezing and constriction on the airway and as a result this emotional factor will inhibit proper breathing.
In TCM it is common for these organ systems to need to be balanced for proper breathing to occur. Therefore, it is a responsibility of the practitioner to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
So Can Caffeine from Coffee or Black Tea Help My Asthma Attack?
The quick answer is yes it is possible- but it depends. There is more to understand before we start swimming in our coffee to have a continuous, forever supply of caffeine (Don't do this- horrible idea!). The bottom line is that caffeine can be a quick fix that is similar to bronchodilator Beta-2 Agonist medications like Theophylline (Welsh et al., 2010). It has been shown that caffeinated coffee or black tea can typically provide around four hours of relief for a person experiencing an acute asthma attack (Gotter A, n.d.). This would obviously be more effective for someone who does not normally use caffeine because there will not be a built up tolerance to it to begin with. It is important to note that overuse of caffeine can overly tax the adrenal system (which sit right on the kidneys...hint hint) and should not be dependently used. This is where your newfound understanding of TCM can help. If we continuously tax our kidneys then our kidneys will not be able to assist properly in our breathing in the future! Therefore- this is only an idea for when in a pinch!
The part that modern research does not mention is the fact that caffeine is naturally a "warming" substance in TCM. Therefore any condition that is not "deficient" would not be properly aided by caffeine and could potentially be exacerbated!
TCM Alternatives For Heat (Excess) Associated Asthma
As we have discussed, TCM has different ways to identify causes and issues associated with asthma attacks. Asthma associated with heat conditions (commonly excess conditions) would likely be relieved from the treatment of the heat condition itself. Formulas such as Gan Mao Ling, Yin Qiao or an herb such as Luo Han Guo (one of my absolute favorites that tastes great!) are useful at removing heat from the lungs to relieve the hot, inflammatory irritation associated with heat conditions like many types of colds, flu, and bronchitis. For these conditions, caffeine would be contraindicated for the asthma treatment. Caffeine is “tonifying” and warming in TCM so we would be making the condition potentially worse over time! Acute stress would also fall into this category! Therefore, if we treat just the stress in this situation with something such as Xiao Yao San, then the wheezing could potentially be mitigated or completely removed.
TCM Alternatives for Cold (Deficient) Associated Asthma
It is common that asthma usually has some underlying deficiency associated with it in TCM. These types of conditions are why asthma could be relieved by caffeine. For TCM there are some options that will not have the same taxation on the adrenal system however. A formula such as Ding Chuan Tang could be a typical good option. Also known as “Arrest Wheezing Decoction” Ding Chuan Tang helps with asthma associated with spleen and lung deficiencies. This formula would help strengthen the spleen to transform and transport fluids properly to prevent the buildup of mucus and phlegm in the lungs. The lungs are also strengthened by this formula by dispersing the “cold” (cold creating deficiency) and stopping the wheezing within the lungs.
A second common option to treat deficient asthma through TCM relates to asthma typically associated with a disorder of the Kidney system. The combination of Dong Chong Xia Cao and Ge Jie commonly is used to treat asthma. This would be a situation where the "lung qi cannot be grasped by the kidneys." Meaning essentially that the person cannot take a full breath that feels satisfying. This combination however would strengthen the kidney system function in order for this to occur. This would not be appropriate for a person who has any cold or flu like symptoms (American Dragon, 2017).
Dryness, Moisture & Dehydration
One aspect that is typically overlooked in the management of asthma is the factor of dryness. Dryness means there is not enough moisture within the lungs to keep them well lubricated. Think of it this way- when something is dried out, it heats up. Well- same thing here. This is why proper hydration and moistening herbs would be essential for someone who presents as very dry (dry cough, dry skin, dry throat). This is when we could employ something like the Luo Han Guo once again alongside a common formula like Liu Wei Di Huang Wan. These help moisten the lungs, keep the body well lubricated and thus mitigate asthma associated and triggered from the dryness (which could be as simple as a dry climate or having the heat on in the house!).
Overall, the use of caffeine from black tea or coffee can, in certain cases as you now know, likely and effectively relieve asthmatic wheezing symptoms. As we discussed, it is not a fix-all for long term asthma, but it can help in certain cases in a pinch. As a TCM practitioner however, the use of any of the discussed formulas (depending on the condition) would be more specific and effective for asthma, especially for longer term relief. In the end, in order to properly get asthma under control, the TCM herbs would likely be more effective in relieving both acute asthma and long term asthma and a practitioner would be needed to properly diagnose and treat the condition.
American Dragon. (2017). Ding Chuan Tang. Retrieved April 13, 2019, from https://www.americandragon.com/Herb Formulas copy/DingChuanTang.html
Gotter, A. (n.d.). Emergency Home Remedies for Asthma Attacks: What You Can Do Now. Retrieved April 13, 2019, from https://www.healthline.com/health/emergency-home-remedies-for-asthma-attacks#mustard-oil
Welsh, Bara, Barley, & Cates. (2010, January 20). The effect of caffeine in people with asthma. Retrieved April 13, 2019, from https://www.cochrane.org/CD001112/AIRWAYS_the-effect-of-caffeine-in-people-with-asthma
Sacroiliac Joint Pain & Sciatica Are More Than A Structural Problem, There Is Likely A Chronic Condition Developing In Your Body
By: Matthew Sabey Smith, DACM, MSOM, Dipl.Ac., CPT
***Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be used as grounds to claim a cure of any disease. If you are thinking about using an herb, supplement, or therapy of any kind please first consult your primary care provider ***
I’ve Been There…
Sacroiliac joint pain is something that used to keep me up at night. And we are talking every single night. Not to mention the chronic pain that came along with it during the day. That burning dull ache in the side of my hip that would go to my low back made me want to numb out for a while just to feel nothing. A painkiller was not the route I wanted to take. So maybe you reach for the over the counter NSAIDs or pump in some tylenol or maybe try that Omega 3 supplement your hippie friend suggested and call it a day.
Well, when you’re a competitive strength athlete, you are bound to get a little beat up from time to time as your body is adjusting to heavy loads. Musculoskeletal imbalances, shifts in physiological function and everything in between just becomes a part of life as you begin to understand and dive deeper into learning the mechanisms that lead to your strength; or in this case, inhibit it. Something I have encountered time and time again in athletes, clients, and even myself is SacroIliac Joint Pain, also commonly referred to as SI Joint pain or for some this becomes sciatica. Sciatica is when there is pain that runs down the leg due to a disruption present in the sciatic nerve. It commonly only affects one side of the body and can have a number of causes like compression, disc herniation, or stenosis just to name a few (Mayo Clinic, 2021).
What Is The Root Cause Of All This?
While there are many causes, it is not out of the question for other factors to be at play that lead to this condition over time. My question became, “what is the root problem creating all this?” The reason I write both about SI joint pain and sciatica together is because they actually have a lot in common, and I am also here to say there is something you can do about it. Dare I say, there are also ways to prevent it as well. (Insert “GASP!”) So, let’s keep it simple for a minute. Typically when there is pain in this area, there is a lack of hip alignment. Your hips can get thrown off for a number of reasons. Many would point out if you are a side sleeper, if you sit on your wallet, or if you slump to one side sitting or standing, cross one leg over the other etc. The mechanisms are endless and sometimes it can be as simple as an adjustment to realign your hips again.
There Is More To The Story
But what about when that isn’t the whole story? Why was there a relaxation to allow our hips to get misaligned? Now say in the scenario you get your hips aligned every week from someone like the chiropractor. It probably makes you feel better and truthfully it probably really is helping with your healing process (I can speak from first hand experience and also when speaking to personal friends who are chiropractors). When something is out of place, it is important to put it back. Makes sense right? But what do we do to prevent it? We could sleep different, walk different, sit different, but in a scenario where none of that keeps us aligned (because we have repetitive patterns in life), we need to dig deeper. Now truthfully, I utilize chiropractors often, I have had wonderful success combining methods together and I must say, chiropractic care has been a big part of it, but not all of it.
I Just Wanted Answers
You see, when I was in my early twenties, spending my full training time as an Olympic Weightlifter, I had this endless dull ache in my right hip. It never seemed to go away, but I would at least get some relief when I was actively moving. Certain exercises would really set it off which meant I had to gear up to be in pain for weeks to “train through it.” But there was a lot I didn’t know about when it came to the cause of my pain outside of simply a structural imbalance. It turns out, there was more to the story; a lot more to the story.
At this point I was in pain pretty much all the time. No matter what I did, my day usually ended with my massage my muscles with some hard trying to break up “scar tissue and tightened fascia.” While this actually was likely true, there was a deeper reason it was tight. I just did things like I thought everyone else did. I would roll out, warm up, lift, cool down and go about my day. Stretching was something I heard was good for me so I threw some of that in there too but it was kind of this extra casual thing. As I investigated further I found that my Quadratus Lumborum or “QL” was often tight on the same side my hip hurt. So I found it interesting how my pain seemed to move between my low back, my hip and sometimes down my hamstring. The reason this pain was occurring was due to something no doctor would have been able to tell me other than, tight muscles and fascia, “you should probably take it easy and try stretching.”
I Dove Into Traditional Chinese Medicine
So now we fast forward, and here I am out of my chronic sacroiliac joint pain. So what made the difference? To tell you the truth, it was more holistic than I would have ever realized. As I went through my doctoral training in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM for short), I came across a podcast that got my gears turning. (It was an episode on the Qiological podcast if you are curious.) It was talking about the connection between the kidney channel system and sciatica. This thought led me down a rabbit hole of investigation and further observation, not only for myself, but for folks I worked with.
Since then I have taken note both in myself and in clients and it turns out I have found several common underlying triggers that tend to dictate an expression of sacroiliac joint pain. But, before I explain that, let me teach you a bit about TCM and pain first.
Understanding Pain As Stagnation
In traditional Chinese medicine we refer to pain as stagnation. Essentially this means that when something is “stagnant,” it creates a disruption in the body. Pain is your body saying, “danger danger” which is why it exists, it is a survival response. So, using an example of muscular pain with traditional Chinese medicine, we want to create more flow of “blood and qi.” To explain this more simply, we want to bring more blood, lymph, and nutrients to an area, relax the tightened muscles and fascia as well as improve the signaling communication with the brain. This is a reason something like acupuncture, tui na, gua sha, moxibustion, cupping etc are so effective over time because it is actively healing the present and underlying condition. But this is also something that takes time, it requires upkeep and nurturing to truly heal from anything.
The Gallbladder and Urinary Bladder? NO! I Said My Hip Hurts!
Back to the case of sacroiliac joint pain however, I have found that this usually breaks down to a relationship between the Gallbladder channel and the Urinary Bladder channel (The Gallbladder channel runs down the side of the leg and up the ribcage and the Urinary Bladder channel runs down the back of the leg and continues up the back). What does that mean and why does this matter? It means I was able to trace back my symptoms that related to these “channels” and it always seemed to explain the pattern of why myself or someone else was experiencing pain relating to their sacroiliac joint when laboratory scans showed that there was seemingly nothing wrong. The most common thread between the clients was either liver qi stagnation or a deficiency in kidney qi.
So… what does that mean and how does it relate to sacroiliac joint pain or even sciatica? Well, this is a common thread that allows the hips to become misaligned. In TCM we explain things in meridian (aka channel) systems. To make it simple, there are “meridians” that we learn that run throughout the body that have certain acupuncture points. Each of these meridians and points have common symptoms associated with them. They are very specific which is why a well trained Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine needs at least 5 years of schooling after 4 years of undergraduate schooling.
Conveniently, in TCM each organ is paired with another. For the sake of our understanding here, we are going to reference how the Kidney pairs with the Urinary bladder and the Liver pairs with the Gallbladder. This is where it gets interesting to see the relationships. A couple common symptoms of liver qi stagnation include side pain, vertex or temporal headaches, upper back/neck pain, waking up to urinate between 1-3am, PMS symptoms, commonly feeling frustration or having outbursts of anger. In a simple way we can also refer to these in an umbrella term as stress.
Ok, stick with me now.
Endocrinology & Chronic Stress
It is well known that chronic stress is not healthy for any of us, you can see it in research anywhere (Kanczkowski, W., et al., 2017). But where does the kidney/urinary bladder system fit into all of this? Well, let’s use endocrinology to help us out in relation to an actual kidney! A common hormone many have heard of is cortisol. Cortisol plays many important roles in the body but many associate its imbalance with stress. In short when we become stressed the adrenal cortex follows the direction of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis to produce more cortisol (Thau, L. et al., 2021). If the stress is not regulated then cortisol will continue to produce which can lead to chronic disease. So how does this relate to the kidneys again? The adrenal cortex sits directly on top of the kidneys within the adrenal glands. Now if we also combine chronic stress with caffeine consumption, now we are asking our body to produce even more cortisol (Lovallo, W. R., et al., 2005)! Do you see a pattern yet? Chronic stress over time creates more work for the kidneys over time, thus decreasing its ability to function properly.
An Understanding of the Root Cause Can Lead To More Predictable Symptoms
The urinary bladder pairs with the kidney in TCM. So by treating the kidney, we help the pain that follows the Urinary Bladder channel. And by treating the liver, we help the pain that follows the Gallbladder channel. If we use channels to relate to structure, when one organ system does not function normally, it’s channel suffers. As a result it is another channel that needs to pick up the slack. This is why the Gallbladder channel and Urinary Bladder channel have this relationship in sacroiliac joint pain. When one suffers (exhibits symptoms that relate to it), the other channel needs to do more work to maintain structure and alignment! (For Practitioners: This is why tight muscles and ashi points are so easily found along one of these channels in a patient with sacroiliac joint pain or sciatica) So what is the big conclusion from all this?
From a TCM perspective it can easily be explained that when there are no structural issues present, sacroiliac joint pain or sciatica could be as simple as too much stress in your life (in a very very simplified way of explaining it). This is why I use both TCM and biomedicine to explain this. Remember, this is something I used to deal with on a daily basis for several years with no known patterns I could find. I never knew why some days were better than others. But, these symptoms were at their worst during the most stressful time in my life and it turns out, I had a lot of the symptoms that related to liver qi stagnation which led to my kidneys becoming overly taxed.
What Ultimately Brought Me The Relief & Prevention I Was Looking For
So here is how I made my sacroiliac joint pain go away and continue to prevent it from coming back.
It Is About The Marathon, Not The Sprint
This may sound like a lot of work but it was lifestyle changes that needed to occur in order to truly heal from my chronic pain. As soon as I decided I wanted to be out of pain, I was ready to make whatever changes were necessary to become free of it. This was a marathon, not a sprint. This is not something that will happen overnight. It is important to recognize how the human body is endlessly interconnected. It is impractical to ignore signs and symptoms while expecting them to mysteriously go away. If you catch it early and implement simple changes in the beginning, you save yourself from spending a lot of money, experiencing a lot more pain and sacrificing your quality of life in the long run.
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Health & Human Performance Coach, Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, Professor, and competitive strength athlete, Matthew Sabey Smith DACM, MSOM, Dipl.Ac,, CPT is the owner and founder of Strength Smith Training Systems LLC. With an extensive background in integrative holistic health, training and coaching, Dr. Matt uses his knowledge to help individuals improve their training, boost their recovery and maintain optimal balance as they chase their athletic, fitness and health endeavors.
Health & Human Performance Coach, Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, professor, and competitive strength athlete, Matthew Sabey Smith DACM, MSOM, LAc., Dipl.Ac,, CPT is the owner and founder of Strength Smith Training Systems LLC. With an extensive background in integrative holistic health, training and coaching, Dr. Matt uses his knowledge to help individuals improve their training, boost their recovery and maintain optimal balance as they chase their athletic, fitness and health endeavors.