Asthma Causes: reasons from Chinese medicine

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Key Learning Points

  • In Chinese medicine, there are four main causes of asthma
  • Each has its own underlying causes
  • Unfortunately, too much sex is one cause
  • Chinese medicine has been treating asthma for probably 2500 years.

Asthma Causes? In Chinese medicine there are four, perhaps five, reasons for what causes asthma. Once you understand how they work you can often work out how to help yourself.

You’ll also discover the long-term consequences of how you live.


person pouring water on ceramic teapot
Photo by 五玄土 ORIENTO

Chinese Medicine and Asthma

If you have strayed here, this page is about how Chinese medicine explains asthma and its causes.

If you are more interested in the orthodox approach, click here.

But if you compare the orthodox and Chinese views, you’ll notice various similarities and one or two notable differences. 

Traditional Chinese medicine doesn’t use western-type medications. It uses other ways of treating people, including acupunctureherbsmoxibustionnutritioncupping, advice, Tai Chi. It often has a very objective view of what causes what, and of what might help.

You’ll also be reading words that have a different meaning when used in Chinese medicine. Often they describe syndromes, which indicate both a given set of symptoms, and a guide to more natural ways of dealing with the problem.

This page is a more general page. For specific information you could look at the following, conventionally seen as asthma causes, when in reality they are symptoms often used to diagnose asthma:


Four Main Syndromes as Asthma Causes

The four syndromes in Chinese medicine that are asthma causes are:


1. Kidney Deficiency 

You could say that your Kidneys, in Chinese medicine, are the appointed guardians of your inherited genetic make-up. All through your life you add to or subtract from this.

You have two main kinds of Kidney energy,


The Kidney Yin side is better for cooling and calming you and helping you remember things, concentrate and keep going through difficulties. 

As for being an asthma cause, Kidney Yin Deficiency is one of the main kinds of Yin deficiency and often makes it hard for you to breathe deeply: you just can’t get a deep enough breath to feel comfortable. In the old days, people grew hugely distended or ‘barrel’ chests in vain attempts to ‘get their breath’.

If you were to set your mind on acquiring Kidney deficiency, how would you go about it? (Not that I advise it! It’s sometimes a one-way street, and as you age, you will get some of the symptoms anyway.)


1. The first way is the most unlucky!

This is to be born of parents who themselves were born with Kidney deficiency, or acquired it before you were conceived. Ideally, they should also have Lung problems too, see below. 


Inherited family conditions
Family fun by sea – Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

2. The second way is the most like hard work

Well, it is hard work!: to overwork. ‘Overwork’ covers many situations. This could include, for instance, doing too much physical work in your teens before your body had matured, so over-straining it.

It could mean growing too fast and behaving like an adult too early. It could also be from working crazy hours for years and not resting enough or taking any holidays, to the extent that you seriously deplete your constitution.

You’ll speed this process if you

  • make sure never sit down to eat, 
  • always eat on the go, 
  • always eat when you’re tired or at odd times when you’re not hungry 
  • only eat when you are hurried, or 
  • only eat when thinking or talking about work or worries
  • never eat when relaxing, 
  • are always on your mobile phone to check on work.


All the better if your life is always very stressful and imposes tight schedules and targets which you can hardly meet so you never get enough sleep.

In fact stress is such a big factor for some people, and Chinese medicine has so much to offer, that I’ve written a book about it – not for professionals, though many have apparently read it – but for my patients and others living stressful lives.


3. The third way is probably the fastest.

This is to have some form of major strain on your system, such as a seriously debilitating chronic or very acute disease and/or to lose lots of blood. As an asthma cause, this takes some beating, because it lowers your energy and your resistance, making your more prone to passing infections, many of which go on to weaken your lungs, see below. (An acute disease, say in childhood, with very high, long fevers might have the same effect.)

Almost any serious, debilitating chronic disease will do. As you grow older, your body weakens and asthma becomes more likely, for instance if you get too cold one winter (which strains your Kidney Yang energy, see below) or you often get cold regularly over many years, say in your teens, or are exposed to very hot, dry conditions for a while (so straining both your Kidney Yin resources and your Lungs).


Pregnancy Induced Asthma

This category also includes pregnancy induced asthma as an asthma cause. Usually this occurs when the mother already has an underlying susceptibility to Kidney deficiency which manifests itself during the workload of pregnancy, past the point where her Kidney energy can support her.

One of the first things her Kidney energy ‘gives up’ on is being able to hold down, or grasp, her Qi as she breathes in. So she gets breathless (see also Lungs, below).

Her diet or nourishment, if poor, (see Spleen below), worsens the picture because her Blood and Qi then become deficient, adding to her breathlessness.

See also below, under Phlegm.


4. The fourth way is the least enjoyable

To live a life full of stress and strain, especially with fear, insecurity, deep anxiety, shock and panic. Living indefinitely in a constant war-zone as a non-combatant would be a good start. Especially, make sure you get no sleep, which will definitely enhance this as an asthma cause.


5. The fifth way is usually the most fun: Sex!

For men, too many ejaculations, too often, especially if tired, stressed, or diseased. For women, too many children close together and/or heavy menstrual blood loss might do it, and some people say too many female orgasms, especially if tired, stressed or diseased, can be a cause too. (Note, for some people, having no orgasms might be a problem, if it caused them great stress. Of course, if they had no desire for orgasm it wouldn’t be a problem.)


How do you know you’re at it too much? Check out Kidney Syndromes for more on this.



6. The sixth way is the surest: ageing and old age.

As you grow older, your Kidney energy diminishes, making you less able to do all sorts of things. Signs of this Kidney diminution are the signs of age: hair and teeth fall out, bones weaken, memory fails, hearing goes, sexual energy depletes, you shrink and, well, let’s hope that you have enough wisdom to put up with it. Unfortunately, this is the surest cause of asthma, as your ability to survive health challenges gradually dissipates.

Of course, if you don’t want to get Kidney deficiency, just don’t take the above advice. For some people this leads to awareness of natural cures and/or at least, desisting from the causes of Kidney deficiency.

2. Lung Qi deficiency as Asthma Cause

The Lungs (capital L for Lungs, meaning the zang-fu Lung energy, not just your lung organs) have a number of functions in Chinese medicine, but Number One on the list is that they rule, or govern your respiration and your Qi.

Not surprisingly, they are an important asthma cause when they stop working in the way that they should.

  • As part of ruling your respiration, they rule the process of breathing out and what is called the descending of Qi. (Whereas your Kidneys are said to rule breathing IN):
  • IF your Lungs can’t descend or send down your Qi, you won’t be able to relax. Why? Because learning to control your out-breath is a way to relax and calm your Yang energy. Anyone who does meditation will eventually learn how to descend their Qi. If Qi doesn’t descend properly, you get too much of it in the upper area of your body, making you tense and nervous, with shoulder or neck tension and sometimes headaches.
  • In this they work closely with the Kidneys, see above, which are said to ‘grasp’ the Qi as it descends.
  • The Lungs do lots of other important things too, but as an asthma cause, the above is the main problem.

How do you get Lung problems as an asthma cause?

In order of importance here is what happens.

1. Wind

Wind, either on its own, or with another of the external pathogenic forces, invades your Lungs and prevents them from working. To you and me, this means catching a bug, such as a cold or cough – or more seriously, a chest infection such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

Two frequent forms of this are Wind-Heat and Wind-Cold. These prevent your Lungs from spreading Qi round your body. Then you start to feel tired and you get a cough or have difficulty breathing.

Two other syndromes that can affect your Lungs are Damp and Dryness.

Dryness because it dries your lungs and makes it painful to breathe (think about hot, dry climates, but also heat from central heating); Damp because Damp often turns to Phlegm, see below. (More on Damp below.)

2. What you EAT has a huge effect on your Lungs.

(It took me years to appreciate this. Eventually I realised why my nose blocked up after eating some foods! – like the following.)

The start of your Lung channel (or ‘meridian’) is in your Stomach. Your Stomach is less good at dealing with raw, cold, chilled, greasy, fatty, and dairy foods, all of which slow your Lungs down and may cause Phlegm to develop.

Phlegm is a big subject in Chinese medicine! It is often the cause of, or implicated in, the development of many other syndromes. Not many of us like to admit we have ‘phlegm’! 

But most of us get it at some time in our lives. It’s certainly a problem for asthma sufferers. In fact so many patients suffer from it that eventually I wrote a book about it, see the picture.

For more on this, see below.

3. Emotional issues

Your emotions are more important than you may think, as an asthma cause. Western medicine has recently begun, almost reluctantly, to recognise how important emotions are to health, whereas Chinese medicine realised how they work at least 2500 years ago.

The Lungs are particularly weakened by (long-term) grief, sorrow and sadness, also worry. (See my book Qi Stagnation on how Stress is treated.)

These often cause tension, leading to Qi stagnation, and in particular, Lung Qi stagnation. That stops your Lungs working and makes you feel tired.

4. Bad habits that affect the Lungs include poor posture, such as …

  • working bent over, whether at a computer or sewing or mining or when reading or checking your smartphone; 
  • smoking; 
  • cycling for long periods with drop-handlebars; 
  • inhaling bad, poisoned or polluted air; 
  • breathing air which has not circulated outside; and 
  • not taking enough exercise that gets you out of breath.


All of these stop your lungs from breathing properly. That makes your (bad) habits into another asthma cause. These bad habits make it easier for Phlegm to collect in your lungs and harder for your lungs to clear it out. Phlegm is a big issue in Chinese medicine, see below.

5. Pregnancy induced asthma 

This can come about as the baby grows and its size prevents the proper movement of Qi in your lungs. See also Phlegm, below.

If your Lungs can’t absorb Qi, your total energy diminishes and your body demands that your Kidney energy makes up the difference.

person touching person's belly
Photo by John Looy

If they can’t, (see above under Kidneys), then you start to get a range of Kidney yang deficiency symptoms, (though they CAN be of Kidney Yin deficiency instead or as well) possibly including those of pregnancy induced asthma.

For treatment of this syndrome, see below.


3. Spleen Qi deficiency as a Cause of Asthma 

Your Spleen and your Lungs work very closely, and what hurts one can hurt the other. 

1. One factor (it’s called an  external pathogenic factor) in particular weakens your Spleen – Damp.

Click the link for more on this, but Damp occurs in all sorts of ways:

  • Living in damp places: some towns are very damp
  • Damp houses
  • Living in a damp basement
  • Exposure to Damp weather
  • Swimming too much


Damp weather is often an asthma cause
Photo by Jay Wennington

  • Wearing damp clothes especially if tired after exercise
  • Allowing yourself to remain wet in cold places
  • Working or wading in water or drains or damp places
  • Not getting warm and dry after getting wet
  • Women are more susceptible to damp ‘invasion’ during their periods (making that not such a good time to swim), at puberty and after childbirth


2. Food.

This can be a very important asthma cause. Your Spleen has the vital role of taking what you’ve sent down to your stomach and turning it into Blood and Energy, then sending the Blood round your body and clearing out the garbage. If this fails, garbage builds up, and the most noticeable form your garbage takes is Phlegm (see below.

  • Your Spleen works well with some foods, not with others:
  • It prefers warm, dry food. So … avoid ‘Cold Foods‘.
  • Cold, chilled, or icy food or drinks are harder to digest: this includes …
  • Raw food, such as fresh food eg uncooked food, salads, fruit


round pizza
Photo by Nicolás Perondi
  • Modern foods that the Spleen finds difficult probably include refined foods, like white flour, sugar, sweeteners, even including sugar and honey.
  • ‘Warm’ includes food that is actually warm to the touch, but also food classified in Chinese medicine as having a warming nature, including ginger, many spices, and most meat.
  • And it doesn’t like milk and other dairy foods which I heard graphically described as being ‘snot in a pot’!


3. The emotion most damaging to the Spleen is Worry!

Not just the odd worry, but ongoing worrying; always going over the same concerns; over-thinking, never letting go. This seems to stultify the action of the Spleen. Obsessively brooding about past worries or wrongs, or future challenges, or present woes – damage your Spleen.

When the Spleen fails, you get signs of Spleen deficiency. These include low energy, abdominal distension, poor appetite, loose stools, tired limbs, pale face and the desire to lie down. AND …


… you also get Phlegm – see below.

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4. Phlegm as an Asthma Cause

Phlegm, (for more about this click Phlegm) can form in various ways, some mentioned above.

[Note! When pregnant, having a growing foetus inside you is like having a large lump of Yin there, not entirely unlike that of Phlegm. Indeed, sometimes pregnancy is diagnosed because your pulse when diagnosed the Chinese way resembles that of Phlegm even when there are no other signs of it. So sometimes pregnancy-induced asthma appears because your body cannot handle this ‘form’ of Phlegm! Fundamentally this is a Spleen deficiency syndrome, see above.]

The real problem is that Phlegm blocks the free movement of your Lung Qi. If your Lung Qi doesn’t move properly, you get breathlessness and wheezing, two of the commonest asthma symptoms, conventionally seen as being asthma causes.

Phlegm is a bit of a catch-all in Chinese medicine. If they can’t work out which syndrome explains your problem, they’ll say ‘Phlegm’!

As you may have read above, both the Lungs and the Spleen can be the source of Phlegm. But Phlegm, however arising, can in turn cause problems for Lungs and Spleen: a vicious circle.

When the Spleen allows it to collect (because of bad diet, or because body heat turns Damp into Phlegm) you get the snotty, thick stuff that nobody likes talking about except children.

The first place it heads for is your lungs, which then get all blocked up. If your posture is bad, or you smoke (see Bad Habits under Lungs, above), it will take up residence and start to rule your life.

You then find you have to clear your throat before speaking, it gives you a loose phlegmy cough, it can make you slightly nauseous, it turns up in your sinuses and your nose and it’s hard to shift.

How do you know if you have Phlegm?

Well, apart from clicking on Phlegm, as an asthma cause and depending on how bad it is:

  • Your chest feels full, blocked, oppressed, heavy
  • Breathing may sound wheezy or rattly
  • Breathing may be an effort
  • Often you get some nausea
  • Your body feels heavy, tired, lassitude
  • You feel as if you are wading through water – an effort
  • Thinking is also an effort
  • You could be dizzy, your head full of ‘cotton wool’
  • The need to clear your throat before speaking
  • You have a phlegmy cough, better if you can hawk or cough it up and spit the phlegm out
  • Tongue: your tongue’s body is swollen, and often has a sticky white or yellow coating
  • Pulse: the classical pulse qualities are either Slippery, or Wiry


5. One more Asthma cause!

This is really a sub-category of Kidney deficiency, see above.

If you have Kidney Yang deficiency, then fluids, including Phlegm, may collect in your Lungs, even cause what is called Blood Stasis in your Heart. (You definitely don’t want that!)

This is now more serious.

At this stage, you may start getting oedema in your abdomen and legs, be taking many medications for oedema, kidneys, heart and a nebulizer for your lungs.


cold mountains - bad for large intestine luo channel symptoms
Mountains – cold and beautiful


Your biggest enemy here is probably an invasion of Cold, which might block the proper action of your heart.

As your breathlessness becomes more chronic or worse, you will tend to get more of these syndromes at the same time.

This may happen more often as you get older, and you’ll find it a struggle to decide how to organise your heating at home. Why?

  • Because if you turn the heating off, it may slightly improve your breathing until you get really cold, when you’ll be worrying about your circulation and the health of your heart
  • If you turn the heating up higher, friends will find your house impossibly hot – though you won’t mind the warmth – but unfortunately this provides the perfect conditions for bugs to breed, and guess what?! They particularly enjoy phlegm as a home and will turn it yellow. 
  • So you’ll catch more bugs which will go to your lungs and be harder to shift. 
  • Your doctor will reluctantly prescribe antibiotics. Short-term they can help, but they may weaken you further (in Chinese medicine they are often cooling, and leave you with more – white – phlegm) so long-term … well! 
  • Read Primary and Secondary Actions and Suppression.


Other asthma causes

Click on allergy induced asthma for more discussion of asthma causes. You will need to scroll to near the bottom of that page. Then, if you would like to make a contribution to the topic, come back to this page and scroll down to where there’s a way for you to contribute.


Treatment of asthma causes

If Chinese medicine can diagnose your condition in terms of one or more of these syndromes (eg Kidney, Lung or Spleen deficiency or Phlegm, as described above) which are seen as asthma causes, then it may be able to treat them. 

Acupuncture works well for all these syndromes, but Chinese herbs are often even better for Phlegm and, long-term, for Kidney deficiency.

Nothing is perfect. For example:

  • Acupuncture has certain limitations on the acupuncture points that are deemed ‘allowable’ during pregnancy. For example, acupuncture on the low abdomen during pregnancy is frowned upon. But there are plenty of other acupuncture points that can be used. In fact there are hundreds of them.
  • Often, acupuncture helps the acute stage, but patients then have to be persuaded to return for more treatments to deal with the underlying syndromes, mentioned above.
  • Chinese herbs aren’t sold on taste.


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