Autoimmune disorders: how we see them through Chinese Medicine.
I have always had particular interest in immunity and autoimmune disorders. To be more precise, I’ve been really interested in how, and whether, we may be able to help these disorders using acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.
What are Autoimmune Disorders?
So what are they? Well, very briefly, autoimmune disorders are characterised by the body producing an inappropriate immune response against its own tissues. Sometimes the immune system will cease to recognize one or more of the body’s normal constituents as ‘self’ and will create autoantibodies – antibodies that attack its own cells, tissues or organs. The resulting inflammation and cell damage are both key markers in autoimmune disorders (1,2).
Patients may have been given a diagnosis like Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis ( RA ), Hashimoto’s or Grave’s disease and may be taking Western Pharmaceutical drugs. Their autoimmune disorder my be impacting their fertility, or it may be causing other concomitant symptoms like poor sleep, headaches, anxiety or depression, and thus affecting their quality of life.
Whilst their has been scarce good quality Randomised Controlled Trials surrounding acupuncture and Chinese medicine and Autoimmunity per se ( see the final paragraph ), there is some very promising research around
the potential for positive effect using acupuncture on some of the ‘satellite’ symptoms that may appear along side autoimmune disorders: such as constipation, dry eyes & depression ( when acupuncture is used as an adjunct to Western medication ) (6).
As TCM practitioners, we only ever diagnose and target your set of symptoms based on Traditional Chinese Medicine in order to bring ‘You’, the whole person, back into balance.
If you would like to take further about how acupuncture & Chinese medicine may be able to help you, please phone the clinic on 3357 3205.
So what is the Chinese Medicine View of Autoimmune disease?
Whilst we acknowledge the biomedical processes that occur in autoimmune dysfunction, we see these processes in terms of Qi and blood, Yin and Yang. In terms of the causes of disease from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) point of view, there are a few main factors –
To this end, autoimmune disorders will often have a very high correlation with what we know in TCM as ‘stress disorders’.
We know that life-stress affects cellular health. Cells involved in immunity can alter with prolonged stress in the same way that they can alter after prolonged depression (5).
So why/how does this happen?
Essentially, changes in our stress response affect changes in the supply and release of neurotransmitters, hormones and immune factors that leads to changes in physiology such as reduced cell-mediated immune function.
Of course we do not see you as a bunch of neurotransmitters, but rather through concepts such as Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang. So our diagnosis will not sound familiar to you most likely – we use ideas such as ‘stagnant blood’ and ‘stagnant Qi’ to express our ideas on why pathological change may have occurred.
The end result, in TCM terms, is pathological changes that may present as depressed mood, dry mouth or eyes, disturbed sleep, aching joints or muscles etc.
How is this important to the way Traditional Chinese Medicine views stress and the progression of disease?
Essentially we know that the stress response triggers ‘functional’ changes in the way neurotransmitters, hormones etc. are released (5). For example, Cortisol is one of those stress-substances that can be elevated when someone is under or in a prolonged period of stress.
Whilst Whilst the body is in this ‘functional’ state of change, we may not yet see pathological changes such as aching joints or apthous mouth ulcers. Instead, there may be some sleep disturbance, a change in mood. As mentioned previously in this article, it is these satellite symptoms that acupuncture and Chinese medicine may have some potential for positive effect (6).
I’m always happy to answer questions regarding how acupuncture and Chinese herbs may help. Please feel free to contact me through this site, or to use the phone number here 3357 3205 to talk things through.
We love a bit of research too. We are lacking really large scale trials on the effect of acupuncture or Chinese Medicine on “Autoimmune” issues as a whole. So if someone asks where is the research, our science-brain has to say, well the research is unclear or insufficient. What we do have is promising research on the effect of acupuncture on some of the annoying ‘satellite’ symptoms that can come with Autoimmune disorders such as dry eyes, anxiety, constipation – not to mention back pain and arthralgia-type pain (6). As I have mentioned previously in this article, we are less concerned with the name of your illness and more about diagnosing the mechanism that caused it from a TCM perspective.
1 Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy Autoimmune Diseases
http://www.allergy.org.au/patients/autoimmunity/autoimmune-diseases (accessed 20 November 2016)
2 Delves, P (PhD) Autoimmune Disorders http://www.msdmanuals.com/en-au/professional/immunology-
disorders#v996129 (accessed 21 November 2016)
3 British Acupuncture Council Thyroid Disease http://www.acupuncture.org.uk/a-to-z-of-conditions/a-to-z-
of-conditions/thyroid-disease.html (accessed 20 November 2016)
4 Flaws B, Siounneau P The Treatment of Modern Western Medical Diseases with Chinese Medicine – a
Textbook and Clinical Manual Blue Poppy Press Boulder, Colorado USA 2015
5 Irwin M et al 1990 January 1, 1990 Volume 27, Issue 1, Pages 22–30 Reduction of Immune Function in Life
Stress and Depression
6 McDonald J, Janz S. The Acupuncture Evidence Project: A Comparative Literature Review (Revised Edition).
Brisbane: Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine