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6 Steps To Healthier Skin Through Chinese Medicine

August 7, 2014

It is estimated that 1 in 5 of all outpatient visits to doctors in the United States are dermatological in nature. That’s 20% of all doctor’s visits—that’s a lot of skin complaints!

Many people are seeking treatment for skin disorders, and dermatologists are swamped. I regularly hear reports of patients waiting upwards of three months for an appointment, and yet, unfortunately, Western medicine is often unable to offer satisfactory treatments that are both safe and effective over the long term. Some treatments work for a period of time, only to then plateau or decline in efficacy. Other treatments are effective until they’re discontinued, at which point some patients—particularly those on a regimen of steroids—experience a flare-up of their condition worse than it was prior to any treatment at all. Some patients are persistently unresponsive to treatment. And still others are desperate for relief but hesitant to pursue Western interventions due to concerns about the long-term impact of steroids, birth control pills, antibiotics, immune-suppressants, and other strong pharmaceuticals on their broader health.

The good news is that a safe, effective alternative can be found in Chinese medicine. As a practitioner of Chinese medicine specializing in dermatology, I believe Chinese herbal medicine offers the best overall treatment. Here’s a little view into why:

1. Chinese medicine treats the individual

In Western medicine, treatment is often administered based on the severity of the disease. The worse the case the stronger the drug. Chinese herbal medicine considers severity a factor, but it’s the details of each individual case that determine the best treatment plan. What areas of the body are affected? Is there swelling, edema, or any exudate? What color are the lesions (Red-ish? Brown-ish? Purple-ish? Orange-ish?) Do they itch? How much and when? In a case of acne, for example, we’d consider the concentration of blackheads vs. whiteheads vs. cysts. How greasy is the face? How much background redness underlies the lesions?

All of these details matter a great deal when constructing an herbal formulation specific to an individual patient.

Additionally, Chinese herbalists look at your whole health picture. How’s your digestion? Your sleep? Your menstrual cycle? Are you young and vibrant or old and tired? Are there other lifestyle factors involved, like drinking, smoking, diet, or stress? This broader picture helps determine what Chinese medicine calls “patterns of imbalance.” Treatment specifically targets each of these patterns and, as they change and evolve, herbal treatment evolves too.

2. Chinese medicine has a proven track record—of several thousand years

I like to say that Chinese medicine isn’t good because it’s old; it’s old because it’s good. I chuckle a little when people insinuate that acupuncture and Chinese medicine are “experimental.” Chinese medicine wouldn’t persist a couple thousand years after its inception if it didn’t continue to be relevant and effective. It’s been the primary medicine for billions of people in thriving, evolving cultures for all of those centuries. Discussions of the skin and skin diseases can be found in the earliest Chinese medical text books. Differentiations between different skin diseases have been delineated for much of that time, as have detailed discussions on effective treatment approaches. Psoriasis was known as song pi xuan (pine skin dermatosis), bai bi (white dagger sore), and wan xuan (stubborn dermatosis); acne as fen ci (white thorns) or jiu ci (wine thorns); eczema as si wan feng (wind of the four crooks) or wan shi (stubborn dampness). When you choose Chinese medicine, you choose a comprehensive system of medicine that’s been studied, deepened, and expanded upon for millennia by the brightest medical minds of the Eastern (and, more recently, of the West, as well). That’s a whole lot of brainpower and clinical trial and error on your side.

3. Chinese medicine is safe

Have you ever actually listened to the ads on TV for psoriasis medications? That part when they list all the possible side effects? Strong immunosuppressant drugs can leave a person susceptible to a whole host of aggressive infections. Steroids are regularly prescribed for skin diseases like psoriasis and eczema, but long-term use carries the risk of high blood sugar and diabetes, an increased risk of infections, thinning of bones and increased fractures, and may suppress the function of the adrenal gland function. Long-term topical application of steroids leads to thinning of the skin and a significant loss of skin integrity. Women with severe acne might be put on strong medications—so strong that they’re also required to take two forms of birth control, since in the event of pregnancy the risk of severe birth defects from the acne meds is so high.

Chinese herbal treatments, on the other hand, have little to no side effects. There may be digestive discomfort or loose stools, but even these mild symptoms don’t usually last too long. That said, “herbal” or “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean a treatment is safe. Anything strong enough to heal you can also harm you if taken incorrectly. Make sure your herbalist is experienced, and that s/he is committed to using Chinese herbs from a reputable pharmacy. Ask about whether the herbs have been tested not only for quality, but also for pesticide or fungicide residues. Herb quality is a big concern in the Chinese medicine community and is something worth paying close attention to.

4. Chinese medicine works both inside and out

Most skin conditions have an internal root, and herbs taken internally get to that root. For most conditions, topical treatment alone will not be strong enough to correct the internal pathology. That said, topical treatment has an important role to play in delivering needed medicines to your skin directly, thus expediting the larger healing process and helping the skin to recover more quickly. Combining internal and topical treatment together is the most effective way to achieve lasting results.

So now that you know why I’m an advocate for Chinese medicine in skin cases, what’s next? If you’re suffering from skin disease, consider the following:

1. Seek out a specialist who will see your areas of imbalance

As we’ve discussed, the look of your skin reveals a lot of information about what is going on internally. An educated eye will be able to pinpoint your areas of imbalance by looking at your skin, alone.

Many of my patients have previously given ‘holistic’ or ‘alternative’ medicine a try for their skin disease, with limited or no success. Part of the problem is that they didn’t see a practitioner who specialized in skin disorders. Keep in mind that many herbalists (or naturopaths, homeopaths, and even western doctors) who are very, very good at what they do are not necessarily experienced in treating the skin. Dermatology is known to be a tricky specialty in western medicine and Chinese medicine alike. It’s usually complex and sometimes confounding. So, however you choose to treat your skin disease, do yourself a favor and make sure you seek out a specialist!

2. Don’t believe in “miracles”

If you’ve heard about a holistic “miracle cure,” do your due diligence and research to make sure that there are no potential risks or harmful side effects. If it fits within your budget and truly speaks to you, sure, why not give it a try? But if it doesn’t work or you don’t get the results that you’ve seen in a hyped up marketing campaign, don’t give up on holistic medicine altogether. It’s unusual for cures touted as miraculous to be effective for a lot of people.

Of course, there’s no “cure” for most skin diseases and Chinese herbs can’t help everyone. But with diligent treatment, the vast majority of patients report significant to dramatic improvement. There is a real opportunity to effectively treat your skin with great results and without the use of potentially harmful drugs. Stay realistic, but know that with time and the right course of treatment, your skin can and will get better.

Alexa is a practitioner of Chinese Medicine specializing in the treatment of skin conditions. She holds a Master’s degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (MAcOM) from AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine, is nationally board certified, and is a Diplomate of Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) with a license to practice customized Chinese herbal medicine in Maine. In 2012, she graduated in the top of her class from Mazin Al-Khafaji’s Chinese Medicine Dermatology Diploma Course at Regent’s College in London, England.

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