Skin Condition? Consider Chinese Medicine
Summer is upon us and it’s time to think about our skin! 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. It comes as a surprise to most people that Chinese medicine can offer a safe, effective treatment for many of these common skin complaints. How, you ask?
Chinese Medicine Treats the Individual
Chinese herbal medicine considers the details of each individual case to determine the best treatment plan—no two cases of eczema, psoriasis, or acne are likely to receive the same medicine.
Chinese herbalists ask very specific questions. What areas of the body are affected? Is there swelling, edema, or any exudate? What color are the lesions—do they tend to be more red, brown, purple, orange? Do they itch? If so, how much and when? In a case of acne, for example, we’d consider the ratio of blackheads to whiteheads to cysts. How greasy is the face? How swollen? Is it just on the face or also on the back or chest? How much background redness underlies the lesions? How quickly do lesions come and go? Do they tend to leave a lot of hyperpigmentation behind? 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? Do you generally feel full of energy and vibrant or are you weaker or more fatigued than you’d like to be? 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.
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. It’s funny to those of us who practice it when people insinuate that acupuncture and Chinese medicine are “experimental” treatments. Chinese medicine wouldn’t have persisted for a couple thousand years 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 East (and, more recently, of the West, as well). That’s a whole lot of brainpower and clinical trial and error on your side.
Chinese Medicine is Safe
Listening to pharmaceutical ads on TV or reading the fine-print of many drugs prescribed for skin conditions is not for the faint of heart. 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 or young girls 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 mean that all herbs are safe for all people—they’re safe (and sometimes life-saving) as long as they’re prescribed appropriately. Anything strong enough to heal you can also harm you if taken incorrectly. Make sure your herbalist is experienced, and that they are 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.
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:
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 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, definitely seek out someone with experience in skin.
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.
Alexandra Gilmore, LAc, MAcOM is a practitioner of acupuncture and Chinese medicine in South Portland. She knows you have extraordinary things to bring forth in the world, and her mission is to amplify your vitality in the service of that greatness. She brings to the table a unique understanding of your physiology and symptoms, a comprehensive treatment plan, and the opportunity to cultivate a different outcome for your health and your future. She has a special affinity for all things women’s health and dermatology, and loves the challenge of a complex case. She lives in Portland with Oscar, her 90-pound “puppy” and office mascot. www.atxacu.com or www.atxskin.com.