Lupus - A Traditional Chinese Medicine Viewpoint
Systemic lupus erythematosus, lupus for short, is a complex disease with a wide variety of symptoms. According to conventional, western medicine, these symptoms are caused by an autoimmune reaction which leads to widespread inflammation. According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the symptoms are caused by a type of heat toxin.
Lupus has been recognized in TCM since the Qing dynasty (between the 17th and early 20th centuries). At this time, it was thought that an underlying heat toxin in the blood was triggered by heat from the sun, causing the typical butterfly rash to appear. We now know that lupus symptoms, especially rashes, can be aggravated by exposure to sunlight. However, it is the ultraviolet light rather than the heat which causes the reaction. .
Other signs of heat in the body include symptoms such as inflammation and fever. Over time, heat can also lead to dryness of the skin, hair and mucous membranes as body fluids are evaporated.
Eventually, the yin of the vital organs, especially the Kidneys, Liver and Heart may become depleted by this heat. This reduces their ability to function and leads to a variety of different symptoms throughout the body.
How Heat Forms Within the Body
So we know that in TCM lupus is a form of excessive heat, but where does it come from and what can we do to help?
There are actually a number of different reasons why you may be affected by excessive heat. It can form due to illness, lifestyle or emotional stress.
One of the most common reasons is infection by an external pathogen. This could be a serious infection or something as simple as a common cold.
In TCM, infections are seen as being caused by environmental factors such as extreme heat, cold or wind. When these penetrate your body, you become sick, and the type of symptoms you experience will depend on the type of pathogen.
Heat pathogens cause symptoms such as:
- Swollen glands
- Thick sputum
- Scanty urination
- Dry stools or constipation
In most cases, your body's defensive qi (the closest thing TCM has to an immune system) is able to fight off the pathogen relatively quickly. However, if your defensive qi is weak, the pathogen can linger in your system. The initial symptoms of your infection may subside, but you could be left with other, subtle issues that indicate that the pathogen is still present. You may continue to get mild symptoms, or you may appear to be symptom free until something triggers a flare-up.
Lifestyle and Diet
Another common cause of heat in TCM is a poor diet or lifestyle. Eating a lot of greasy or fatty foods, red meat and ingesting stimulants such as coffee, alcohol and chili can all cause heat within the body. If you eat a typical western diet, the chances are that you will be generating a certain amount of internal heat from this. You might suffer from symptoms such as:
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Bad breath
- Mouth ulcers.
If you have a heat condition such as lupus, you should steer clear of the above foods and incorporate more cooling alternatives into your diet. Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and whole foods. Green or watery vegetables are especially cooling. Try switching coffee for green tea, reduce your alcohol consumption and flavor dishes with cooling herbs such as mint. If you smoke, it is very important that you stop as this is one of the most heating and drying things you can do.
Last but not least, heat can be generated internally by your emotions. According to TCM, you should experience all of the emotions at the appropriate time and then move on. If you get stuck in a particular emotion, this trigger illness to occur.
In our modern world, so many people are under stress so much of the time. This means that heat can easily arise for emotional reasons. Stress is also known as a major cause of lupus flare-ups, so learning to manage this is crucial. Yoga, tai chi and meditation are all great ways to manage stress, and therapies such as massage and acupuncture can also help. Find a relaxation technique that works for you and make time to do it regularly.
By managing your stress levels, you will reducing your chances of developing internal heat and the lowering the risk of lupus flare-ups too.
The Long-Term Effects of Heat in the Body
If you have a heat toxin in your body for a long time, it can eventually begin to damage your organs and cause a multitude of problems. This is because your health relies on a delicate balance between yin and yang. Yang provides the warmth needed for all of your biological processes, and yin provides a cooling system to stop you from overheating.
If there is too much heat in your body, it can actually begin to damage your yin. In this situation yin is unable to balance out yang, and other problems may occur depending on which organs are being affected.
Kidney-yin deficiency is a common presentation in lupus patients from a TCM perspective. It causes symptoms such as:
- Low-grade fever
- Night sweats
- Hair loss
- Lower back pain
- Knee pain or weakness
- Menstrual irregularities
The Liver is responsible for the muscles and joints. It also plays an important role in the circulation of qi and blood. Symptoms of Liver-yin deficiency include:
- Muscle pain or numbness
- Joint pain
- Blurred vision
- Menstrual irregularities
The Heart plays an important role in the formation and circulation of blood. If heat affects the Heart channel, it can easily be passed onto the blood and spread around the muscles, skin and other organs. Some of the most common symptoms of Heart-yin deficiency include:
- Low-grade fever
- Night sweats
- Hot hands and feet
How do Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Help Lupus?
TCM and acupuncture can help with lupus in a number of different ways. The first treatment principle is to clear excess heat from the body. This can be done by using acupuncture, herbal prescriptions and making dietary and lifestyle changes as recommended by your practitioner.
If your condition has progressed to the yin deficiency stage, you will be given treatment to nourish your yin which will not only help the affected organ, but also assist in cooling any heat which is still present. Nourishing yin can benefit your blood and moisten dryness. Again, this can be done with acupuncture, herbs and lifestyle modifications.
Acupuncture and TCM can also help to reduce the likelihood of flare-ups by aiding relaxation, reducing stress and regulating the immune system. Acupuncture and massage techniques such as tui na can be used to relax the muscles to relieve stiffness and pain. These therapies can be used safely alongside your regular medication and should not cause any side-effects.
Lupus is a long-term health condition and the relief offered by acupuncture and TCM is limited to managing symptoms rather than reversing the disease itself. However, it does offer a gentle and natural way to stay on top of pain, relieve stress and reduce the risk of flare-ups.