Acne is a problem which is often associated with teenagers, but in reality it can often affect adults too. This skin condition can be frustrating and embarrassing, not to mention painful!
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) philosophy, acne is caused by a build-up of dampness and heat within the body, and the only way to treat this external disease is by addressing the underlying, internal cause.
The Skin is the Third Lung
In TCM, the skin is seen as an extension of the Lung system. Both the skin and the Lungs have similar functions in TCM. They form a barrier between the internal organs and the outside world, protect you from infections, and allow waste and toxins to be excreted from the body.
Just as the Lungs inflate and deflate as you breathe in and out, the pores in your skin open and close to regulate your body temperature and fluid balance. Sweating is seen as part of the Lungs’ function in TCM, and the Lungs themselves need to be kept moist, but not wet, in order to function properly.
If too much fluid collects in the Lungs, this can lead to respiratory symptoms such as a productive cough or shortness of breath, but also symptoms on the skin such as acne.
In acne, an excess of dampness collects under the skin and forms pimples and pustules. As your body tries to disperse this dampness, it generates heat, which leads the skin to become red, inflamed, and sore.
For this reason, it may not be enough to use topical creams and gels to get rid of your acne. In TCM, it is considered vital to restore balance to the Lung system too. This means that treatment with TCM and acupuncture may be slower to progress, but you will be treating your acne from the inside, out.
Where does Dampness Come From?
Your body can become too damp for a number of reasons. Some people are just genetically more prone to dampness than others. Another cause of dampness is living in damp conditions or a very wet climate. The final, and most common, cause of excess dampness stems from a poor diet.
In TCM, the digestion of food is controlled by the Stomach and Spleen. These two organs belong to the earth element in the five element cycle. Earth is the mother of metal (think of rich ores forming deep beneath the ground), and metal governs the Lungs and Large Intestine. Therefore, any disharmony of the Stomach and Spleen can easily affect the Lungs and Large Intestine too, and this relationship is often at the root cause of acne. Click here for a more thorough explanation of the five elements.
Foods such as dairy products, refined sugars, fatty foods, and cold or raw foods are difficult to digest and put a strain on the Spleen. This means that it is unable to break down and process nutrients and fluids as it should.
An overworked Spleen can lead to an accumulation of dampness which starts in the digestive organs, but can quickly spread to the Lungs through their close connection with this organ. In our modern world, many of us eat diets which contain too many damp-forming foods. This is one reason why acne is so prevalent, especially in younger people who may not have the time or the knowledge to eat a properly balanced diet.
Phlegm – A Sticky Situation
When an excess of dampness collects in your body, it also generates heat as your organs struggle to cope in more challenging conditions. Unfortunately, this heat has the effect of making the excess fluids thicker and more concentrated, much like a soup thickens if you leave it on the stove-top too long.
This process turns dampness into phlegm, a sticky substance which can pool together to form lumps, bumps, cysts and pus-filled white heads. One good example of phlegm affecting the body in this way is the condition PCOS, in which phlegm can cause cysts on the ovaries as well as acne on the skin.
As well as causing lumps and swellings, phlegm also blocks the channels, making it more difficult for qi and blood to circulate as they should. This blockage leads to stagnation, which can further contribute to the symptoms of acne as well as other issues such as pain, menstrual irregularities, and digestive problems.
Draining the Dregs – The Role of the Large Intestine
As previously mentioned, the Lungs and the Large Intestine are partners in the five element cycle, governed by the metal element. At a glance, these two organs may not seem to have much in common, but they both play an important role in the excretion of waste products. The Lungs get rid of carbon dioxide gas, the waste product of respiration, and the Large Intestine gets rid of waste from the digestive process.
If the Large Intestine becomes dysfunctional, it cannot expel waste efficiently, and toxins begin to build up inside the body. Because of the Large Intestine’s close relationship to the Lungs, these toxins can easily manifest on the skin as spots and blemishes.
If you are suffering from acne and also tend to get constipated, it is likely that an imbalanced Large Intestine is to blame. If this is the case, you will probably find that treating your constipation will help with your acne too.
Ensure that you eat plenty of fiber and drink enough water in order to keep your bowels regular. It is best to open your bowels every day, and in TCM, it considered best to do this in the early morning.
Staying active is another natural way to ease the symptoms of constipation, so increase the amount of exercise you do if necessary. If you still have trouble opening your bowels on a daily basis, acupuncture and herbs may also help.
Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture for Acne
Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can help with acne in several different ways. Firstly, they work by addressing the root cause of the acne by improving the functions of the Lungs, Large Intestine, Stomach and Spleen.
Secondly, any dampness, heat, and phlegm which has built up in your system will need to be dispersed, so that your body is free from these harmful substances. Your acupuncture provider will give you dietary advice which is appropriate for your individual condition so that you can eliminate any external factors which may be contributing to your acne.
Finally, local acupuncture in the affected area can help to relieve inflammation and reduce redness, while improving the circulation to the skin.
Acupuncture is not a quick fix for acne, and you may need a number of sessions before you see a big difference. However, unlike acne creams, acupuncture is dealing with the root cause of the acne and not just the symptoms.
If you are taking antibiotics for acne, it best to stop these one or two months before starting your acupuncture treatment. This is because when you come off these antibiotics, your acne is likely to flare up, and your first few acupuncture treatments may be wasted trying to deal with this irritating side effect.
Talk to your physician about how to stop taking your antibiotics safely, and in the meantime, try these simple suggestions to keep your acne at bay:
- Exercise regularly to improve circulation, keep the pores open, and promote sweating
- Use light, natural cosmetics and remove them properly at the end of the day
- Steam your face using a hot flannel for a few minutes morning and night
- Avoid damp-forming foods such as dairy, sugar, fried food, and raw or cold food
- Eat more fruit and vegetables, high-fiber cereals and whole grains to avoid constipation
- Drink warm water throughout the day
By making these few simple lifestyle adjustments, you may find that your acne gets significantly better by itself. And if you need a little extra help, ask your acupuncturist for further advice.