Diabetes in Traditional Chinese Medicine
In modern day Chinese medicine, diabetes is known as Tang Niao Bing, literally meaning “sugar urine disease.” However, the more traditional name is Xiao Ke, meaning “wasting and thirsting.” It is this traditional name which gives us some clues as to how diabetes is viewed from a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) point of view.
Xiao Ke is seen as affecting organs in the upper, middle and lower parts of the body. In the upper part, the Lungs are affected, causing excessive thirst. In the middle part, the Stomach and Spleen are affected causing excessive hunger. Finally, in the lower part, the Kidneys are affected, causing excessive urination.
Type I and Type II Diabetes in Traditional Chinese Medicine
It is important to distinguish between type I and type II diabetes as the underlying causes are quite different. Type II diabetes is more common and affects people later in life, usually as a result of a poor diet and excessive weight gain. Type I diabetes, on the other hand, is more uncommon. It usually develops during childhood or the teenage years, and is a result of an autoimmune disorder.
In TCM, both type I and type II diabetes are seen as a type of yin deficiency combined with internal heat and dryness.
In type II diabetes, this comes from a diet rich in sweet or fatty foods causing heat in the Stomach and Spleen, the primary digestive organs. Over time, this heat leads to dryness and yin deficiency of the closely related Lungs and Kidneys too.
In type I diabetes, diet is not the primary cause. Because this condition mainly affects younger people, it is thought that it must stem from an inherited constitutional weakness. This is because younger patients have not yet had the chance to establish bad habits which would cause issues later on in life.
According to TCM, our inherited constitution relies on the state of something known as jing, or “essence.” It is responsible for growth and development, puberty, and the aging process. Jing is passed on to us from our parents, and we then have the opportunity to preserve or deplete it, depending on the lifestyle we choose. If we have plentiful jing, we will be healthy and strong, but if it is insufficient, we will be weak and prone to disease.
Jing is stored by the Kidneys and is seen as being fluid, and therefore yin, in nature. There is a great deal of crossover between jing and Kidney-yin, so when one is deficient, the other is usually affected too. If jing and Kidney-yin are insufficient, then the entire body can become overheated, leading to further yin deficiency, dryness, and the symptoms of diabetes. Click here for a great intro to the concepts of yin and yang if you are not already familiar.
Type I Diabetes and Autoimmune Disorders in Traditional Chinese Medicine
The other possible cause of type I diabetes in TCM is invasion by an exterior pathogen. This pathogen may be allowed to enter the body when its defences are low, causing an acute infection such as a cold or flu. Under normal circumstances, our bodies are able to fight these invaders off easily. However, if your immune systems is weak, they can become deeply lodged and cause a whole host of problems.
In TCM, immunity is governed by the Lungs. They are responsible for forming a barrier between the inside of our bodies and the outside world. The Lungs are also responsible for circulating defensive qi around the body surface, keeping pathogens at bay.
Autoimmune diseases are usually seen as stemming from a weakness in the Lungs. A pathogen enters, and when the Lungs are unable to expel it, it begins to affect the other organs one by one. This explains why autoimmune disorders are often triggered by an illness or infection, and also why type I diabetes may develop in adults as well as younger people.
There are many different types of pathogens which can cause different symptoms within the body. In the case of diabetes, a heat pathogen causes the Lungs to become hot and dry. This leads to yin deficiency which can then spread to the Kidneys, Stomach, and Spleen.
The Symptoms of Diabetes in Traditional Chinese Medicine
The primary symptoms of type I diabetes all result from yin deficiency and an excess of heat and dryness within the body. They are sometimes known as “three excesses and one loss” - excessive thirst, hunger and urination, accompanied by weight loss.
Other symptoms of yin deficiency that may affect people with diabetes include:
- Dry throat and mouth
- Restlessness or irritability
- Hot hands, feet and chest
- Night sweats
Complications of Diabetes in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Yin and yang are closely related to one another, with yang being function and yin being fuel. A good analogy for this is an oil lamp. The oil is yin, providing fuel for the yang energy of the flame. If the oil in the lamp gets too low, eventually the flame will go out. So when yin is deficient for a long time, yang eventually becomes deficient too.
Blood is yin and qi is yang. So when yin and yang are deficient, these vital substances can become depleted too. This can result in a wide variety of symptoms throughout the entire body, as can happen in advanced diabetes or when blood sugar is poorly controlled.
Let’s take a look at these complications and how they fit in with the TCM explanation of type I diabetes.
The symptoms of nerve pain, tingling or numbness can be attributed to a deficiency of yin, yang, qi, or blood. Sometimes a combination of all four.
When there is not enough blood to flow properly in the vessels, or when there is not enough qi to propel it along, blood can become sluggish and stagnant. Blood stasis is a common condition in diabetes, resulting in poor circulation and delayed healing.
Diabetics must take care to avoid foot problems such as sores, swelling, numbness and pain. In TCM terms, these conditions are primarily caused by blood stasis. In the case of sores or unhealed wounds, there may also be some toxic heat present.
The Spleen and Kidneys are responsible for processing and excreting water. When they are weakened and unable to function well, this can lead to symptoms such as swelling and edema.
In TCM, the eyes are said to be nourished by the Liver. The Liver is directly connected to the Kidneys through the five element cycle. This means that when Kidneys become yin deficient, it is easy for the Liver to follow suit. Liver-yin and blood deficiency can lead to visual disturbances and blindness, as is the case in diabetic retinopathy.
From a TCM perspective, the reason why diabetics are more at risk from heart attacks and strokes is something called phlegm. When the Spleen is not transforming fluids as it should, excess dampness begins to collect in the body. When this is “cooked” by the heat caused by yin-deficiency, it thickens into phlegm. Phlegm is sticky, and collects in the channels causing blockages. In one sense it could be compared to the plaques that form in arteries in cardiovascular disease.
Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture for Type I Diabetes
There is no substitute for a healthy, balanced diet for keeping diabetes under control. However, acupuncture and herbs can also help in a number of ways.
As these treatments always aim to address the root cause of a disease, the first treatment principle will be to treat the underlying yin deficiency and clear away excess heat. Any other symptoms such as neuropathy can be addressed at the same time.
Acupuncture can also help to control blood glucose and regulate certain hormones, reducing the risk of complications arising. It also benefits the circulation of blood and qi to promote faster healing, and relieve pain and neuropathy.