Dermatology and Traditional Oriental Medicine

By Shihan Mary Bolz
Licensed Acupuncturist
Master of Science Oriental Medicine
Master Martial Arts Instructor

Did you know that Traditional Oriental Medicine (TOM), which includes acupuncture and Chinese herbology, is quite successful at treating a variety of skin disorders? Even stubborn conditions such as eczema, acne, psoriasis and others. Most people have heard that conventional allopathic medicine (Western medicine) says there is no cure for psoriasis. While it may not be announced so boldly as curable in the Oriental medicine community, it is well known that it can be greatly helped and reduced with the Eastern medicine approach. Some people, after treatment, cease to have any problems at all.

We can see inscriptions on bones excavated from the Shang dynasty (c.1700-1100 B.C.) ruins in China that show characters describing skin conditions as early as the fourteenth century B.C. During the Zhou Dynasty (c.1100-221 B.C.) it was recognized that the occurrence and transmission of certain skin disorders was seasonal in nature. The ancient Chinese classic Zhou Anals contains descriptions of infectious skin diseases whose appearance coincided with specific seasons.

The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic is the representative medical work of this era. The Inner Classic is acknowledged as the cornerstone of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Through the centuries and the dynasties, the development of Chinese medicine and its specialties, including dermatology, has been dependent upon this book. The Inner Classic records a varietyof skin disorders. It describes miliarria, itching disorders, eczema, tinea, ulcers of the skin, warts and leprosy. The Inner Classic describes the signs and symptoms of skin diseases and also elaborates on their etiology and pathology.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views all disease according to the same fundamental premise: the body as a whole-all aspects of the patient must be assessed in order to fully understand a disorder. Skin diseases are viewed from the same perspective. Although their manifestations are external, their root causes are often complex and involve internal imbalances between yin and yang, deficiency or excess of Qi and blood, or dysfunction of the internal organs. The causes of disease are either internal, external or neither. However, even externallycaused disease is often seen as having an internal relationship. “When normal Qi is correct internally, harmful factors can not affect the body,” from Basic Questions, Chapter 33, an ancient Oriental medical text.

One of the basic internal causes is “injury of the seven emotions.” The seven emotions-elation, anger, worry, pensiveness, sadness, fear and terror, are psychological and physiological reactions to one’s surroundings. Each emotion has an organ with which it has a special affinity and relationship. Other internal causes are improper diet, imbalance of activity and leisure, and a natural intolerance. Natural intolerance means certain individuals are constitutionally sensitive to exposure to various factors. These disorders fall into two main categories: contact dermatitis and urticaria. Contact dermatitis is an allergic skin disorder caused by substances coming in contact with the skin. Urticaria is an allergic skin disorder due to an allergy to drugs, foods or beverages. There are also external causes. According to TCM, the external causes include: the six excesses, epidemics and pestilence, insects and parasites, and miscellaneous causes. The six excesses are: wind, cold, summer- heat, dampness, dryness and fire. Miscellaneous external causes include animal bites, cuts, abrasions, trauma and burns.

Wind is a significant factor in the etiology of skin disease. It is usually prevalent in the spring, but may arise during any season. Wind is a yang excess characterized by upward and outward nature, just like wind itself. Wind diseases usually affect the upper body first, such as the head and face. It moves around and changes. There is usually no predictable location for diseases caused by wind. Urticaria in Chinese is “wind-type concealed rash.” Wind diseases are rapid in onset and resolution. Internal wind is related to the liver. Cold is a yin excess that injures yang. Cold causes blood stasis and the stagnation of Qi (energy) in the body. It can cause pain and masses in the extremities as well as chronic open sores. Internal cold results generally from yang failure and Qi deficiency.

Summer heat is a yang excess which occurs during the summer months. It is upward-moving and spreading in nature, it causes the pores in the skin to open and causes sweating. Dampness is more prevalent in the summer, although it can occur throughout the year. It can also occur when a person is exposed to a damp or wet environment or to rain. Dampness has a heavy, sinking nature. Often the person will feel heavy and fatigued in the limbs. Internal dampness is often caused by dysfunction of the spleen. Dryness predominates during the autumn. It often enters through the nose and mouth, with the disorder starting in the lungs. There is warm-dryness and cool-dryness. Skin diseases due to dryness are generally of the warm-dryness type. Dryness consumes body fluids, causing the skin to crack easily. External pathogens can enter the body through the cracked skin and cause bacteria-induced conditions such as carbuncles or furuncles. Internal dryness is related to the lung.

Fire and heat arise from an excess of yang. Fire is often produced internally as the result of organ dysfunction or from overstimulation of the emotions. Fire-heat readily transforms into toxin, e.g. erysipelas of the head. Skin disease caused by fire are characterized by sudden or rapid onset, redness, and a burning sensation in the affected area, swelling, intense pain, purulence and necrosis. Internal fire is caused primarily by dysfunction of the organs or emotions. A TOM or TCM doctor will use the diagnostics that have been used through the ages to fully understand a disease and its effect on the body. The main four methods of diagnosis are looking, listening/smelling, asking and palpation. While these may sound simple, it is really quite a complex and sophisticated method of paying attention to and understanding the signs and symptoms manifested by the patient. Appearance of the skin, overall appearance of the patient, the appearance of the tongue (especially tongue diagnosis is quite extensive and reliable) are all important. Of course, asking the patient about their physical functions and health, their occupation, their medical history, and palpation are important. Two categories of palpation are utilized in the diagnosis of skin disorders: palpation of the radial pulses and palpation of the affected dermal area. Palpation of the radial pulses will help the practitioner ascertain the level of the disease, the dynamics of the factor of excess or deficiency, the strength of the normal Qi and the organs most affected or causing the disorder. Palpation of the locally affected area is to confirm and focus the diagnosis and helps differentiate between excess and deficiency, heat and cold. A thorough examination will take a good hour of time for the patient and practitioner, typically. In some disorders of the skin, the internal organs are debilitated much as they are in the degenerative diseases. In other cases, the organs are relatively healthy. No matter what the case, excesses such as dampness, heat or wind are typically present. Most skin diseases result to a large degree from faulty fat metabolism. Foods rich in omega-3 and GLA fatty acids help remedy this. Sesame seeds, especially black sesame seeds, are rich in oleic fatty acids and are of benefit. Unrefined sesame oil is the oil of choice and can be used moderately as a salad or cooking oil. The beta-carotene/pro vitamin A foods are beneficial in the treatment of skin diseases, particularly if the condition is of an inflammatory nature. Yellow and green beta-carotene foods to emphasize includes carrots, winter squash, kabocha, pumpkin, leafy greens such as dandelion greens, beet greens, spinach, kale, chard and watercress. The deep blue-green micro-algae such as spirulina and wild blue-green are also beneficial. All greens are rich in chlorophyl, which purifies the blood of the toxins that cause skin eruptions. Seaweed, (or sea vegetables), because of the cooling,, detoxifying nature, are recommended for regular use. Other foods which can be eaten freely are mung beans, azuki beans, and unpeeled organic cucumber slices. Alfalfa and soy sprouts are also very good for acne. Eliminate foods which are spicy, fatty, or greasy and avoid all sweets, citrus fruits and certain fish such as oysters, herring, and shrimp.

Since skin conditions reside on the exterior of the body, diaphoresis (sweating) is useful to encourage elimination of toxins through the pores. Though the vitality of the skin is related to the lungs, eruptions surface because of faulty blood cleansing by the kidneys and liver. These two organs purify the blood and when they are overburdened, toxins in the blood are excreted through the skin. To purify the blood, one can emphasize the chlorophyll-rich foods mentioned previously. In addition, you may want to use some blood-purifying herbs from your own lawn and garden: dandelion root, pansy flowers, burdock root, red clover blossoms and horehound leaves. These herbs cleanse and cool heat toxins and dry damp, mucoid accumulations in the blood and lymph system. A diet of primarily whole grains, land vegetables, sea vegetables, legumes, sprouts, herbs, omega-3 and GLA foods and oils and only small amounts of spices is besr. Too much fat and refined foods cause a lot of skin conditions.

The skin is like an open book, the vast majority of information is there to be deciphered by those who can read the language. By closely observing the morphology of the skin condition, getting proper information from the patient and understanding the signs of the pulse and tongue, the symptoms of the patient and good clinical skills, the Oriental medicine practitioner can help skin conditions tremendously when allopathic medicine seems to have failed. It is important to rely on a professional for the proper herbal formulas and acupuncture treatments. Chinese herbal formulas, when properly given and taken can work wonders.

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