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Written by
Taylor Foster
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Anshul Gupta

At one time or another, you may have turned to alternative medicine looking for answers when it seemed the medical system was unable to give you the relief you were looking for. Whether you’re looking to take a more holistic approach to symptom management in addition to conventional medicine, are experiencing adverse side effects of immunosuppressive drugs, or medication hasn’t been effective, then traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) may be for you.

We know that autoimmune disorders affect every body differently, and we know they can be debilitating and costly to treat as well. Most autoimmune disorders do not have just one cause, but instead are a combination of genetic and environmental triggers that make you more susceptible to developing an autoimmune disease. There are many conventional and alternative treatment options you can turn to when looking to manage your autoimmune disease symptoms. Traditional Chinese medicine may be an effective option to make you more comfortable, or even put your symptoms into remission. (Source, Source)

In this article, we’ll get to the bottom of what traditional Chinese medicine is and what it entails, and how this method of care may be utilized to help manage autoimmune disorders.

What Is Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), including remedies such as acupuncture, tai chi, herbal supplements, moxibustion, cupping, and massage, has been practiced for thousands of years and truly hasn’t diverged much from its origins. Chinese medicine uses psychological and physiological approaches to address and correct underlying imbalances that have had or are having a negative impact on your health. Rooted in traditional methods that have been passed down through generations, TCM is an alternative and useful approach you could seamlessly add into your diet and lifestyle regimen to improve and manage your autoimmune symptoms. (Source)

tincture bottles of herbs

How Does Chinese Medicine Help?

According to TCM, imbalance in the body can lead to disease. To obtain balance and sustain optimal health there must not be stagnant qi (often romanized as “chi”), which they define as the life source of energy that connects all things in the universe. It is believed that imbalances in the body — referred to as qi deficiency or qi excess — can be corrected by balancing yin and yang to treat illness and disease. Understanding the balance of yin and yang according to TCM is important in maintaining qi. Yin and yang are the opposite and complementary forces of qi that play off each other, with one unable to exist without the other. Balancing yin and yang is a bit like a see-saw: You cannot have one side go up without the other side going down. (Source, Source)

What is Qi in Chinese Medicine?

In Chinese medicine, not having adequate amounts of this vital energy is called qi deficiency. This can result from many factors, such as lack of sleep, food, shelter, fresh outdoor air, or anything we need to survive and thrive as humans. Chinese medicine believes qi deficiency can also stem from not having enough stimulation and interaction mentally and socially, as well as not receiving the love we need to feel whole and balanced from the inside out. (Source)

In contrast, qi excess simply means having too much of this energy. Qi excess can be just as damaging, if not more so, than qi deficiency. This condition of excess can result from environmental toxins such as polluted air or water, as well as internal toxins such as overeating, too much physical activity, stress, and strong negative emotions that affect your health from the inside out. (Source)

In order to avoid this imbalance of qi and the disharmony of yin and yang, you must maintain a healthy balance of your emotions. We know emotions, especially stress, play a large role in developing and managing autoimmune disease symptoms. Think about some of the symptoms an autoimmune diagnosis may bring: trouble sleeping, joint pain with stiffness and possible function loss, muscle aches, fatigue, and more. Chinese medicine would manage these symptoms by addressing the emotional imbalance that is tied to the symptom and associated organ. (Source)

a woman with her eyes closed facing the sun

Emotions and Chinese Medicine

It is believed in TCM that emotions are tied in and connected to how our organs function. Specific organs are associated with specific emotions, and if emotions are chronically over-stimulated your qi is likely to become imbalanced. Studies have shown that 80% of those affected with autoimmune disease reported excess stress before disease onset.

We know that stress stems from our emotions, and Chinese medicine supports the emotions of the patient by targeting the organ that is affected by stress. Examples of this emotion-organ connection include fear and the kidneys, worry and the stomach, and stress and the liver. Experiencing these negative emotions chronically will deplete organ function resulting in imbalance of qi. (Source, Source)

Chinese Medicine Remedies

four acupuncture needles in a shoulder

Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves inserting very thin, long needles into trigger points on top of the skin to target specific meridians, or energy channels, and unblock stagnant qi, or unmoving energy. In addition to the use of needles, the practitioner may also advise on nutrition and lifestyle practices to better impact your overall health and wellness. (Source)

Tai Chi

Tai chi is a traditional form of movement that comes from ancient Chinese practices. This form of exercise first started out as an ancient practice of martial arts. More recently, Tai chi has evolved into a way of maintaining mental health through the physical act of deep breathing, slow and gentle movements, and meditation. (Source)

dried flowers and herbs in a mortar and pestle

Herbal Supplements

Traditional Chinese herbs are used to address illness and disease to balance a person’s qi and treat the excess or deficiency accordingly. There are hundreds of herbal therapies used in TCM, and herbal treatment is determined and chosen to manage the specific symptoms you are experiencing. (Source)  

Moxibustion

Moxibustion is an external practice in TCM to tone and purge the blood via wool and fire. This is accomplished by burning moxa wool over a target meridian on the body, and it can be indirect or direct. If indirect, the wool is simply held over your skin in the area of the targeted meridian. With direct moxibustion, the wool is placed on your skin enough for you to feel the warmth and heat. A study done in China from 1964 to 2007 showed that moxibustion had been used to support 364 types of diseases. This type of therapy is used specifically to address symptoms of diarrhea, asthma, weakness, and fatigue that may be associated with an autoimmune diagnosis. (Source, Source)

Cupping

Cupping involves suctioning glass, ceramic, bamboo, or plastic on the skin in targeted places where there is pain, such as the shoulders and back. When the cups are placed appropriately they may be kept there by removing the air and applying a flame to the top, or attaching devices that keep them suctioned to the skin. Cupping does leave temporary marks but should not cause pain. (Source)

Massage

Massage used in TCM is referred to as Thai or shiatsu massage. Thai massage may involve some principles of yoga as well as applied herbal medicine compresses. Shiatsu massage targets acupressure points of the body and applies pressure accordingly to treat ailments. (Source, Source)

brown glass bottles of essential oil

Is Chinese Medicine Safe?

Chinese medicine has been studied over the years for its safety, but as with all forms of medicine, there is some risk. The use of medicinal herbs to support the body is a huge piece of TCM. Some herbal treatments may interfere with prescribed medications, reducing their effectiveness or, in some cases, causing a reaction between the two. Finding practitioners who will work together to meet your goals is important in safely managing your autoimmune disorder via several methods. (Source)

Some safety issues have arisen with TCM in terms of herbs being contaminated with drugs, heavy metals, pesticides, and sulfites. Contaminated herbs could cause drug interactions as previously mentioned, as well as allergic or asthmatic reactions, and possible organ damage if incorrect herbs are prescribed. (Source)

Safety issues with acupuncture are uncommon, but there are risks associated here as well. Non-sterile needles along with improper technique and or placement of needles could result in infection, punctured organs, collapsed lungs, and possible central nervous system injury. Although adverse effects from acupuncture are not common, you can reduce your risk by finding a well-trained and certified TCM practitioner with credentials in your area. The right practitioner is key to having a positive experience in treating your autoimmune disorder with TCM. (Source)

Finding a Chinese Medicine Practitioner

If you are considering using Chinese medicine to manage your autoimmune disorder, consult your regular practitioner and any additional specialists in your care team to help ensure it’s all hands on deck in terms of your autoimmune care plan. To formulate an effective care plan that is just right for you and complements your other healing methods, be sure to seek out flexible and knowledgeable practitioners who will keep you accountable to work towards your autoimmune health goals.

When searching for a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, it is important to know that they will just be one of the multiple expert practitioners that can be part of your care team. A comprehensive autoimmune care team can also include a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and health coach. Learn how WellTheory may be the right next step for you to build a comprehensive autoimmune care team.

The Bottom Line on Chinese Medicine and Autoimmune Disease

Traditional Chinese medicine can be safely used in conjunction with conventional methods of treatment, but should not be used in place of your preexisting autoimmune care. Always inform your practitioner(s) of all treatments you may be utilizing so they can safely guide you through a cohesive and effective plan to manage your autoimmune disorder.

Traditional Chinese medicine offers many options to help manage your autoimmune symptoms and improve your quality of life by rebalancing your system from the inside out. If you think you might benefit from traditional Chinese medicine methods and a nutrition and lifestyle approach to healing, speak to your practitioner about how you can add natural remedies to what you’re already doing. If you need support in managing your autoimmune disorder through nutrition and lifestyle changes, working with a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner at WellTheory can help.

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Medically Reviwed
Written by
Taylor Foster
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Anshul Gupta
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