Autoimmunity, Alopecia and Acupuncture Treatment
Autoimmune conditions often afflict the external physical structure of the body – the joints, skin, bones, blood vessels, muscles and hair. Inflammation coming from an “overactive” immune system can damage body tissues, creating degeneration. There are often symptoms of pain that also accompany the autoimmune process.
Autoimmunity is still a highly mysterious phenomenon, not completely understood by modern medicine. Most treatments consist of anti inflammatory and pain management pharmaceuticals that are used to alleviate symptoms. There is little understanding as to why autoimmunity occurs or how to stop it.
Acupuncture, when practiced in its classical form, is effective in treating autoimmune conditions. For centuries, Chinese Medicine has discussed theories as to why the body’s immune system seems to attack itself. The subject of inflammation and degeneration is one of the most commented subjects in the medicine.
Acupuncture has been a great help to people suffering from autoimmune conditions. It is highly effective in diminishing autoimmune symptoms. It is also helpful in explaining what is happening in the body, and possibilities as to why.
Alopecia is a condition where large bald spots appear on the head and face. It is thought to be an autoimmune condition, where the immune system attacks the hair follicles. Clumps of hair fall out. They usually grow back, but the problem repeatedly reappears elsewhere on the body.
Treating patients with Alopecia in my acupuncture clinic, I’ve noticed some interesting things. There seems to be a dysfunction within the Liver system in such cases. Chinese medical physiology describes that one of the roles of the Liver is to store blood. This stored blood is used to nourish and support structures of the body associated with the “Jing-essence.” Jing-Essence is a Chinese Medical term that encompasses hormones, menstrual blood and sexual fluids – all responsible for growth reproduction and maturity.
The Liver blood as it supports the “essence” also has a nourishing effect on such body structures as the bones, nails and hair – especially the hair on the head and face.
Acupuncturists are able to measure the physiological processes in the body through a patient’s radial pulse. As a diagnostic method, the pulse is measured in terms of its speed, width, tension, height and overall quality. There are six pulse positions that are measured on the wrist. Each position has six depths to it, allowing detailed readings into many aspects of the 12 major organ systems in the body.
In patients I’ve treated with Alopecia, I’ve noticed an overall tension in the pulse suggesting internal stagnation of blood and essence. This type of pulse is called a “constitutional pulse,” relating to an acupuncture channel called “the sea of blood.” The Chinese medical classics say the sea of blood is what distributes blood and essence into the face and head to create the sprouting of hair. Constitutional pulses often appear when an autoimmune or degenerative condition is active.
There are two major aspects to this constitutional pulse – a person can be “leaking” blood and essence, losing it in some way, which ultimately robs the tissues of their nourishment. In other cases, the blood and essence, which follow a normal pathway or flow, can become blocked, causing blood and fluids to stagnate and accumulate.
Any stagnation in the body will create inflammation; pressure is created from lack of movement, which develops into heat. Inflammation will eventually damage and consume the fluids and tissues of the body. Inflammation will also consume the “qi” of the organ systems – their functional capability. The Chinese medical terms for these processes are “Bi-obstruction” and “Wei-atrophy.”
Functional physiological processes get stuck through blockage, resulting in inflammation, tissue destruction and ultimately diminishment or loss of function. This is the degenerative process.
In the case of the Alopecia, it is the role of the “Sea of Blood” to carry the blood and essence up into the face and head to nourish hair growth. The channel relies upon blood that is stored by the Liver and converted into “essence” to fill its reservoir-like ditches.
The “Sea of Blood” itself is one of 8 special channels in the body that are seen as “ditches” and “reservoirs.” These 8 channels hold onto physiological resources like blood and fluids for use throughout the body. There must be a continual supply of blood-essence to nourish the body tissues regularly. Therefore the reservoir must be full. Motility and passage within the channel is also vital; it must be free flowing to ensure there is proper irrigation throughout the body. If either of these aspects of the “Sea of Blood” are faulty, the hair on the head and face will suffer.
If the reservoir is empty, from dysfunction in the Liver’s capacity to store blood, the hair on the face and head will wither and die from lack of nourishment. If there is blockage within the channel, heat will be created, which can burn the hair, also causing it to die.
There is another aspect to autoimmune and degenerative processes in the body. Classical Chinese medicine frequently discusses the body’s capacity to induce a state of “latency” when it is confronted by an overwhelming challenge. A virus for example that is too strong for the body to discharge can be made latent: the body tucks it away out of primary circulation where it will incubate and hide. While this process is not ideal, it essentially buys us time, protecting us in the present.
The body’s first priority is to maintain the daily function and flow of life. If the immune system cannot rid an invading factor, be it an agent like virus or bacteria, or even an overwhelming emotion, the body will take the challenging factor and put it into hiding in the body. The primary focus of the body can then go back to normal function. This is kind of like a process of repression. The challenging factor is still existing in the body, however it is repressed, out of conscious awareness. Common areas for the body to “hide” unresolved pathogens is in the joints, teeth and blood vessels- areas where autoimmune conditions seem to effect.
The reasoning given by Chinese medicine for why the immune system attacks its own tissues is that there is an agent hiding inside the tissues. Or the tissues are connected to other areas that are hiding unresolved pathogens. Inflammation comes from heat being vented from the stagnation-pressure. Even though we may not be aware of a lurking pathogen in our bodies, the immune system knows something is there, and continually tries to deal with it. However, resolution is unsuccessful because the flow of immune pathways is blocked. The blockage creates heat, and the heat damages the tissues.
When dealing with autoimmune conditions such as Alopecia, the strength of the patient’s immune system must be assessed. Sometimes stagnation has existed for such a long time that strength of the body’s systems has become weakened. This is often related to a leakage of blood, fluids and functional energy. The body lacks the ability to consolidate and safeguard its resources, losing them through excess fluid loss such as sweating, diarrhea, frequent urination, heavy periods, excessive semen loss. If the patient lacks strength, the body must be supported in consolidating its energy resources. To get rid of any lingering pathogen or unresolved issue, the body must have enough resources to purge with. Blood and fluids are the mediumship by which we detox – they carry out toxins. If there is weakness in the system, the first task in treatment is to reinstate the body’s consolidation capacity.
When the body is finally strong enough, treatment can focus on detox. The repressed, hidden, lurking issue can now be flushed out of the body. This process obviously requires care, direction and management. The body became stuck initially because it lost its way. As the healing team, myself as the acupuncturist and the patient must remind the body of its natural way. Sometimes we must show the body the road by which it can let go and release. Often this has a mental-emotional component to it. In my several years working with people, I’ve noticed physical symptoms are often tied to emotional situations in the patient’s life. When we work on resolving a chronic condition, especially one involving autoimmunity or degeneration, we must work through where the person feels stuck, where they felt they lost their way, how they feel disempowered. Often one cannot build up the energy of the immune and hormonal systems until a sense of personal power and volition has been restored. This is psycho-immunology.
Something that is effecting the constitutional level of the body – the immune system, hormonal system, reproductive system or bones can take some time to resolve. The constitutional level is the deepest energetic layer of the body. It is not easy to access, nor is it fast in unravelling. It is a process much like cultivating self-awareness. There is a level of consciousness that must be awakened. Sometimes we must reflect on how we got to the place where we now find ourselves -when we feel we got lost, when and how we feel we lost a sense of personal power. A process of rectification is often necessary in the healing process, especially when dealing with degradation and autoimmunity.