Autoimmune Disease and Women: Can Acupuncture both Prevent and Alleviate it?
According to an article on the CDC’s website, autoimmune disorders affect 5-8% of the population, and the vast majority, 78%, of the cases, affect women.
While Western medicine does not understand why this would be, acupuncture theory has some pretty good ideas…ideas which, if used in treatment, can not only prevent them from happening in the first place, but can effectively treat them once they are occurring.
Acupuncture, Yin Deficiency, and Auto-Immunity
Chinese Medicine believes that autoimmune diseases occur most commonly where there is Yin Deficiency. And what is Yin Deficiency, you ask? If you are a patient of mine, and in particular a menopausal woman, then you are very familiar with what this is.
Just like the western medicine idea of “homeostasis”, which basically just means the body needs to maintain itself within a short range on a scale for health and life to persist (ex. Temperature, insulin, blood sugar, etc), the Chinese have a similar concept of balance between Yin and Yang (Yang is pronounced like “ah” in father).
What ARE yin and yang?
It helps to have a breakdown of what yin and yang mean, so that you can see how they function within the body.
Yin is all the feminine qualities: cool, moist, passive, and restful.
Yang is the masculine qualities: hot, dry, aggressive, and restless.
Yin is also our actual tissues, fluids, and nourishment in our body; while Yang is the energy and functioning.
If we were a car, our Yin would be the body with all its parts, as well as the gas, fluids and oil; while the yang would be the functions of all the systems – the sparks in the engine that push the car forward, the movement of the windows as they roll up and down, etc. We will come back to this car analogy to help you understand other mechanisms of yin deficiency in next week’s blog.
Basically, we need to have a balance of both Yin and Yang so that during the day, our yang functions well and we have energy and zest; and during the night, the yin kicks in so that we can be relaxed and sleep. We also need a balance so that we are not too hot or cold.
These are very general examples…yin and yang actually function in all our organs and tissues, working together as a checks and balancing system so that no organ gets over or under-active and so we don’t start overproducing or underproducing new cells and tissues.
Menopausal women are acutely aware of their yin getting severely depleted during the menopausal years. Because yin is coolness, moisture, and restful energy, when it gets depleted they don’t have enough of any of these things, so they get hot, dry, and restless and agitated.
Men who are yin deficient will have similar symptoms with overheating, agitation, difficulty relaxing and sleeping, and profuse sweating. Because heat, or yang, rises, these are often accompanied by other symptoms of energy rising: high blood pressure, red face, too much energy in our head leading to ringing in the ears, dizziness, and headaches. In all cases, what we need to do is nourish the yin.
Characteristics of Auto-Immunity
But now let’s go back to autoimmune disorders. Many autoimmune disorders are characterized by inflammation, due to an overattacking by the immune system, of our body’s own tissues.
Usually, whenever something is OVER happening in the body, it is because the yin has gotten depleted, which allows the yang by default to overfunction and go on overdrive. Like a car engine when it is not tempered with oil and fluids, it overheats.
An immune system that is not tempered with enough yin will get out of hand and start attacking the body’s own tissues. Even worse, because our tissues comprise part of yin, as they get attacked our yin gets even more depleted and it becomes a vicious cycle. The damaged tissues create inflammation, which creates heat, which burns out our yin even more, which then continues the cycle of overfunctioning by our immune system, and it just goes on and on.
Of course, as our tissues get destroyed by the attack, they stop functioning, leading to the disease’s symptoms; and as more and more inflammation builds up, pain becomes chronic.
In some cases, such as Hashimotos, the deterioration of our thyroid gland will lead to cold rather than heat, meaning the yin deficiency which created the attack of tissues is now leading to an underfunctioning of the gland, which has now caused a yang deficiency, both of which need to be treated.
This all sounds very complicated, but for an acupuncturist, we see these imbalances occurring on some scale every day with every patient we see, not just those with autoimmune diseases. However, you can begin to see how these imbalances, which may just start off manifesting as normal symptoms separate from disease, can lead to an autoimmune reaction over time.
And we can also see how if we accept that our yin is usually depleted when autoimmune diseases to occur, then it makes sense that they would affect women much more than men, since woman are much more Yin by nature than men are.
Auto-Immunity and pathogenic infection?
It is now commonly believed by many in western medicine that autoimmune diseases begin with some sort of infection. This fits perfect with the Chinese belief of yin deficiency, since infection creates heat, and burns out our yin.
But by “infection”, functional doctors realize that it doesn’t have to mean a pathogen like a virus or bacteria, it can be ANY foreign invader that made it into our body. This relates to auto-immunity being triggered by digestive issues, such as foods that cause damage to our intestines and leak through the new holes in our gut, triggering our immune system into action and destroying our own body’s tissues that look molecularly similar to the offensive food.
When this happens, it’s called “leaky gut”, and leads to malabsorption of nutrients and systemic inflammation. Well, if yin is the nourishment in our body, and we strengthen it through our nutrition and a strong digestion, then you can see that this digestive impairment will also lead to yin deficiency.
Yin Deficiency & aging in China
In China, the classic 40 yr birthday gift is a tin of a medicinal herb called Gou Qi Zi. This herb nourishes the blood and yin and is given as an honorary gift marking a person’s passage of life into the age where it is understood by all there that the yin will start dramatically decreasing. It is a wish for good health in the coming years.
Similarly for us westerners, we can work to prevent autoimmune disorders by keeping our Yin nourished and abundant, which will also stave off many other annoying symptoms that have Yin deficiency at their root. And if we already have an autoimmune disease, we can greatly reduce, if not completely eliminate (yes, I DO see this often) our symptoms related to the illness, by keeping our yin full.
If you’d like help with an auto-immune condition or nourishing your yin, you can schedule an appointment by clicking the link below!