Acne, eczema, psoriasis, allergic dermatitis, rosacea – these are just some of the skin conditions that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can treat. Acupuncture, gua sha, Chinese herbs (topical and internal), and nutrition can all help heal your skin from the inside out.
In TCM, we diagnose and treat skin conditions – not by their Western name, but by first looking at the underlying cause. The cause of one person’s acne may differ greatly from another’s, and it’s essential to treat the imbalance to achieve both immediate and lasting results. Alternatively, if one patient has a TCM ‘damp-heat’ condition, they could potentially present with Western symptoms of acne, psoriasis, or eczema. Even though these conditions may look different, they may have the same cause.
While TCM may seem complex and foreign, getting familiar with some of the terminology can offer a glimpse into the art and science of TCM’s root-branch medicine theory. This medical approach aims to treat the underlying cause (root) of the outward symptoms (branch) to achieve lasting results – both inside and out.
To illustrate this concept and offer a deeper grasp of how TCM tackles skin conditions, here are a few examples of common symptoms and their TCM diagnoses.
Symptom: Psoriasis in children, with pale red, white and thick scales with some itching.
TCM diagnosis: ‘Wind-cold’ caused by cold weather, food, and allergens.
Symptom: Psoriasis, with pale red, moist with scales.
TCM diagnosis: ‘Wind-dryness’ typically more severe in autumn or in dry climates.
Symptom: Acne, with itchy whiteheads or blackheads generally in forehead and nose.
TCM diagnosis: ‘Lung heat’ that exacerbates heat in the lungs, skin and tissues.
Symptom: Whiteheads and blackheads around mouth, chest and upper back, often presenting with oily skin.
TCM diagnosis: ‘Stomach heat’ which may be caused by high fat, fried or spicy foods, or foods that we’re sensitive or allergic to or that we’ve overindulged in (like alcohol and spicy foods).
Symptom: Red, raised bumps that spread quickly with intense itching. It may also look like scattered red around nose and mouth and spider veins on the cheeks.
TCM diagnosis: ‘Blood heat’ coming from emotional disturbance and stuck Qi. This turns into heat, enters the blood level and gets lodged in the skin and tissues. It can also be due to disharmony of “Chong and Ren channels” (hormonal). This condition tends to be more severe in the summer or hot climates.
Symptom: Dark red, greasy and/or with greasy or thick crust-like scales as in psoriasis.
TCM diagnosis: ‘Damp-heat’
Symptom: Inflamed, painful pustules.
TCM diagnosis: ‘Fire or Heat toxin’ – Lung or Stomach heat combining with external toxins to form lesions.
Now that we have an idea of why each condition needs a tailored treatment approach, what can you do now to help heal your skin?
Environmental Do’s & Don’ts
Don’t pick at skin, don’t scratch or intentionally open wounds.
Do try to make sure whatever touches your skin is CLEAN – your hands, your cellphone, your jewelry. If possible, use earbuds when on the phone.
Consider that beauty products themselves can cause skin problems. If you have an unusual breakout of any kind, consider what you’ve recently changed – soap, sunscreen, shampoo, jewelry, cosmetics, plants, etc. See Kirsten Cowan’s articles about Putting your Skin on a Detox Regimen and Three Ingredients to Avoid. Be sure to check out Angelica & Peony’s facial serums.
You might have guessed this was coming.
Acupuncturist and Herbalist Jeffrey Yuen talks about the 4 whites: sugar, white flour, dairy (cow), salt. These are the four biggest culprits causing inflammation in the body. Inflammation can cause skin problems as well as pain. So to start, you’ll want to limit these. I don’t tell people to eliminate these from their diet all together forever, but you can try taking them out of your diet and then reintroducing them one by one and see how they affect your body.
There are other foods to add and limit in your diet if you have oily and problem skin, or if you have dry skin. For oily and problem skin, we’re looking at limiting foods that cause Dampness in the body. For dry skin, we’re looking at foods that help nourish Blood and Yin (body fluids):
Two Great Recipes to Heal Your Skin
This is simply one of the most nutritious foods available and is very healing for the digestive tract. The collagen from the bones helps the elasticity and strength of our skin. Sure, you can buy this at the health food store, or even from a bone broth delivery service, but it’s so easy and much cheaper to make it yourself. The following recipe is from Real Food All Year: Eating Seasonal Whole Foods for Optimal Health & All-Day Energy by Nishanga Bliss. She advises getting fresh bones from the butcher, or saving bones from meals in the freezer.
Makes about 4 quarts
1 pound of more of fresh, meaty bones such as oxtail or shank, or 1 quart of more leftover beef, lamb, or pork bones
1 tablespoon lard or bacon grease (if using fresh bones)
1 pound or more beef soup bones (marrowbones)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
If you are using fresh bones, heat a cast-iron or other heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the fat and, when it is melted, add the bones, browning well on all sides; this will take about 20 minutes. Combine the browned bones with the soup bones and vinegar in a large stockpot or slow cooker, and add filtered water to cover. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce the heat to a very slow simmer. Simmer for 36 to 48 hours.
If you are using leftover bones, combine them with the soup bones and vinegar, and filtered water to cover, in a large stockpot or slow cooker. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce the heat to a very slow simmer. Simmer for 36 to 48 hours.
Allow the stock to cool, and strain before using in a recipe or freezing.
Pumpkin Aduki Bean Stew
The recipe is from Recipes for Self-Healing by Daverick Leggett. He writes “This stew nourishes the Kidney and Spleen and helps to drain dampness. The aduki beans strengthen the Kidney Qi and Yin and have a diuretic action; the squash nourishes the Spleen Qi.” Note: while the recipe calls for vegetable stock, you could also use bone broth from the above recipe.
12 ounces of aduki beans
2 strips kombu seaweed
1 small pumpkin or butternut/acorn squash
6 cups vegetable stock
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon honey
Soak the aduki beans overnight, rinse well then cook them in twice their volume of water with the kombu until they are soft.
Chop the squash fairly small, removing the seeds, and cook in the vegetable stock until soft.
When both the aduki beans and the pumpkin are ready, combine them with the soy sauce, ginger and salt and simmer slowly with the lid off until the liquid has been reduced by half. Add the honey at the end, letting it blend in for a while without allowing the stew to boil, and season with freshly ground pepper.
It’s a lot to take in, but with a little help from Traditional Chinese Medicine and some self-care, you’ll be well on your way to vibrant, healthy skin.