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Chinese Herbal Medicine and Auto-Immunity

The ancient Chinese medical practitioners were very proficient at tracking case outcomes over time; this led to long clinical histories in treating various symptom pictures that are now identified in the West as named disorders. One example of this is autoimmune disease. In Traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners consider that autoimmune diseases may be triggered by a deficiency related to a loss of the cellular identity or inherent controls that the immune system needs to prevent action against self, which echoes our current Western understanding.

Chinese practitioners traditionally used herbs in distinct therapeutic categories to treat the symptoms of autoimmune conditions.

  • The first is the tonics, which contain strengthening herbs that can be taken safely long-term.
  • Another is the toxin clearing herbs, which decrease inflammatory mediators in the blood as well as organisms which may trigger the immune system.
  • Lastly, both blood-activating and blood-building herbs are used in this indication to modulate the immune system.

It is interesting to note that in TCM (Traditional Chinese medicine), the tonic herbs are known to stimulate the immune system and are still used for autoimmunity; this is in direct contrast to Western herbal approach where immune activating herbs are avoided and instead treatment focuses on suppressing immune activity. Apparently, Traditional Chinese herbal practitioners were trying to utilize tonic herbs to access a set point for the immune system which would provide an adaptogenic control (nonspecific enhancement of the body’s ability to resist a stressor) mechanism to balance the immune system whether it was hyper- or hypo-active.

Examples of herbs in these therapeutic categories are many. The tonic herbs which replenish the energy of the body and support normal functioning of the immune system include astragalus, ganoderma, codonopsis, atractylodes, ginseng and dioscorea. Herbs which nourish the blood and strengthen the essence (essence is the strength to maintain cellular identity) are ligustrum, rhemannia, Iycium fruit and ho-show-wu. Some blood-activating herbs are cistanche, epirnediurn, eucommia and cuscuta. The toxin-clearing herbs are long dan cao (gentian), huang qin (scutellaria), huang bai (phellodendron), and huang lian (coptis). A general strategy for treating autoimmune conditions would be to start with a tonic formula such as Jin Suo Gu Jing Wan or Gui Pi Tang. This would be followed with a toxin-clearing formula that will cool the blood, such a Qing Ying Tang, and then therapy would be completed with a blood-activating formula, such as You Gui Wan.


Tags: Chinese Herbal Medicine, Auto-Immunity, TCM,