Many of us have had a skin complaint of some kind during our life time. The most common complaints include acne, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. For some they can be a minor and mostly temporary irritation, for others they can be chronic in nature and have a serious effect on our quality of life. Apart from causing pain and discomfort, many skin conditions can also affect our level of self confidence, particularly when highly visible areas such as the face are affected.
Many skin conditions are a reflection of what is going on inside our bodies and while pharmaceutical drugs, topical applications and cosmetic procedures can sometimes provide temporary relief, it is important to treat the underlying cause. Chinese medicine has a long history of treating both the symptoms and underlying causes of many common skin complaints.
Eczema, also known as Atopic Dermatitis, is characterised by red, itchy and dry skin, usually found at the creases of the elbows, behind the knees and across the ankles. It may also affect the face, ears and neck. While eczema is very common in infants and children and usually improves with age, it can also affect people in their adult years. Eczema is rapidly rising in Australia, with as many as one on four children developing the disease before the age of 2. Only 50 years ago, the figure was just 10%. Now Australia has one of the highest rates of eczema in the world! So what’s the cause you say? There are likely to be many. Diet, lifestyle and excessive hygiene are a few. The resulting changes in our gut bacteria are now understood to be part of this picture of imbalance and sensitisation which can lead to eczema.
For anyone who has eczema, they will know all too well that it is rather poorly treated by modern medicine. This is because the disease has a complex internal cause and topical applications alone are usually not adequate. The effective treatment of eczema is especially important as it is now known that the damaged and inflamed skin can allow the passage of allergens. This can then sensitise the immune system to other things such as foods, pollen and dust mites. A vicious cycle of allergies and intolerances can then ensue.
Chinese medicine can very useful in treating this often chronic skin condition and preventing further complications. Both herbal medicine and acupuncture are often used and when combined with nutritional and environmental medicine, significant improvements in symptoms can be acheived.
Acne is a very common skin condition that usually begins in adolescence. The hair follicle and its associated oil (sebaceous) gland become blocked and inflamed resulting in spots and painful bumps on the skin. Acne most commonly affects the face, neck and back.
While many people experience acne in their teenage years, some people continue to have outbreaks throughout their adult life. There is evidence to suggest that there is a worldwide increase in acne affecting adult women in particular. As with so many modern diseases, stress, diet and lifestyle factors can all be attributed to this increasing prevalence. The resulting hormonal imbalances are largely responsible for this increase in the case of adult women, with the premenstrual outbreaks many women experience being a reflection of these hormonal disruptions.
Modern medical approaches seek to control the hormonal system rather than regulate it. This can be seen with the use of the contraceptive pill to treat acne in women. The result is that the underlying imbalance goes unaddressed, with the use of the pill presenting a host of other potential problems and side effects. In other cases, antibiotic therapy is used, and while these have an obvious short term anti microbial and anti inflammatory action, the damage caused by antibiotics to the body far outweighs any short term improvement in symptoms. Antibiotics can in fact lead to a worsening of acne in the long term. Low dose Isotretinoin is another drug of choice but while it is of course ‘low dose’, this drug which is a synthetic version of Vitamin A can have a very damaging effect on the human body. Once again, this drug bypasses the underlying internal cause of the acne.
So where does all this leave someone who has persistent acne and wants to get to the root of the problem. Well, Chinese medicine diagnoses and treats the underlying imbalance which is causing the acne. Herbal medicine and acupuncture can help to regulate the body, including the endocrine (hormone) system in addition to providing much needed symptomatic relief. Some key dietary and lifestyle changes are also crucial in overcoming acne.
Rosacea is skin inflammation with the associated redness and burning sensation that commonly affects the face. This can sometimes appear as a permanent flush, often with enlarged surface blood vessels. In some cases, small bumps or pimples will occur in conjunction with the redness, hence the diagnostic term, acne rosacea. Conventional medicine does not understand the cause, nor does it have a cure. Treatment options include medications, surgery and avoidance of known triggers such as sunlight, spicy foods and alcohol. Emotional stress is also a trigger but this of course can often be harder to simply avoid without the right environment, support and treatment.
Rosacea is yet another classic example of the fundamental differences between conventional medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. Conventional medicine does not understand the cause while Chinese medicine diagnoses the condition with a very specific aetiology and treats it accordingly. In many cases, this internal imbalance will involve what is often referred to as ‘Internal Excess Heat’. In the case of rosacea, this Heat will usually affect the Liver and/or Stomach systems organ/meridian systems. In such cases, herbal medicine, in the form of ‘cooling’ herbs is used to clear this internal heat. The role of emotional stress in the development and progression of the disorder is well understood in Chinese medicine and therefore herbs and acupuncture can be used to help regulate the nervous system and stress response. As with acne, roascea is seen as a sign that the internal environment in the body is out of balance so a collective approach with careful attention to food choices along with other lifestyle considerations is essential.