Acne is a very common condition manifesting as blackheads, whiteheads, pimples and cysts, caused by inflamed sebaceous glands. Although acne is most prevalent in pubescent teenagers, it is not unusual to see it at any age, from newborns to menopausal women. Acne is not a serious disease, and is often considered a normal part of life, but it can be very difficult to deal with psychologically.
Most often, acne is caused by hormonal imbalances, improper diet, insufficient sleep, or harmful cosmetic and cleansing products. Other factors that can impact the skin are drug use, pollution, smoking, poor digestion, irregular menstruation or improper epidermal shedding.
It is important to properly diagnose acne, as in any other disorder, before a treatment plan can be devised.
It's necessary to look at the location of the problem - face, back, neck, arms, etc., the type of blemish - blackhead, pimple, erythematous papule, etc., and to look at the body as a whole. Some factors that aggravate bad skin are spicy food, chocolate, fats, dairy, coffee, or external environmental factors, such as hot and humid, or very dry climate.
It is also very important to distinguish between other similar presenting issues such as Rosacea, herpes, allergies, keratinous cysts and milia.
Before we get into understanding the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatments for acne, it is important to first treat with proper cleansing, healthy balanced diet, and adequate vitamins.
TCM & Acne
There are TCM records dealing with acne cases and treatments dating back over 2000 years ago. Of course, many of the causes have changed over the years, but the internal environment created, and the treatment plans to correct that environment are still the same as they were so long ago.
There are various imbalances believed to lead to acne appearing on the skin in TCM theory, which fall into two categories:
1. External Factors - including improper diet, external environment, and lifestyle choices. Smoking, drinking alcohol, eating spicy, greasy or too much sweet food will all lead to dampness accumulating internally. When dampness forms it slows the flow of Qi and blood, and sometimes stops it completely. When the Qi, blood and/or dampness slow too much, friction is created, warming the area, sometimes to the point of toxic heat forming.
2. Organ Imbalance - There are five most common organ imbalances that lead to problem skin. These can be caused by many factors, and usually, acne clients fall into more than one category.
- Lung Heat - this is usually characterized by papular whiteheads and blackheads which appear on the forehead, around the nose and on the upper back and chest. A person with lung heat will also usually present with a feeling of heat, maybe a dry cough, sore throat, and may often feel quite thirsty for cold drinks.
- Stomach Heat - this will generally appear as whiteheads and blackheads around the mouth, and upper back and chest. When there is heat in the stomach a person can feel excessively hungry, often get canker sores, heartburn, and may notice bleeding gums when they brush their teeth. They may also have indigestion and be very thirsty. They will often feel very hot and sweat profusely.
- Blood Heat - red papules will usually appear around the nose, mouth, and eyebrows. Hormonal acne most often fits into this category, which gets worse around menstruation. Many skin rashes and disorders are due to blood heat. This can be accompanied with mental restlessness, poor sleep, or nose bleeds.
- Toxic Heat - Characterized by pustules which are often painful. Inflamed cysts may be present, and often present on upper back and chest as well as any location on the face. When the heat becomes toxic, swelling, redness, and pain are always present. Dandruff and strong smelling sweat may also present.
- Damp Heat with toxic heat and blood stasis - there will be deep, painful and very red, pus filled cysts and nodules. Often pitting and scarring occurs at this stage. This will present with purplish looking lesions, and often leave dark scabs. The skin is usually quite oily, and although the acne can appear anywhere, it's tends to be in the detox zone, around the mouth, chin, and neck.
- Lung and spleen Qi deficiency - this condition is often underlying, which is combined with or leads to a dampness accumulation. The papules are often long lasting and are slow to resolve. This person may have a weak cough, low immunity, and be often fatigued. Someone may present with a blocked nose, constipation, frequent urination, snoring, or a nasal sounding voice.
TCM Acne Treatments
Acne, like most diseases or disorders, are treated with more than one branch of TCM. Acupuncture would be administered, and acupoints would be chosen depending on the differentiation that patient presents with.
Although very useful, acupuncture alone is not usually enough to treat acne. A herbal prescription is often used along with regular acupuncture sessions, and are made specifically tailored to each patient to deal with the acne, as well as other symptoms they may be experiencing.
Lifestyle choices would be considered, as well as an examination of the diet. It is common to remove all fatty, fried, greasy foods, dairy, chocolate, sugar, caffeine and/or sometimes shellfish from an acne clients diet. It is often recommended to add in more cucumber, watermelon, winter melon, pears, mung beans, raspberries and cabbage to the diet.
Along with some of the more commonly mentioned TCM treatments, acne can be treated by more powerful heat clearing techniques. Wet cupping is a technique used widely to clear heat from the blood and body, treating a wide range of issues, including acne. This is done by breaking the skin through the use of a lancet, or 7-star needle, and drawing out blood using a suction cup over the lesion. This can be done on the face, but it much more common to be done on the back of the patient. There are special acupuncture points located on the back called back-shu points, each corresponding with a related organ, which can be chosen for wet cupping depending on the diagnosis of the patient.
Bleeding of the ear apex, or very tip of the ear is another commonly used technique to expel heat from the body. A lancet is used to poke the top of the ear, and the practitioner squeezes the ear to allow a few drops to escape. Patients often report an instant cooling effect.
Acne can be a frustrating part of life that is often treated with harsh cleaning solutions, or even harsher medications that can lead to really complex and devastating side effects. With proper nutrition, cosmetic products, regular facials to clean the skin and regular acupuncture/TCM sessions, it is absolutely possible to achieve and maintain beautiful and blemish-free skin.