Chinese Herbs for Acne
Chinese Herbs for Acne Symptoms
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Acne is an all too common skin problem affecting the oil producing areas of the skin manifesting in pimples that can be irritated red, or dusky purple, with white or black heads. Though acne is usually associated with teen years and in young adults, it can happen at any age. Though no one considers acne a serious disease, it can be a source of awkward self consciousness, low self-esteem, and great anxiety. These feelings can sometimes lead to depression and other life altering mental afflictions of self image.
Western medicine and Chinese medicine treat acne very differently; though they agree on one point. Dirty skin doesn’t cause acne. In fact too much scrubbing can make matters worse. In the Western view, acne is caused by a combination of surface bacteria known as Propionibacterium acnes and an oversupply of androgens, which are hormones exuberantly produced during puberty.
Chinese herbalists see acne as Damp Heat in the Lung / Large Intestine channels. Though this term sounds strange, it makes perfect sense within the logic of Chinese medical theory. Just think of the damp as pus and the heat as red inflammation. The lung and large intestine are a YIN/YANG pair of organs controlling the skin. The lung controls the pores, and thus by extension, the skin. While both the lung and large intestine channel (energy pathways) go to the face, back and chest where acne most often develops.
Fortunately you needn’t understand this to treat acne.
Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) see acne is an internal condition rather than a external (topical) one. Herbs are taken internally, either by pill, powder, or decoction (brew). Formulas, rather than single herbs are used. Formulas combine herbs to create powerful synergies and also to negate the side effects of single herbs alone.
We mainly use herbs from four categories to treat acne: Herbs to Clear Heat, Herbs to Dry Damp, Herbs to Relieve the Surface, and Herbs that Move Blood. The proportion of cooling herbs to drying herbs will most often depend on the degree of inflammation (redness) vs. the amount of purulence (pus).
Some of the most common herbs used are: Honeysuckle (JIN YIN HUA), forsythia (LIAN QIAO), chrysanthemum (JU HUA). Other substances like pearl (ZHEN ZHU MU), and gypsum (SHI GAO) Clear Heat and Purge Fire.
Scutellaria (HUANG QIN), coptides (HUANG LIAN), and philodendron (HUANG BAI) Clear Heat and Dry Dampness, so they are especially useful for this condition. You wll find at least one of them in most anti-acne medicines.
You may also find mild dampness draining herbs such as jobs tears (YI YI REN) and poria (FU LING) included in many acne formulas. Another powerful combination allies astragalus (HUANG QI) with Chinese angelica root (DANG GUI) to drain pus. Stronger systemic drying herbs like white atractylodes (BAI ZHU), red atractylodes (CANG ZHU), or pinellia (BAN XIA) are used only when acne presents with other damp symptoms such as diarrhea, phlegm, or pus.
Since acne appears on the surface of the body, a few herbs that Relieve the Surface (vent the pores) are also included in most acne medicines. Called messenger herbs, they lead the action of the other herbs to the Lungs (skin). Siler (FANG FENG) and schizonepeta (JING JIE) are two favorites in treating skin conditions, especially if itchy.
Mild Herbs that Move the Blood, like red peony root (CHI SHAO) or moutan (MU DAN PI), are used, because blood stagnation creates heat; so moving the blood clears heat (reduces inflammation). More powerful Blood Breaking herbs are avoided as they are too strong for long-term use, and are contraindicated during pregnancy.
The herbs mentioned are not the only herbs that are used. There are scores of other herbs that can help. Over-the-counter Chinese patent medicines can also help, but they can’t conform to individual patterns, so they may be less effective. Clearly the best treatment depends on diagnosing the underlying sources of excess heat and dampness. If the causes remain, a cure is not possible, but herbs and acupuncture can moderate the Heat And Drain Dampness nonetheless.
What Is ‘Heat’?
Heat, in terms of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), refers both to heat you can measure, like a fever, or heat you can’t measure, like a hot flash. Heat sets matters in motion and triggers activity. Heat shows as inflammation, hyperactivity, or over- stimulation. Heat can come from irritating chemicals, foreign organisms, or by the friction caused by the constrained flow of qi (energy). Heat is also the by-product of our metabolism and our digestion. Hormonal activity causes and is stimulated by heat. An overly stimulating diet can cause excess heat; so can a hyperactive mind or life style.
Since friction, caused by the emotional constraint of qi, causes heat, frustration and emotional friction are considered to cause heat as well.
Our skin reflects heat as rashes, pimples, infections, redness, and other skin inflammations. Sometimes the “heat” is caused by Blood Deficiency. If the blood is insufficient in quantity or quality to dilute normal body wastes (toxins) which are transported in the blood, Toxic Heat in the Blood will result. This condition appears on the skin and will be diagnosed as acne or other inflammatory skin disease.
What Is ‘Dampness’?
Dampness or excess damp, indicates excessive water in the body’s tissues. As all living things seek water, microorganisms such as bacteria, fungus, virus, etc. thrive in excessively damp body environments. In the skin, excess damp can be seen as, swellings, cysts, pimples, pus, and fluid discharges.
Dampness is often caused by imperfect digestion leading to water accumulation (“spleen deficiency”), or by a lack of body heat which fails to cook off the water (spleen yang deficiency).
Dampness can result if perspiration, urination, or breathing is insufficient to clear water from the body. Living in damp environments can also penetrate the body causing internal dampness.
photo: Constantin Brancusi