By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D. and Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.
Autoimmune disorders are on the rise, and they can be difficult to diagnose and treat. Acupuncture and TCM offer relief from autoimmune disease symptoms, while addressing the root of what might cause autoimmune disorders.
What is an autoimmune disease? The human immune system creates a variety of antibodies that are designed to fight off bacteria, viral infections, cancer cells, and toxins. An autoimmune disorder occurs when your body’s immune system malfunctions in some way and creates antibodies that attack healthy cells instead of dangerous ones. Different autoimmune disorders cause damage or dysfunction in different organs or systems of the body.
A recent study, based in the UK, looked at 19 prevalent autoimmune diseases and found that autoimmune disorders affect about one in ten people (13% of women and 7% of men).
Another study published in Arthritis and Rheumatology a few years ago, found that the most common biomarker of autoimmune disease—a high number of antinuclear antibodies (ANA)—has risen significantly across the US population, and particularly among certain groups, including adolescents, and people over 50. This study suggests that the chance of developing an autoimmune disorder is higher than ever.
Medical science has named over 80 different types of autoimmune diseases, but the understanding of what causes autoimmune disorders is still murky. Many people with autoimmune disorders go undiagnosed, and even when doctors are able to diagnose an autoimmune condition, there is no cure.
Autoimmune disorders do tend to run in families, which suggests that some people are more likely genetically disposed to develop an autoimmune disease. It is also common to have more than one autoimmune disorder concurrently. Having two or more autoimmune diseases is known as polyautoimmunity.
A few of the most common combinations of autoimmune disorders are:
- Scleroderma, autoimmune thyroid disease, and/or rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Myasthenia gravis and dermatitis herpetiformis
- Addison’s disease and vitiligo
TCM has treated many of these autoimmune disorders for centuries, although we may categorize them differently. The TCM view is that most autoimmune diseases are rooted in imbalances and deficiencies in the organ systems.
Stagnation of blood and Qi, and problems like excess heat and dampness in the body lead to inflammation, which is at the root of so many health problems. When systemic inflammation is reduced, the immune system can regain its proper functioning.
Acupuncture treatment is able to effect changes in the way cells are developing and functioning at the ectodermal and mesodermal layers. Acupuncture can stimulate the production of healthy cells, reduce inflammation, balance hormones, induce endorphin activity, and release peptides that improve immune function.
Top 20 Most Common Autoimmune Disorders
These are the most common autoimmune diseases, not necessarily in order. Some autoimmune disorders have significantly increased in numbers in recent years, including Celiac disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, and Graves disease. Some autoimmune conditions, like Hashimoto’s and pernicious anemia, seem to have decreased in numbers. Some autoimmune conditions have seasonal variations; for example, vitiligo is more commonly diagnosed in summer.
Lupus – is an autoimmune disorder that disproportionately affects women and causes systemic inflammation, fatigue, swollen joints and limbs, and often a characteristic “butterfly rash” or “malar rash” across the face. Lupus flare-ups can be caused by stress or light exposure. According to TCM, lupus is often related to a build up of too much heat in the body, so acupuncture treatment for Lupus and herbal remedies will usually focus on removing blood stasis and clearing heat from the internal organs. TCM for Crohn’s can be used as an adjunct treatment, and may help people rely less on cortisone steroids to control inflammation.
- Crohn’s disease – is an autoimmune IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) that impacts the gastrointestinal tract, causing diarrhea, stomach pain, and bloody stool. Antibodies attack the gut bacteria that are normally a healthy part of digestion, causing inflammation and damage to the intestinal lining. Acupuncture treatment for Crohn’s disease can help reduce inflammation, repair tissues, and improve the balance of gut flora. It can also positively affect the parasympathetic nervous system that controls the action of the digestive tract, reducing stomach cramps and diarrhea.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis – an autoimmune disorder that causes joint pain and swelling, because antibodies attack the synovium, the soft tissue membranes that line joints. RA can also impact the blood vessels and cardiovascular system. RA can lead to bone loss over time, and people with RA are more prone to pneumonia and heart disease. TCM theory considers Rheumatoid arthritis to fall under the category of “Bi syndromes,” in which cold, wind and damp affect the body as pathogenic forces, causing blockages of Qi. Acupuncture can help reduce joint stiffness and pain.
- Graves disease – also known as hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, Graves disease causes too much thyroid hormone to be produced, causing Graves disease symptoms like: goiter, enlarged thyroid, digestion problems, weight loss, tremors, sweating, insomnia, and infertility. Many people also have Graves ophthalmopathy, which causes bulging eyes, eye pressure, and blurred vision. TCM works to address yin deficiency and liver stagnation. Studies have shown that acupuncture and herbs can help balance the thyroid hormones.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS) – occurs when antibodies attack the myelin sheaths around nerves, leading to muscle weakness, numbness in limbs, dizziness, spasms, ataxia, or problems with balance, tremors, and trigeminal neuralgia (facial nerve pain). Acupuncture has been used to help relieve many of these symptoms of MS for hundreds of years, and can help improve and maintain motor skills.
Celiac disease – is an autoimmune condition in which the body perceives dietary gluten to be a threat, triggering an immune response that creates inflammation and damage to the intestinal tract. Following a gluten free diet is important, and a TCM health practitioner is trained in nutrition to help patients make the necessary changes to ensure nourishment and prevent anemia. Acupuncture and herbs can also help repair intestinal tissues and bring down inflammation.
- Myasthenia Gravis – causes antibodies to attack nervous system receptors in the muscles, especially of the face, causing the eyelids to droop and making it difficult for a person to perform some movements related to the eyes, mouth, and throat. Muscle weakness and communications between the nervous system and the muscles can be helped with acupuncture treatment, and patients may be able to regain strength and reduce steroid usage.
- Scleroderma – is an autoimmune disease in which the body is producing too much collagen. Scleroderma causes hardening and thickening of the skin, and can affect connective tissues like cartilage. In extreme cases, Scleroderma can cause scarring on internal organs. TCM diagnosis may determine that Scleroderma is happening due to blood stagnation, and Chinese herbs have been shown to help manage collagen production.
- Hashimoto’s Disease or Hashimoto thyroiditis – also known as hypothyroidism, chronic thyroiditis, or low thyroid, Hashimoto’s causes too little thyroid hormone to be produced. Hashimoto’s low thyroid symptoms include: swollen thyroid, fatigue, weight gain, brain fog, and depression. Acupuncture addresses weak kidney and liver qi, and helps to balance TSH and thyroid hormone levels.
- Pernicious Anemia – is a specific type of autoimmune anemia that occurs when the intestinal lining is not able to absorb enough Vitamin B12. Aplastic anemia is another type of autoimmune anemia, in which antibodies are attacking the bone marrow, so it cannot produce enough blood cells. Acupuncture and TCM herbs can help boost blood deficiencies that cause anemia symptoms and help to repair the lining of the intestine to improve its function.
- Addison’s disease – also known as adrenal insufficiency, or adrenal fatigue, is an autoimmune disease that attacks the adrenal cortex, so that the body does not make enough cortisol. Addison’s disease symptoms include: fatigue, dehydration, loss of appetite, salt cravings, dizziness, low blood pressure, and joint pain. TCM views Addison’s primarily as a kidney deficiency that can be treated with acupuncture, herbs, and moxibustion to support kidney function.
- Vitiligo – an autoimmune disorder that affects melanin, or skin pigmentation, causing white patches on skin, and hair turning gray or white, and can affect eye color and vision. Acupuncture treatment and herbal remedies can be used as an alternative treatment for vitiligo, or as an adjunct to conventional treatments like light therapy and steroid medications, to help with repigmentation of skin and to help treat vitiligo at its roots.
- Ehlers-Danlos syndrome – affects the way the body produces collagen, leading to a connective tissues disorder, which in some cases creates hypermobile joints, stretchy and/or thin skin, and bruising. There are many different presentations of EDS, affecting different parts of the body. Acupuncture and Tuina massage can improve muscle tone, help with healing and reduce pain.
- Psoriasis – an autoimmune skin condition that causes too many skin cells to form, creating hard, scaly patches of skin, especially on the elbows and knees. As with many other autoimmune disorders, psoriasis tends to come and go; flare-ups can be triggered by a cut on the skin, an infection, or emotional stress. TCM theory says that psoriasis occurs due to pathogenic heat and dryness in the body; treatment will focus on strengthening lung Qi and clearing blood heat and stagnation.
- Autoimmune hepatitis – which has also been called plasma cell hepatitis or lupoid hepatitis, occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks liver cells, causing fatigue, abdominal pain, and joint pain. People who already have an autoimmune disease, including Type 1 diabetes, Celiac disease, or Graves disease, are more likely to develop autoimmune hepatitis. Acupuncture and herbs are excellent for helping to repair the liver and improve liver functioning.
- Dermatitis herpetiformis – also known as Dhuring’s disease, is a bumpy, blistered skin rash, similar in appearance to herpes sores or hives. This autoimmune skin condition is related to Celiac disease, flaring up when a person ingests gluten. Acupuncture helps to relieve inflammation and itchy skin and promote healing, while clearing heat and stagnation from the lungs, which are often connected to skin disorders.
- Ulcerative Colitis – is an IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), similar to Crohn’s disease, in which the immune system attacks the lining of the colon, causing sores and inflammation to develop, which leads to frequent diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating. TCM uses herbs and acupuncture to clear heat and dampness from the colon and promote healing of the intestinal tissues. Moxibustion can help relieve cramping and diarrhea.
Autoimmune Encephalitis (AIE) – causes inflammation of brain tissues, causing severe headaches, brain fog, and neck pain and stiffness. This condition can develop in response to an infection. Anti-NMDAR encephalitis can be related to a tumor called a teteroma. TCM treats the internal heat that leads to fevers, infections, and inflammation with cooling herbs, and helps reestablish connections throughout the central nervous system.
- Type 1 Diabetes – is an autoimmune condition in which the cells of the pancreas do not function properly to produce insulin. About 5-10% of people with diabetes have this type. In TCM, diabetes is known as “Xiao Ke,” the wasting disease, and is believed to be due to too much heat and dampness accumulating in the organs. Acupuncture treatment can help improve pancreatic function and insulin production.
- Guillain-Barre syndrome – also known as “acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy” (AIDP), is an autoimmune and neurological condition in which antibodies attack the myelin sheaths that surround the nerves, causing muscular weakness, neuropathy and hypertension. A combination of acupuncture and moxibustion treatment can relieve nerve pain and help improve the strength and coordination of the muscles, while helping to encourage the growth and repair of nerves.
Can Acupuncture Help Autoimmune Disorders?
Inflammatory cytokines are part of the immune response that creates inflammation in the body as a way to get rid of invasive pathogens and promote healing when we are injured. When the immune system is not functioning properly, there is excess inflammation, and this is the root cause of many types of autoimmune disease.
Acupuncture treatment has been proven to have a positive biological effect on the production of these cytokines, and may also prevent immune system white blood cells called macrophages from turning into pro-inflammatory cells.
Other TCM modalities, like cupping, activate the immune system and help manage nitric oxide levels. Nitric oxide levels play a role in T-cell regulation, which affects inflammation of joints in patients with systemic lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
TCM treatment is a holistic way of treating autoimmune diseases that takes the whole person into consideration, treating physical symptoms of pain and stiffness, skin rashes, gastrointestinal distress, and more, while also helping to alleviate emotional and mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Acupuncture can also help improve cognitive function, memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and brain fog.
Acupuncture Near Me for Autoimmune Disorders in Los Angeles and Santa Monica
Autoimmune disorders require highly individualized treatment. If you or someone you know has an autoimmune disease, adding a highly experienced acupuncture practitioner to your healthcare team can make a big difference in your quality of life.
Drs. Cai and Tan and Art of Wellness in West Los Angeles have over 35 years of experience helping treat autoimmune disorders of all kinds. They can bring a new perspective to your healthcare plan and help you find relief from many autoimmune disorder symptoms.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.