Lupus, Celiac, MS, Alopecia, Crohn’s and Rheumatoid Arthritis. You may have heard these conditions or know someone who has one of these conditions. They are all types of autoimmune disease.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates 23.5 million people in the United States are living with an autoimmune disease. This NIH statistic only includes a list of 24 diseases for which good epidemiology studies were available. If you include all the autoimmune conditions, the AARDA estimates closer to 50 million americans! 

Of the 50 million Americans living and coping with autoimmune disease (AD), more than 75% of them are women. For the female:male ratios of individual autoimmune disease categories click here. In comparison, cancer affects up to 9 million and heart disease up to 22 million

And researchers aren’t sure why, but the prevalence of autoimmune diseases seem to be increasing

Autoimmune disease refers to the illness that occurs when body tissues are seemingly attacked by its own immune system. Researchers have identified 80-100 different autoimmune diseases and suspect at least 40 additional diseases of having an auto-immune basis.

Autoimmune diseases are complicated for any doctor, whether Western biomedical or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). They represent the most stubborn type of illness, and considered the leading cause of suffering after terminal cancer.

Treating Auto-immune with Biomedicine

Western medicines used commonly to treat autoimmune diseases include corticosteroids and immuno-suppressants. However, these inhibit lymphocytes and antibodies non-selectively, and affect other agents that participate in routine immune function. While they control symptoms quickly, with long-term use they keep patients in a sub-healthy condition with increasing risk of infections and tumors. Some immuno-suppressants inhibit bone marrow and damage the liver and kidney.

With these side-effects in mind, more and more patients are turning to Chinese Medicine.

Treating Autoimmune with Chinese Medicine combined with Biomedicine

I specialize in an integrated approach towards the treatment of autoimmune disease. In many cases, acute flare-ups of autoimmune diseases are best treated with medicines like steroids and immuno-suppressants. Once the acute condition has settled down, then we use Chinese medicine to stabilize the condition.

For many patients already using biomedical drugs, they often feel a markedly significant improvement in their clinical symptoms after receiving the additional treatment of Chinese medicine. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are combined with lifestyle changes to support the TCM treatment protocol. The goal is to gradually reduce the dosage of corticosteroids  and remove the reliance upon immuno-suppressant medication, allowing a stable condition to be maintained.

Over thousands of years, Chinese medicine has developed various therapies for the treatment of auto-immune diseases: Chinese herbal medicine; acupuncture; moxibustion and bodywork, to name a few of the best known therapies. During the past 50-years, with progress made in the research of Chinese herbal medicine theory and pharmacology, the clinical curative effects of autoimmune diseases has improved significantly. At present, many TCM hospitals in China have set up professional clinical departments specializing in the treatment of autoimmune disease.

Pattern-Orientated vs Disease-Orientated

The key in successful Chinese Medicine treatment is identifying the ‘pattern’. We then focus the acupuncture, herbal medicine and lifestyle changes to treat that pattern. In my experience, involving my client’s in understanding the Chinese medicine patterns and what they can do about it greatly enhances lifestyle compliance and outcomes. This collaboration empowers the client to be deeply involved in their own health recovery and on-going health maintenance. Together, we identify the pattern in Chinese medicine, create a health plan and implement that plan over a suitable time period.

I have found that clients are surprisingly receptive to Chinese medicine pattern analysis as they intuitively make sense. The patterns have names like Heat-toxin, Dampness, Phlegm, Blood-stagnation, Yin-deficiency and more.

As an ex-engineer, and now an Acupuncturist who specializes in the treatment of autoimmune conditions, there is one aspect that was initially baffling to me, and is still is baffling to most. That is, that in Chinese medicine we do not recognize an immune system, as understood by biomedicine, and the disease-label is mostly irrelevant to the TCM treatment protocol. Yet, good results are achieved. We simply treat the signs and symptoms with the emphasis on correcting the patterns.

The pattern-emphasis over the disease-emphasis has many advantages in complex disease states.

“I think people are understanding that there are limits to drugs and surgery for treating chronic diseases,” said Dr. Mark Hyman, director of the center and a well-known wellness expert. “People are understanding there are causes that are really driving the chronic illness that we need to deal with”

Regardless of the autoimmune disease category from biomedicine, Chinese medicine treats within it’s own labels of imbalance. Through long-term clinical practice and scientific research, it has become clear that the pathological process in autoimmune diseases: immune reactions; vasculitis; exudation; edema; bleeding; inflammatory infiltration; and hyperplasia of connective tissue are all associated with Heat-toxin, Blood stasis, Dampness and Phlegm in Chinese medicine.

Keys to Successful Treatment

However, even though we are emphasizing the elimination of pathogens, we must not neglect the need for the reinforcement of the upright Qi. Without upright Qi the elimination of pathogens cannot work well. The origins of the autoimmune condition often start with deep deficiency, not so much the routine Qi and Blood deficiencies we commonly experience, but deeper into the Liver & Kidney Yin deficiencies. We do use Chinese herbal medicine to rebuild yin, however, no herb can be as effective as a yin-building lifestyle. So, in Chinese medicine significant lifestyle changes are a major key to support the treatment protocol, and then keep it strong and healthy beyond the treatment period.

We must recognize that autoimmune diseases are complex – and outcome of many factors – and thus notoriously stubborn to control. Chinese medicine respects this aspect of the imbalance and in my experience, we employ a flexible treatment strategy often using larger dosages of Chinese herbal medicine, over longer periods of time, while constantly reassessing the focus of the treatment.

Personal Insights

My experience and analysis leads me to conclude that these two medical and cultural perspectives come from opposite ends of the healing spectrum. Yet, like heaven-earth, winter-summer, night-day and yin-yang they are complementary while seeming to be opposites. Inherently, the strength of one is the weakness of the other. Thus, this complementary, comprehensive medical approach applies the strength of both systems while minimizing their weaknesses.

Chinese Medicine’s success in the treatment of autoimmune diseases, whether alone or in tandem with Western medicine, is a great example of the benefits of TCM’s integrated modern healthcare approach.


Alex Tan L.AC is a licensed Acupuncturist.  After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China.  A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives.  He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. For more about Alex click here

Alex runs a clinic in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona. Alex welcomes comments and questions to his articles. To book an appointment in person or telco-appointment click here