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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

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. Click here for more about Alex.


  • Rina Wooten says:

    Hi Alex,
    I’m a nurse and I also believe in TCM. I agree that western and eastern medicine often time work well together. I have a sister in Australia who’s been diagnosed with Crest’s Syndrome, the milder version of Scleroderma. Her labs are stable and she’s currently not on medications. She does have Raynaud’s flare-ups during winter. She’s also been recently diagnosed with Alopecia Areata which was not improved with 6 weeks of low dose oral steroid. I’d like to know how TCM can improve her conditions and if the improvement is a total recovery (as in complete hair growth) and symptoms free forever or simply a maintenance of well-being.
    I would appreciate your input. I’m hoping to get her a second opinion to encourage her to come over to the US for a visit.

    • Alex Tan says:

      Rina, thank you for your message.
      The treatment and recovery are relative to your sisters age and condition. If she is still young and this is her first diagnosis with less than 6-months of signs and symptoms, she has a good chance of getting to the point of successful management. This means that she has a chance to be symptom free while flare ups still may occur. However, the key is that she has many tools in her toolbox to use – both eastern and western approaches – and manages the condition successfully. The goal is generally to use acupuncture and Chinese Herbs, introduce lifestyle support as well as identify any possible food intolerance and to reduce the reliance on biomedical drugs to the lowest point. The steroids and immunosuppressants can control signs and symptoms in the short-term which can be useful (sometimes critical) but side-effects associated with long term use is the complication. This is where Chinese Medicine comes in.
      The key here is longer term lifestyle adjustments to continually support the pattern gradually reducing the probability of flare ups. That gives the best chance of successful recovery with minimal use of drugs. It sounds to me like a blood deficiency, yang deficiency and possible blood stagnation. I would need to see the tongue and best feel the pulse and know more about other areas, like energy, sleep, digestion, menstrual cycle and how the other senses are functioning.
      There are many good practitioners in Australia too (my formal training at University of Technology Sydney) and that would be my first recommendation.
      Let me know how I can help.
      Alex Tan L.AC

  • Lindy Fraser says:

    Hi Alex, I am a 67 year old Australian ( female ) . I have Sjojrens Syndrome, and I would like your opinion on whether TCM and Acupuncture could help me . I find Drs and Specialists do not have a good understanding of how debilitating SS can be . Apart from the dryness component ( eyes , mouth , nose and ears ) I have joint stiffness and inflammation ( hands and feet , which sometimes go purple ) gland swelling, fatigue, no tolerance for exercise of any kind, chills, at times night sweats , headaches , breathing problems. I am desperate to relieve these symptoms as I am getting quite depressed . Not sure whether it is the SS or how it has impacted on my life that is making me depressed . Also Alex I had a lot of stress a few months before my symptoms started . Do you think that is significant ? Up until that time I was wonderfully healthy, fit and active, with just an occasional Migraine. I am not on any medication for the SS. After doing a lot of reading I am reluctant to go on any of the strong drugs that are recommended , hence my enquiry about TCM . Thanks Alex for your time , and I look forward to your opinion . Regards, Lindy

    • Alex Tan says:

      Lindy, thanks for sharing your current condition.
      The demographic is 90% of the patients are women, and most in their late 40’s when the symptoms first appear. The incidence in the US is 4 million, making it the second most common autoimmune disease. It can exist alone, as primary Sjogren’s syndrome. Or, develop years after the onset of other rheumatic autoimmune illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or scleroderma, when it is known as secondary Sjogren’s syndrome.
      Sjojren’s syndrome presents in acupuncture clinics more than other serious autoimmune conditions. This may be because Sjojren’s progresses more slowly and in most patients does not progress into a life threatening condition. This does not mean the symptoms are light – your experience is typical and I find it severely hampers physical and mental ability to function in regular life. The fact that you are 67, and previously healthy, gives you a good chance of management with both Chinese medicine and Western medicine.
      There are two parts to what I suggest. Both TCM and biomedical drugs can be effective in this case and we need to be able to switch hats where appropriate. Sometimes we find both Chinese medicine practitioners and Western doctors not understanding the benefits of each others modalities. They are very different approaches at opposite sides of the spectrum – and this is what gives you the greatest value to combine them. I recommend using an autoimmune specialist and then a Chinese Medicine practitioner that specializes in autoimmune. They don’t necessarily have to work together – you are the facilitator. Think of them as your two most trusted advisors where you make the decisions.
      Western medicine offers supportive symptomatic treatment such as application of ‘artificial tear’ products. Some prescription treatments are offered to promote saliva and tear production. Cortisone and Methotrexate treatments are offered in moderate to severe cases, yet prolonged use can lead to serious complications. Prednisone can be very helpful to get symptoms under control. My approach is to do this while implementing a Chinese Medicine treatment plan. The idea is to get symptoms down with the recommended dose of prednisone. Then we slowly reduce the prednisone while using acupuncture and herbal medicine. We reduce it to it’s lowest dose with the goal of stopping the prednisone. The acupuncture and herbal treatment is used to hold the system stable for as long as possible. If there are acute flare ups, we may use the Western medications again.
      The combination of long-term orientated Chinese Medicine treatment with the use of short-term Western prescription treatments offers the best hope for recovery and management. However, in most autoimmune conditions, treatment will need to be applied for many months, and probably years. Once initial symptoms have improved or stabilized, the Chinese herbal treatment is generally the focus, however I still feel acupuncture once a week (and more often if symptoms strong) gives the most effective results.
      Alex Tan L.AC

  • Lindy Fraser says:

    Thanks Alex, for your very wise words and advice . They are very reassuring and have given me somewhere to start , as I have been a bit despairing not knowing what is the best approach to take. I have done a lot of reading on Sjojrens, and get a sense that because of the complexity of it and the vagueness of the symptoms that a lot of people take years to get a diagnosis , and go through much frustration and anguish. Thanks again Alex.
    Regards, Lindy

    • Alex Tan says:

      Lindy, one additional thing I really recommend. In my experience, much of the autoimmune condition is to do with lifestyle imbalance, a series of events and hormonal changes that presents to create a storm. Note, this does not mean that it is our fault, imbalance is part of life, it simply means that lifestyle change is a key to our successful management. Healing often needs change. We do need treatment of the condition at this stage, however, the big key here is to start living in accordance with ‘health promotion’ ideas (not just treatment of disease) in the background. This is where Chinese Medicine excels and I believe its true power lies. First is regular life – click here. Then there are the five noble activities – breathing, sleeping, eating, exercising and thinking. Chinese medicine schools don’t commonly teach this well anymore as the focus has been the treatment of disease. See if you can find someone to help with this part. My recommendation is to read widely and see my literary guide and start reading the preventative heath books and then dietary. I wish you all the best!

  • omnia abdalnabe says:

    i’m a physiotherapist, i am one of the believers in TCM for medication. but i would like to know your opinion about a patient i know whether her symptoms can be treated or can be controlled with TCM .
    she has Neuromyelitis optica,& egyptian she is under medications but whenever she moves for a long period of time she tremors

    • Alex Tan says:

      Omnia, thanks for your comment. There is hope with all autoimmune conditions using Chinese medicine or a combination of Chinese medicine with Western medicine. The prognosis varies case-by-case. I would be doing intensive acupuncture (2-3 times/wk) plus herbs and lifestyle interventions. It is important to remember that not all cases respond to treatment, however, many do. I hope that helps!