Case study: treating autoimmune diseases

Autoimmune diseases are a group of disorders in which the immune system starts to attack healthy tissues and organs.

They often start during early childhood: a common pattern seen in babies is recurrent infections or allergic reactions. Repetitive rounds of antibiotics or steroids usually get rid of the problem, but typically only for a short time.

In this case-study blog, I share the real-life example of my younger brother who has struggled with an autoimmune condition for many years. I witnessed how this condition started, evolved and degenerated over the years, and share some insights into the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach. 

An early years condition

As a baby, my brother developed skin rashes along with respiratory infections. At first, this was only a few small patches of dry red skin. He was prescribed a course of steroids and antibiotics, then the rash would subside. But after a few months, the rash would reappear – this time more pronounced and angrier than ever. He got more rounds of steroid cream which helped improve things slightly, but the rashes soon turned into very severe eczema, which has lasted ever since. 

Growing up: the condition evolves and deteriorates

Many years later and all the steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory treatments, systemic immuno-modulators, inhibitors, antibiotics, pills, injections, ointments and creams had suppressed the eczema to a manageable level and the condition no longer expressed itself at the skin level.

Later in his 20s, my brother was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and this progressed from mild to severe Crohn’s disease. Again, it took years of immunosuppressants, antibiotics, pain, tears, more stress and even hepatitis caused by the overuse of antibiotics and other medication until… the inflammation of his large intestine got so out of control that it brought him to the edge of death and subsequently resulted in a full Colectomy (the removal of the large intestine) at the age of 32.

The TCM approach

Chinese Herbal medicine recognises the relationship between the suppression of a primary manifestation and the development of a secondary condition later in life. 

It is thought that when the body is under attack from an external pathogen (i.e. a virus or bacteria), to protect the internal organs the body diverts pathogens away from the interior to the surface layers (i.e. skin, muscles and joints) where the pathogen often remains in a state of latency until the body can clear it. If the body is too weak to clear it, then the pathogen may activate and flare up at the surface level without damaging the internal organs. For instance, this is often seen in rheumatoid arthritis or skin disease.

In addition, according to TCM, there is an interaction and interdependence between all internal organs. Therefore the lungs and large intestine have a direct influence on the skin and the immune system. We often see this when we catch a cold and have respiratory symptoms with diarrhoea. It is said that Tai Yang (small intestine-bladder) and Tai Yin (lung-spleen) control the surface layer of the body’s defense system, the circulation of fluids and moisten the skin, while Yang Ming (stomach-large intestine) constitutes a deeper layer of immune defense as it absorbs and recycles fluids. Any disturbance within these internal systems may therefore lead to changes in skin appearance such as inflammation, swelling etc.

Interestingly, modern medical science has acknowledged and confirmed the importance of the digestive system’s bacterial flora as an important barrier that protects us against viral or bacterial invasion. However, prolonged use of antibiotics and steroids can damage this fragile ecosystem of biofilm in our guts, in the same way that bleach destroys coral reefs. As a result, not only is our natural immunity weakened, but the pathogens which our body tries to expel are pushed back into the interior of our bodies. 

TCM sees symptoms that manifest at the surface level as signs and indicators of deeper underlying problems. Our treatment programs are specifically designed to address the manifestations as well as the underlying root causes of conditions.

If you have any question about how acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine may help with autoimmune conditions, please contact us.