Understanding inflammation and your immune system from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective
"Inflammation is the body’s natural response to infection, injury or disharmony"
Thanks to inflammation our body can respond to some form of harmful stimuli. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to infection, injury or disharmony. The Inflammation triggers the body’s immune system to start a healing process. Normally this leads to homeostasis, a back to normal body, but sometimes, our own immune system does not switch off, this is when we have over reactions like an allergy or an asthma attack.
As we know, inflammation can cause redness, aching, swelling, perhaps a sensation of heat. Some people experience inflammation only after injury, and others sadly endure this every day. We now understand that long term inflammation in the body can also cause illness. Sometimes the trigger cell mechanisms usually used in defence to something “harmful” occasionally over reacts and doesn’t switch off ( Chen, Linlin et al. “Inflammatory Responses and Inflammation-Associated Diseases in Organs.” Oncotarget 9.6 (2018): 7204–7218.PMC). Illness such as arthritis, asthma, Crohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel syndrome, MS, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, herpes and many more are chronic disharmonies or inflammatory illnesses. Therefore, it is important to understand a little bit about this mechanism.
The origin of inflammation has two roots:
Non-infectious factors / External factor
- Physical: burns, physical injury or
- trauma, foreign bodies (a thorn).
- Insect or animal bites
- Parasites (Gu pattern in TCM)
- Chemical: too much glucose, fatty acids, toxins, alcohol.
- Biological: damaged cells
- Psychological: too much excitement
Infectious factors/Internal factors
- Viruses (colds or flu can lead to inflammation, in the sinuses, ears, nose and throat.)
- Post viral (Xiao Yang pattern TCM, the virus lingers such as Shingles)
- Microorganisms (Candida overgrowth, Damp and Stagnation pattern TCM)
In TCM we see inflammation and diagnose it in a slightly different way than in Western Medicine. TCM call this a pattern or syndrome. For example, we categorise arthritis as a Bi pattern, translated this would be a painful obstruction syndrome (POS). This lets us know that there is pain, but it does not identify the cause.
For example, where arthritis is concerned, I hear patients saying the cold weather triggers pain or swelling, others find humidity and heat makes them feel worse. So, both have POS, but the patterns are different. The Cold pattern needs warming, moving the stagnation of QI or blood. The Heat pattern would need a treatment to eliminate excess heat and move the stasis (blockages) locked in the joints causing pain. The TCM specialist would then chose and recommend acupuncture points, herbs or anti-inflammatory foods according to the pattern, this would be unique to the patient.
In other words, to effectively treat an inflammatory pattern we take a step further, not just help with the symptom but the cause.
- Bi syndrome due to what TCM call wind, will express in pain that moves around the body; it’s migratory.
- Bi syndrome due to cold shows very strong and fixed pain. This is the most painful of all.
- Bi syndrome due to humidity, shows a fixed pain, it does not move.
- Bi syndrome due to heat may manifest in a joint, that when it is touched is painful and it is hot.
So, with the example of “arthritis” patients will be assessed and treated differently according to TCM, and it might take a little longer to calm chronic inflammation as we go to the cause.
How to help inflammation? The rule is as soon as there are signs, stop everything and deal with the problem in an acute form because once inflammation becomes chronic, it evolves into a more complicated package of patterns.
Should you suffer from Candida for example, bloating or not having a good digestion, the Stomach QI will be weak. The simplest solution would be trying to avoid sugars as this feeds inflammation. Our digestive vitality is essential to combat inflammation. In the same manner, I wrote about a healthy immune system needs a good diet and a balance of healthy bacteria in the gut, as we now know that inflammation triggers the immune system to get to work, inflammation is helped with a healthy life style managing stress, regular exercise, and a healthy diet.
Among many of nature’s solutions, a few anti-inflammatory foods, which support your immune stem, include curcumin or turmeric, fennel, ginger, yucca, Echinacea, pineapple and strawberries, green tea, most herbs we cook with, apple cider vinegar and spinach, etc. Vegetables and fruit provide important flavonoids and carotenoids which have anti-inflammatory properties, try and eat in season and organic where possible.
The best advice I can give is to recognise and understand the inflammatory pattern in your body according to TCM, and how a healthy immune system ensures a speedy recovery. In this way, you can adjust your lifestyle and together with a TCM specialist you can treat cold, wind, heat, damp, or a mix of them for long term health benefits avoiding internal or external inflammation.