EFFECTIVE AND LASTING TREATMENTS FOR ACNE
“Everything in life is easy once you know how to do it. Before I began studying Traditional Chinese Medicine, I worked here at Frontier Medical Institute as a nutritionist. I would see patients for treatment of acne from time to time and would use every trick in the book to try to eliminate it. I always had marked improvements but rarely ever “cured” it. This was frustrating to me from a practitioner’s level but also on a personal level because I also suffered from cystic acne. In my third year of Chinese Medicine school I finally began to understand what really causes acne. After much trial and error with different combinations of herbs, supplements and acupuncture for the various types of acne, I have become extremely adept at treating this condition.”
“No one on the planet has invented “the magic pill” BUT since the beginning of 2005, I’ve had a 95% success rate in the treatment of all types of acne on scores of patients. It is one of my favorite conditions to treat.”
Karen Kurtak L.Ac. Dipl. Ac.
Unlike conventional dermatology, which has only a few tools and typically uses the same treatments on everyone, Chinese Medicine, which uses herbs and acupuncture, provides a system of diagnosis to identify and treat the root of the problem specific to the individual patient. For those who have ever wondered why some people get only small pimples on their chin while others get deep, painful lesions on their neck and jaw line and still others have large red lesions all over, Chinese Medicine provides an explanation. There are at least five separate root causes of acne in Chinese Medicine. Each one can combine with any of the others to create an elaborate web of imbalances that are complicated by hormone fluctuations, stress, improper diet, and poor lifestyle choices. The limited repertoire of available treatments typically used in conventional dermatology is often only effective only as long as the medication is used. Potentially curative conventional treatments, like Accutane (which was originally used as a chemotherapy drug to kill brain cancer cells) can be quite toxic, don’t always work and can lead to severe side effects. Using herbs, acupuncture and nutrition, Chinese Medicine treats the root cause of acne along with any other imbalances, so the body becomes healthier and more resilient. With time, little or no further treatment is necessary. Treatment is very individualized and requires a lot of effort and participation from the patient. However, the rewards of clear skin and renewed health are worth it.
Acne is very treatable condition using a combination of Traditional Chinese Medicine, German Biologic Drainage Remedies, nutritional therapy and dietary changes. Despite the fact that acne manifests on the skin, it is a condition that originates within the body. It is not a superficial problem at all. In fact, over the years I have observed several similarities between the root causes of acne and many autoimmune disorders. There is an undeniable relationship between digestive health and skin health but there are numerous factors that can conspire to cause acne. Below are the fundamental causes of acne that I have identified over the past decade and have translated into modern medicine concepts.
Debunking the Inflammation Myth
If there is inflammation, there is something causing it. It’s time to let go of the myth that the immune system creates inflammation for no reason. It is not the result of a “misguided” or “weakened” immune system. These are Santa-Claus-like explanations that have no basis in logic or science. Diseases of inflammation, including most autoimmune disease, always have a root cause that triggers the immune system to act. Suppressing inflammation with herbal or conventional medicine without treating the cause is like clipping the wires to the “Check Engine” Light on your car’s dashboard.
Have you ever wondered why acne lesions tend to occur again and again the in same area? It’s not a coincidence or a phenomenon. It’s simply a problem with clearance in the lymphatic circulatory system.
As children, we have all experienced the mysterious, clear fluid that oozes from a skinned knee or elbow. This is lymph fluid. It moves through its own circulatory system that is separate from the blood. As our blood is filtered through our capillaries, red blood cells are retained. Almost everything else in the blood moves into the lymphatic system where nutrients are delivered to cells, old debris and cellular waste products are broken down, and bacteria and viruses are battled. This is the major site in the body for immune function. If it becomes stagnant or overwhelmed, the immune system can’t function properly. Unlike our circulatory system, the lymphatic system lacks a pump. It only moves when we move. Think about it. Do you feel better and more rested if you lie around all day or if you exercise? Letting the lymphatic system stagnate is like not changing the water in a vase of flowers. In skin disorders immune activity in the lymphatic vessels causes them become stagnate or blocked. If the body is unable to resolve this, the inflammation from the immune activity backs up into the tissues surrounding the lymph vessels. Sometimes it is so severe that the lymph nodes at the end of that vessel are swollen. Lymphatic stagnation provides one piece of the puzzle for the causes of acne but it is rarely the only factor.
Digestive Imbalances and Damage
The complexity of the digestive system is truly mind-boggling. It contains its own nervous system, its own immune system, its own microbiome and an array of glands and organs. It is the primary site for production and storage of neurotransmitters and is our first line of defense against a constant influx of bacteria, viruses and things that simply don’t belong in a human being. Cumulatively it is referred to as the gut. It allows the Earth to become our body. If the gut isn’t happy and thriving then the body isn’t happy and thriving.
Most skin disorders, including acne, appear when there is a fairly significant breach of the gut’s immune system. This can happen for two reasons. First, the amount of inflammation generated by the immune system of the gut can begin to spill over into other systems that cannot eliminate it. As a result, inflammatory chemicals overload the lymph system and deposit in the skin. This is common in cases where hormonal fluctuations make acne worse. When hormone levels rise they compete with our body’s detoxification pathways especially the liver. Interestingly, “bad” bacteria in the gut can reverse the detoxification processes of the liver leading to an overload of the entire system.
Another common breach occurs in the immune system of the gut known as the gut associated lymphoid tissue or GALT. The GALT is a part of a larger system that is interconnected through the lymphatic system called the mucosa associated lymphoid tissue (MALT). It is responsible for protecting the body from the enormous amount of antigens that we are constantly being exposed to. The GALT initiates immune responses and inflammation by anything that the body deems an invader. Undesirable bacteria, yeast, viruses and many food proteins like lectins from lentils and gliadin from wheat can all act as immune targets that can eventually overwhelm the GALT. As this happens, the inflammatory chemicals and sometimes the antigens themselves begin to overflow or “leak” into other parts of the body. Once there is an overload of inflammation, it often causes more and more inflammation and damage to create a vicious cycle.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
The basic theory of Leaky Gut Syndrome is that damage occurs to the tight junctions between the cells that line the small and/or large intestines. Normally, these cells act as a filter so that only fully digested nutrients can fit through these junctions. If the tight junctions sustain damage, they can leak fragments of undigested proteins into the blood and lymph where the immune system recognizes them as invaders and then launches an immune attack. In most cases, the immune system attacks these proteins the same way it attacks bacteria. As a result, symptoms can be similar to bacterial infection. For years, this theory was discounted by conventional medicine as quackery. However, in 2008 a gastroenterologist named Dr. Alessio Fasano was studying the undeniable connection between autoimmune disease and Celiac disease. His research confirmed the existence of “Leaky Gut Syndrome” and demonstrated the penetration of incompletely digested protein fragments into the body’s tissues.
Previous studies dating back over three decades demonstrated that radiolabeled protein fragments from foods like wheat could escape from the gut lumen and be deposited throughout the tissues of the body and even penetrate into the brain.
From over a decade of experience in treating acne, I estimate that Leaky Gut Syndrome causes 60-70% of severe acne cases. This is especially true for people who have tried Accutane with disappointing results. Truly healing this condition is complicated and can require several months for complete resolution. However, once the key causes are identified most skin symptoms begin to resolve within weeks. The key factors for treating this condition include the following steps: Identifying and eliminating the original cause of the leakiness, clearing the inflammatory chemicals, repairing the leakiness and clearing any proteins that are still causing immune reactions in the skin.
While acne sufferers often experience a worsening of symptoms with hormone fluctuations, this is rarely the root of the problem. However, it can provide wonderful clues of underlying causes. One common scenario is a backup of the detoxification pathways of the liver. The liver is responsible for clearing all organic-based substances from the blood. This includes gasoline fumes, medications, solvents, alcohol and even our own hormones. If acne symptoms are worse when hormone levels change or rise, it is likely that the problem is coming from an overwhelmed liver. Interestingly, fructose, the sugar predominant in fruits, has been shown to create inflammation in the liver. As a result, there is an increase in levels of inflammation throughout the body. Here is a link to a previous article in my “What Matters” blog discussing the effects of fructose on the liver.
Hormone Therapy and Birth Control Pills
One of the most common conventional treatments for acne is the use of birth control pills. Although it does not address the underlying cause of the inflammation, in many cases this can be an incredibly effective treatment. Acne therapies that include Traditional Chinese Medicine and nutrition can be safely integrated to produce excellent results for patients who prefer to remain on hormone therapies.
Latent and Chronic Low-Grade Infections Elsewhere in the Body
In a previous section I discussed the possibility of the digestive system’s immune ability to be become overwhelmed. As this happens, inflammatory chemicals or triggers can begin to “overflow” and become a burden for other parts of the immune system. This scenario can also happen when there are low-grade infections present in other tissues like the bladder, prostate, uterus, or even gums.
A few years ago some compelling studies demonstrated that the same immune system cells that attack bacteria (neutrophils) also attack pollutants from air. Frequent exposure to smoke or air pollution causes ongoing inflammation in the lungs and skin as well as the artery walls. In my experience, it is very difficult to treat acne in individuals who smoke more than one or two cigarettes per day. We all have addictions. Some are simply more socially acceptable than others. There is no shame in having fallen victim to nicotine addiction. Overcoming any addiction can be one of the greatest achievements of one’s life. I offer effective, compassionate treatment, resources and support for acne suffers who wish to overcome this frustrating addiction.
Diet plays a crucial factor in the resolution of acne. If you are used to the “Standard American Diet” with lots of sodas, fruit, processed food, excessive grains, acidifying vegetables then be ready for some big changes. Until there is a replacement for this magic pill, successful treatment of acne requires stringent but healthy dietary changes. The rewards are worth it!! Many of the dietary recommendations for treating acne parallel longevity nutrition strategies. Seeing first hand the profound changes that come about from a truly healthy, anti-inflammatory diet provides a lifelong tool for creating health and longevity. If you are not willing to make serious changes with the foods that you put into your body, then this treatment strategy is not for you.
Traditional Chinese herbal formulas are one of the most powerful tools for treating acne. Unlike modern herbology, which relies on conventional diagnosis, Chinese herbal formulas are based on a sophisticated and complex system of diagnosis that treats the interconnection of the body’s systems. It is not uncommon for a Traditional Chinese herbal prescription to contain 12 or more herbs. These are usually mixed into a concentrated powder and prepared as a tea.
Safety of Chinese Herbs
Most Chinese herbs are imported from China, which raises concerns about contaminants. All practitioners of Traditional Chinese Herbology receive extensive training in obtaining contaminant-free, high potency herbs. All herbs used in my clinic (and by most Chinese herbalists) are obtained from companies with extremely high quality control standards. Every batch of herbs is screened for over 100 different chemical contaminants and heavy metals.
A significant part of the four years of required training also involves extensive study of side effects and herb-drug interactions. Conventional physicians receive no training in this field so it is up to us to make use of the constant influx of published studies to ensure safe use of our apothecary. The general philosophy is “just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it is safe”. This extensive education has resulted in Chinese Herbal Presciptionology having very few reports of side effects nationwide. When used appropriately, Chinese herbs are extremely safe and effective.
Additional Benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
One of greatest strengths of Chinese Medicine is its inherent understanding of the body as a whole. It is very rare to have only one symptom or manifestation for any problem. There are usually several signs and symptoms that are connected to the main complaint. In many cases, the patient isn’t even aware of these symptoms or doesn’t realize that these symptoms are not normal. When someone undergoes treatment for one condition in Chinese Medicine, all the other problems that are connected to that main condition will also resolve. The benefits often include:
- Clearer thinking
- Improved energy
- Enhanced sense of well being
- More even emotions
- Resolution of digestive disturbances
- Improved sleep
- Resolution of gynecological problems
What To Expect
Some acne conditions resolve much faster than others. For this reason, the number of treatment steps and follow up varies extensively. Acne that appears mostly on the surface of the skin without extensive redness can resolve in as little as three weeks. Cystic acne or acne that accompanies PCOS can require 6-12 weeks for significant improvement and up to six months for lasting results. Acne that worsens around the menstrual cycle can take as little as two weeks or as long as a couple of cycles to see marked improvement. Acne that results in dark scarring often takes 4-6 weeks to see marked improvement of both the acne and the scarring. Of course these are only generalizations. I have seen patients with severe cystic acne have 90% resolution in four weeks. Within the first three weeks, most people experience a reduction of inflammation, swelling, new lesions and reduced oiliness. As a general rule, the longer the condition has been present, the longer it takes to resolve. This is especially true when the inflammation has caused extensive scarring or damage to the capillary beds.
Things you can start doing today to improve your acne
Quit all processed foods and all foods that contain sugar, fructose, glucose, etc.
Quit coffee and black tea and replace it with green tea and herbal tea
Avoid artificial sweeteners
Avoid foods that contain hydrogenated oils (read labels)
EPA/DHA fish oil capsules (take at least 6/day) – flax oil doesn’t work as well.