While working at the dermatology clinic at Guanganmen Hospital in Beijing, we would see many teenagers and young adults in their 20’s with acne. One Chinese mother and daughter came in to see my teacher and I was told they were from the U.S. I started chatting with the girl in English and found that they were from a town that was about 30 minutes south of where I had lived in the San Francisco Bay area. This happened several times, which shows you either how much they miss their family in China, or the lengths to which they’ll go to resolve acne (or perhaps a combination of both).
As you can imagine, in the world of Chinese Medicine, treating acne is not new. The emperors of dynasties past must have had a few sons and daughters who had a bad case of the pimples, and you can bet that the imperial physicians did everything they could to clear their faces (or else!). In Chinese medicine, acne is called “fen ci” (in Chinese) or “white thorns”.
In treating acne, it’s important to understand its causes. And to better understand them, let’s examine a pimple. It might be red or white, and in most cases both. In Chinese medicine, red means “heat” (kind of like what your face looks like after you’ve spent too much time in the sauna). And white means “dampness”. Dampness means an accumulation of fluids, oil, and toxins which are not properly metabolized and excreted.
Of course, modern Chinese doctors have an awareness of the hormonal aspect of acne and clinically we know that in many cases it eventually remits by the time the patient reaches her mid-twenties (although we treated patients in their late twenties and thirties). Despite this, Chinese medicine can help to significantly reduce lesions. All without the side-effects of antibiotics (tetracycline) which include nausea, fever, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and headaches.
The first step in treating acne is to educate the patient as to what is going on with her body. Since there is always heat present in the body when there is acne, we teach patients to avoid food and drink that increase heat. For example, eating spicy foods (garlic, ginger, hot peppers) and drinking alcohol both increase heat in the body. (Next time you see someone in a chili pepper eating contest, notice the color of his face.)
And since dampness is always a factor, we teach patients to avoid eating foods that promote dampness such as sugar, oily (and fried) foods, excess carbs (especially processed foods like cookies and crackers), and dairy products and instead eat more vegetables (fruit in moderation is fine, but be careful not to overdo it due to the sugar content).
Although the current Western medical perspective is that diet has little correlation with the severity of acne, if you have acne, I can guarantee that eating two weeks of coffee, chocolate, and pepperoni pizzas will have a detrimental effect on your skin. You can try this diet—it certainly sounds fun—but I don’t recommend it.
In most cases of acne, stress is a factor (in Chinese medicine, we call this “Liver Depression”) and so we teach patients to reduce stress and find ways to release stress accumulated each day. This might be through exercise or simply sharing feelings with supportive friends.
If you (or your child) has an awareness of the above patterns, you are already well on your way to reducing the severity of your acne. Of course, in the clinic, we will also give you herbs to take orally and acupuncture, which will take the healing to a deeper level. Over-the-counter topical washes you can buy in your local drugstore are also helpful and can supplement the treatment.
So, are you ready to clear up your acne? Here is a summary of what I’ve mentioned above:
- Avoid foods and drink which increase heat in the body (spicy foods and alcohol)
- Avoid foods and drink which increase dampness in the body (sugar, oily and fried foods, refined carbs, and dairy products)
- Reduce your stress level by exercising and/or getting emotional support
Other steps you can take to clear up your acne include:
- Applying aloe vera gel twice daily.
- Stopping coffee and chocolate (both are warming from the point of view of Chinese medicine).
- Substantially increasing the number of vegetables in your diet (a little fruit is good, but don’t overdo it, as fruit is dampness-forming).
- Drinking plenty of water
- Drinking green tea
- Increasing omega-3 fatty acids in your diet (either by taking a supplement or by eating more omega-3-rich foods such as flax seeds and/or fish)
Treatment may take from one to six months (in more severe cases). Here’s to your skin’s health!