There is ample evidence that this metabolic disorder has been with us for many centuries. As early as 1500 years ago, the authors of the oldest Chinese medical book, The Yellow Emperor Inner Classic, gave descriptions of symptoms and treatment guidelines for a disease named "Xiao-ke" or "wasting and thirsting syndrome", which is almost identical to what we now call diabetes mellitus.
To understand the Oriental medical approach, it is important to remember that Chinese medicine was born over 3000 years ago and is based upon the principle that human beings are a reflection of nature and the universe. It is based on the concept of health being sustained by a life energy called Qi, which circulates via channels or pathways through every inch of the body. When this form of energy becomes deficient or obstructed, pain, injuries and illnesses soon begin to appear.
The principles of Yin and Yang followed soon after. They illustrate the Taoist concept that everything in nature is the result of the optimum balance of two opposite forces, Yin and Yang. Yin is cold in nature; it represents water and the deeper part of the body. In contrast, Yang is hot; it represents fire and the superficial part of our body.
Acupuncture treats by stimulating these channels externally with needles. In contrast, Chinese Herbal Medicine works internally through the organ systems. All medicinal herbs are classified according to their nature (hot, cold, neutral), flavours or functions (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, salty), and the organs they affect.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine's principles, the "Xiao-ke syndrome" is caused by several factors including improper diet and lifestyle. The excess consumption of sweet, greasy, spicy foods and alcohol damage the digestive system, resulting in a build-up of heat over time and a depletion of body fluids. This causes excess appetite and a constant feeling of thirst.
In Chinese Medicine, emotional imbalances have a powerful effect on the functions of specific organs. For example, when anger is frequently expressed, the liver Qi circulation is impaired, and heat quickly rises to the head. It manifests with symptoms of thirst, night sweating, dizziness, ringing in the ears, or headaches. The accumulation of heat in the head forces the body fluids to sink downward and urinary problems soon begin to appear. These symptoms are all too familiar to diabetes sufferers.
Overall, in Chinese medicine a combination of specific herbs will be prescribed according to whether the main dysfunctions are located in the upper, middle or lower part of the body.
When the symptoms are affecting the head and chest, the treatment strategy will be aimed at clearing the heat from the upper part of the body by selecting bitter and cold herbs, which have a downward action on the body. In this case, the bitter flavour is used to clear dampness, while cold will counteract the heat and reduce the excess thirst.
If the problems are associated with the stomach, and the digestive function is impaired resulting in excess hunger and dry stools, we will use different herbs to specifically alleviate the heat from the stomach, which is affecting the function of the intestines. We will also need to supplement the cool Yin energy to counteract the Yang and heat build up in the liver. Herbs such as gardenia flowers and dried lemon peel will be selected to clear the liver damp heat, harmonise the stomach and drain the fire from the digestive system.
Finally, it is common to see the emergence of urination problems, lower back pain, fatigue and maybe knees or ankles swelling once the onset of diabetes is established. This is due to the Kidney Yin being so weak that it is unable to counteract the normal amount of heat produced by the Kidney Yang energy. This results in heat building up inside the body and the fluid circulation being obstructed in specific areas. In this case, we would select a herbal formula, which specifically strengthens the Yin aspect of the kidney, with the final inclusion of cold and bitter herbs to clear the heat and dampness in the bladder.
American ginseng (panax quinqefolium) has been used since ancient times in the treatment of diabetes. It has a glycaemic (sugar)-lowering effect on the body, it generates fluids and is traditionally used for thirst, fatigue and hunger. In an article published in the American Journal of Classical Nutrition in April 2001, researchers from the University of Toronto conducted several studies testing the effects of American ginseng on glucose levels. They concluded that American ginseng stimulates insulin secretion and improves nitric oxide-mediated uptake of glucose into the cells.
Although Chinese Herbal Medicine has only recently begun to be scientifically tested, early findings seem to confirm the enormous potential of this ancient traditional form of treatment. For millions of diabetic patients around the world, this hasn't come a moment too soon.
Olivier Lejus MHSc.(TCM), BHSc.(Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com