Calming the Storm
Despite what you may have heard lately, the human immune system is a truly wondrous thing. One part of this highly complex defence mechanism are the white blood cells or leukocytes. There are many different types of these but one of the most common are the macrophages, with an estimated 200,000,000,000 of them found throughout the human body. They are most concentrated at strategic points where microbial invasion or accumulation of foreign particles is likely to occur. When they do encounter some kind of alien pathogen, such as a bacteria, they leap upon it in a kamikaze fashion, eating the particle and killing the invader and itself in the process. And what thanks do these suicidal super cells get for keeping you alive? Not a lot.
Not only do we generally fail to recognise the sacrifice that these little cells perform for our greater good but we often go out of our way to make life more difficult for them.
When these macrophages attack, the thing we generally feel is some swelling, irritation and redness in the area, otherwise known as inflammation. Inflammation is generally a sign that the immune system is working well and should normally be allowed to run its course, avoiding the use of anti-inflammatories such as corticosteroids where possible. In a healthy working immune system certain macrophages release a messenger chemical known as a cytokine, which is a signal to turn the immune response back down or off. However for some reason sometimes this signal doesn’t work and the immune response goes in to over drive and can attack normal healthy cells and tissues. This has recently become famous in the ‘cytokine storm’ that has been associated with the corona-virus. Cytokine storms can also be found with other diseases such as the normal flu as well as with non-infectious auto-immune diseases such as M.E. and chronic fatigue syndrome.
In acupuncture we use the much simpler term ‘excess heat’ to describe something like a cytokine storm. There are many acupuncture points that can be used to release this heat and it can be seen in real time as a redness comes and goes around the needle. It is even classically recommended that when you take the needle out, you leave the tiny hole open, so that more heat will be able to escape. This may seem slightly fanciful to those of a more scientific persuasion, but to those people I recommend a recent study performed by neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School that successfully used acupuncture to tame systemic inflammation in mice. They concluded that acupuncture could, depending on when and where it was performed, induce or reduce a cytokine storm. They also stated with great hope for the future that acupuncture, when administered properly, could be used to modulate inflammation resulting from immunotherapy, which can sometimes trigger a cytokine storm due to overstimulation of the immune system.
Acupuncturists although using different terminology, have known this for hundreds if not thousands of years and didn’t have to hurt any poor little mice to find out. It once again comes down to a balance of Yin and Yang within the body. However it wouldn’t be enough just release this excess Yang or Heat from the body as this would be akin to only treating the symptom. One would also seek to find the cause of this imbalance and try to ascertain the body’s weather conditions that allowed the storm to rage in the first place.