In China, the original word for acupuncture is zhenjiu, acupuncture-moxibustion therapy. As the name implies, acupuncture and moxibustion are two techniques meant to be practiced together as two sides of the same coin. In school, one of my mentors was fond of saying, “Moxa does what the needle does not,” a quote taken from the Ling Shu (The Spiritual Pivot), a classical Chinese medicine text. In this article, I will be discussing the importance of moxibustion as a proven immune-modulating therapy.
Moxibustion is an external therapy in which the plant mugwort, Artemisia argyi, is burnt either directly on or over the skin. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), moxibustion is believed to dredge the meridians and regulate the flow of qi and blood. From a Western perspective, while a comprehensive mechanism of the effect of moxibustion has not been fully worked out, progress has been made and studies have shown that it has an augmenting effect on the immune system.
According to the scientific literature, moxibustion creates an effect in two ways: through thermal stimulation and through non-thermal factors such as the plant resin, smoke, and aromatherapy.1 The research has mainly focused on the mechanism of thermal stimulation. When moxa is burnt on or near the skin, the heat creates a small local stress to the body, which signals the central nervous system via the peripheral nervous system to activate the signaling pathways in the neuroendocrine-immune system.2 Chemical messengers such as heat shock proteins are created which then can stimulate self-healing (through the refolding of proteins and autophagy), recovery, and innate defense mechanisms.3,4
Simply put, burnt moxa creates a small stress to the body, which alerts the body’s immune system to stand guard.
In a study conducted on mice, it was shown that moxa increases macrophage autophagy and heightens the innate immune system against bacterial infections.3 Another study showed that prophylactic moxibustion could augment a protective response against pathogens as demonstrated in rats infected by herpes simplex virus.5 The rats pretreated with moxibustion before being infected by the virus were significantly less likely to die than the rats who did not receive moxibustion.
It is important to note that both studies showed moxibustion to have beneficial immune effects against pathogens and that in both cases the effect was greatest when regular moxibustion treatments were given before the subject was inoculated with a pathogen. This goes with the Chinese proverb taken from the Huang Di Nei Jing （The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic), “To cure disease after it has already appeared is like digging a well when one feels thirsty.”
Prevention is the preferred form of therapy.
Moxibustion has been shown to augment the immune system and help with the prevention of pathogenic infections. In this time of uncertainty, it is important to heed the advice of the Chinese proverb and to not only take precautions as defined by the CDC, which can be found at our website here, but to also continue to take care of yourself through preventive measures. Moxibustion is one of several tools that holistic health practitioners can use to strengthen the immune system of their patients and help prevent infections.
- Chiu J-H. How Does Moxibustion Possibly Work? Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2013/198584/. Published 2013. Accessed March 16, 2020.
- Deng H, Shen X. The Mechanism of Moxibustion: Ancient Theory and Modern Research. Evid. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3789413/. Published 2013. Accessed March 16, 2020.
- Li X, Guo G, Shen F, Kong L, Liang F, Sun G. Moxibustion Activates Macrophage Autophagy and Protects Experimental Mice against Bacterial Infection. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2014;2014. doi:10.1155/2014/450623.
- Kobayashi K. Induction of heat-shock protein (hsp) by moxibustion. Am J Chin Med. 1995;23(3-4):327-330. doi:10.1142/s0192415x95000390.
- Moxibustion activates host defense against herpes simplex virus type I through augmentation of cytokine production – Takayama – 2010 – Microbiology and Immunology – Wiley Online Library. Microbiology and Immunology. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1348-0421.2010.00250.x. Published 2010. Accessed March 16, 2020.