Acupuncture, Moxa and the Immune System
The navel is a mysterious place, the place of most intimate connection with our mothers, more intimate than the breast in terms of our primal development. When we leave the womb, it is the umbilicus that must be severed if we are to begin making our way on the path to becoming ourselves. An acupuncture colleague tells me that one of her most respected teachers says that we are what is left of the umbilical cord, so powerful is the connection established in gestation. The West doesn't seem to place much power at the umbilicus. It's an object reduced to being either an inny or an outy, and whether what surrounds it looks like a six-pack of beer, or the remainder of too many six-packs.
Bellybutton Point and Moxa
The meridian point at the bellybutton is Conception Vessel 8, Shenque in Chinese, or Spirit Gate. I don't refer to it as an acupuncture point, because acupuncture at Shenque is prohibited. I suspect it would be quite painful due the presence of nerves and blood vessels beneath, but it's also likely that it has been seen since ancient times as a sacred place. But you may use moxibustion at Shenque, the warming of points through the burning of moxa, the wool of the mugwort plant. It ignites easily, burns hot, and leaves an oil on the skin.
Moxibustion is linked to acupuncture from ancient times; in fact, the Chinese character for acupuncture stands for acupuncture and moxibustion combined. At the top of each webpage, I've placed the characters for each.) In days when people lived in much closer contact with the elements, warming an acupuncture point or meridian on a winter's night made practical sense. There may not have been much fuel to warm the entire family, or even the entire body, so providing warmth to critical points or areas may have felt as important to the ancients as a flu shot feels to some people today.
What does moxa do?
Chinese medicine puts more store into moxa than mere good company on a three-dog night. Moxa is said to "restore yang," meaning that it supplements the force that, on the micro level, makes activity happen in our bodies, and on the macro level makes us feel vital. Moxa also warms meridians and expels cold. More pertinent to the current discussion, moxa at specific places on the body is said to prevent disease. Metaphorically, it is even said that moxibustion on the leg at Zusanli Stomach-36 can lead to immortality. One famous doctor of ages past lived to be 97 reputedly by applying moxa to his leg during the first eight days of each month.
A recent paper by Chinese researchers hypothesizes that moxa works because the mugwort plant, when burning, emits infrared radiation at specific frequencies. (Other plants, when burned, just don't shine infra-redly in just the same way.) "Because water molecules [the major constituent of the human body] and indeed all the body's organic and biological molecules, can easily absorb infrared radiation," moxa therapy "induces a sympathetic vibration of the molecules that corrects metabolic dysfunction and pathological conditions."  A renowned Japanese practitioner of moxibustion believes that local changes to tissue due to heat initiates a local healing reaction that, when repeated, has whole-body effects.
To apply moxibustion to the navel, most commonly one fills it with salt, which transmits the heat while protecting the skin, and then ignites tiny cones of moxa until heat suffuses the abdomen. Salt moxa, as this is called, is a common aspect of treatment for infertility in women. I once met a Korean acupuncture student who said he cured his mother of a potentially fatal illness with salt moxa. I filed this under "remind me at a later date."
Moxa, interleukins and immunity
A recent study in Guangdong, China did remind me of what he said. Researchers were interested in studying the relationship between moxibustion and interleukins, specifically IL-2 and IL-12. Interleukins are proteins created by white blood cells that are responsible for many of the nuts and bolts of the body's immune response. IL-12, for instance, enhances the toxicity of T-cells and natural killer cells as they go about their daily work of destroying the pathogens that make us sick. IL-2 has a similar role. Natural killer cells are also key to the immune system. The researchers introduced tumors into groups of mice. The four experimental groups received either no treatment, moxibustion alone, chemotherapy alone, or moxibustion plus chemotherapy.
All the changes I'm writing about achieved experimental significance. Unsurprisingly, since we know that chemotherapy will lead to a drop in white blood cells, the group receiving chemotherapy alone saw the greatest drop in IL-2 and IL12. The group receiving moxa alone saw the largest jump in IL-2 and IL-12. The group with both chemotherapy and moxa showed figures intermediate to these two extremes, suggesting that moxa therapy compensated at least to some extent for the affect of chemotherapy. There was a similar increase in kill rate of natural killer cells. 
Can we immediately extrapolate from this to the human immune response? The authors of the study believe that moxibustion has immediate application for people suffering from cancer, and refer to other studies which support the current one. (Regrettably, all of their references are in Chinese.) Further, animal studies do not always predict how treatment will affect human beings. Related to that, there is sometimes controversy about the precise correspondence between acupuncture points on and on people. Yet there is no controverting the fact that all placental mammals have an umbilicus, and Shenque CV-8 is the point at the umbilicus.
Acupuncturists and their patients are always finding unusual connections. While imaging the brain through functional MRI, it has been shown that placing a needle in the hand causes a part of the brain related to the foot to light up. A patient I am currently treating for psoriasis reports that she has not experienced the seasonal sinus infections she has come to expect. Enhanced immune function, or a coincidence? The mysterious beauty in what the Chinese study suggests is that an intervention that intends to "build yang" may actually do so. Yin is the cool, quiet, implied potential inherent in all things; yang is the bright, arrow-point expression of that potential. Our white blood cells are the yin component of our immunity while their secretion of proteins to build our immunity is yang activity. How did a traditional medicine without access to biochemistry labs manage to understand this?
1. "An infrared radiation study of the biophysical characteristics of traditional moxibustion." Shen, X.; Ding, G.; Wei, J.; Zhao, L.; Zhou, Y.; Deng, H.; Lao, L. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. (2006) 14: 213-219.
2. "Effects of moxibustion at shenque (CV 8) on serum IL-12 level and NK cell activities in mice with transplanted tumor." Qui, X.; Chen, K.' Tong, L.; Shu, X. ; Lu, X. ; Wen, H. ; Deng, C.
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