Chinese Herbal Medicine for Fungal and Yeast InfectionsAdina Stanescu, R.TCMP April 1, 2010
Fungal and yeast infections of the skin are some of the most common and tenacious dermatological complaints. Parasitic organisms that colonize the skin of susceptible individuals produce these infections. They particularly like warm, moist places such as the feet and groin. If the infection is recent and has not occurred before, it might easily be cured by conventional drug store creams or tea tree oil preparations, with minimal effort and price.
However, if the infections do recur, or if they have persisted for years, then a more complex treatment is required, usually to address the internal environment of the patient. If the internal environment is too moist and damp, the pH of the skin offers the fungal organisms a very friendly place to live. If we can dry up and detoxify the skin, cleanse the colon, and optimize digestion, these organisms will finally move on.
These are generally classified as tineas, such as Tinea corporis (ringworm), Tinea pedis (athlete’s foot), Tinea cruris (jock itch) or Tinea unguium (nail fungus).
The most common of these is athlete’s foot, especially in this day and age of steam rooms, saunas and hot yoga. This condition tends to afflict men much more than women and is very rare in children. Athlete’s foot is contagious and one should always wear flip-flops when frequenting gyms or pools and dry off thoroughly. Soaking the feet in plain white vinegar once a week is a good preventive measure.
Athlete’s Foot – this can manifest in three distinct ways, and the treatment varies accordingly:
1) Initially, the skin between the fourth and fifth toes becomes soggy, greyish white, and peels or splits open. The area is painful and itchy – a problem that is further aggravated by tight shoes and sweating. An herb and mineral powder composed of rhubarb root, indigo powder and other strong anti-fungals sprinkled directly on the affected skin works miraculously to close the eroded skin and return the tissues to normal. Still, in order to make sure all the fungus is killed we follow up with a herb and white vinegar soak for a couple of weeks. Plain white vinegar is a strong anti-fungal and can be tried on its own as a home remedy, but when the infection is stubborn it benefits from the addition of herbs such as schizonepeta leaf and gleditsia vine. These and other ingredients are soaked in the vinegar for a week or so, and the liquid is then used as a daily foot bath.
2) Another presentation of athlete’s foot can involve large blisters and secondary eczematous infection all over the sole and sometimes the top of the foot. There is often oozing and crusting which make it nearly impossible to walk. A different soak is called upon at this stage, one whose principal ingredient is alum, a mineral salt such as the one found in the popular crystal deodorant stones. This is a marvellous ingredient for drying up oozing and blisters, and indeed can do so within a couple of days. However, we must also stop new blisters from coming, so external treatment must be augmented with internal herbs to remove the infection and toxin. Strong anti-toxin herbs such as dandelion, gentian and phellodendron – taken in the form of a boiled herbal soup – are very useful.
3) Finally, if the condition has persisted for many years, it usually settles into a perennially dry, red, flaky, fissured, tender and itchy presentation on the soles of both feet. Occasionally it may still flare with blisters and soggy cracks, especially during humid weather, or when sufferers are engaged in occupations that require long periods of standing, such as cooks or postal workers.
This chronic stage definitely requires internal therapy in addition to the vinegar foot soak, as it indicates the fungal organisms are very comfortable in their home and have settled in for a long stay. The long-running infestation has dried up all of the beneficial, hydrating components of the skin. Internally moisturizing herbs such as rhemannia root, combined with anti-itch ingredients such as dictamnus bark form the basis of the formula.
Nail fungus is the most stubborn and requires much steadiness and dedication to treatment. The herb and vinegar soak must be used nightly for a good six to 12 months or longer, while constantly cutting and filing away the thickened, yellow affected areas. It will take that long for a new, normal nail to grow out completely. Stopping the treatment prematurely will allow whatever fungus is left to start reproducing again.
An alternative to the vinegar soak might be anti-fungal plant oils such as tea tree and oregano, but the same dogged persistence is required to see it through to the end.
These largely manifest on the body, scalp or genitals. Some of the most common are: Tinea versicolor, (Pytiriasis versicolor / Malasezzia furfur) a multi-hued, scaly infection that attacks the trunk and back; Pityosporum ovale, found on the scalp of people with dandruff; and of course, Candida albicans, responsible for women’s (and men’s) recurring genital yeast infections. These are all stubborn and long running. In most cases it will require several weeks to cure.
Once again, a combination of internal and external teas and washes are employed with the general aim of killing the yeast organisms, regulating the liver, clearing heat and dampness (inflammation) and stopping the itch.
TINEA VERSICOLOR – One somewhat unusual treatment works exceptionally well for Tinea versicolor: a slice of cucumber is dipped in a combination of sulphur, typhonium root and others, and then rubbed on the affected area until it becomes slightly flushed. The skin begins to return to normal within a few days, which is always exciting when one has had the infection for many years. Of course, internal treatment must also be taken or it will find its way back. Additionally, sulphur, typhonium, alum and many of the other topical medicines of Traditional Chinese Medicine need to be used with care and never taken internally, but they are priceless for the short term to finally get rid of the pesky unwanted guests.
CANDIDA ALBICANS – Candida infections are also effectively treated with TCM, but it is important that the patient’s sexual partner be treated as well, at least topically, to avoid passing the infection back and forth. Many women work hard to self-treat their yeast infections with diet, such as with acidophilus and garlic, only to catch them again from an unsuspecting male partner who may be asymptomatic. Treating the man with a simple herbal wash or diluted white vinegar solution will often do the trick.
Internally, candida is treated as a problem of excessive damp heat, often secondary to weak or dysfunctional digestion, and an overly dampening diet. This squares well with the Western understanding, which holds that candida overgrowth begins in the intestine, from which it may colonize the adjacent vaginal canal. While avoiding foods that feed candida is certainly important – such as sweets, pastries, fruit juices and alcohol – TCM does not believe in a never-ending elimination of foods from the diet. If one is really that sensitive to so many foods, the key is to strengthen digestion and assimilation so as to tolerate more foods, and not to starve oneself to death.
To this end, internal herbal treatment of chronic or recurring candida is two-fold: first, get rid of the candida colonies (the damp heat) by using strong bitters such as Sophora flavescentis, Phellodendron amurense and Gentiana scabra. In severe cases, herbal tablet formulas may also be used as suppositories, which often contain the wonderful cnidium seed, a specific ingredient for all manner of genital itches and infestations. Once itching, burning and discharges have been subdued, the second phase of treatment, that of strengthening the digestive function, can begin.
Acrid herbs such as Atractylodis root, aromatics such as cardamom and orange peel, and mushrooms such as Poria, and the sour plum Mume, all have pronounced anti-candida effects while simultaneously boosting the assimilative function of the intestines and normalizing their membranes. If digestion is healthy, one does not produce the excessive mucus and inflammation that facilitate the overgrowth of candida.
People who are prone to fungal and yeast infections should avoid ‘dampening’ foods and drinks such as tofu, fruit juices, sweets, tropical fruit, shellfish, fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, and alcohol. As well, it is recommended to keep the skin dry, wear cotton instead of spandex or other synthetics, and use a body powder such as rice or cornstarch if prone to excessive sweating.
(Ed note: Aluminum-free baking soda is also a good body powder to counteract sweating; makes a great deodorant too.)