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June 11, 2024

The Biochemistry of Moxibustion

Close up shot of a stack of moxa sticks

Ai Ye, Artemisia argyi, Mugwort Leaf or Moxa – this herb of many names forms a great pillar of Chinese Traditional Medicine – Moxibustion. Fresh and dried leaves are pounded into moxa floss, also known as moxa wool, to be batch bundled or rolled into sticks for practitioner use. Both direct and indirect applications are relevant to modern clinical practices. Your acupuncturist may specialize in an on-skin or off-skin modality but the burning of moxa works medicinally through heat and radiation regardless of treatment technique.

In TCM terminology, when Ai ye is prescribed for internal use it is categorically associated with herbs that regulate blood and stop bleeding. Through its taste profile as acrid, aromatic, and bitter one can remember that this ingredient is added to formulas to disperse and dry dampness. Its warm nature opens the flow of blood and qi in three very important yin channels – Liver, Spleen, and Kidney – acting to dispel cold-damp and relieve pain, regulate menstruation, and calm the fetus. Let’s see how this translates through a biochemical analysis.

Practitioner applying moxa stick treatment to patient lying face down during an acupuncture treatment

Heat Assessment

Through the TCM framework deficient, cold, or cooling ailments and cases of stagnation are often treated by warming therapeutics. After the raw mugwort leaves are processed the herb’s thermal nature is thought to transition from warm to hot. The burning of this moxa wool emits heat signatures extending the prescriptive effect further.

By itself, burning moxa without flame reaches a high range of 548-890 degrees celsius. As a form of thermotherapy the application of superficial heat promotes tissue development in a targeted treatment area with the ability to penetrate both shallow and deep tissue.The warming effect and the body’s ability to process this heat increases blood circulation at the site of treatment. It is the duty of the vascular system to regulate and maintain homeostasis through the circulation of oxygenated blood in our bodies. Increasing oxygen at injury reduces stress and inflammation, supporting cellular repair and elimination, ultimately slowing and decreasing the catabolic rate of protein breakdown.

Additionally, moxa triggers response in the physicality of blood vessels – vasoconstriction at the burning point to signal injury and vasodilation around the pont to further initiate the healing process. Vasodilation softens tissue while improving extensibility and metabolic rate of tissue recovery. Within local tissues the “heat shock” of moxibustion is cited to induce heat shock proteins (HSPs) commonly expressed in processes of wound repair and tissue remodeling.

Direct cone moxa treatment with acupuncture needle treatment

Radiation Assessment

Dynamic from the thermal effects of burning moxa, the physics within nonthermal emissions, visible light and infrared radiation, are important factors within the efficacy of this treatment. And not any radiation can produce the efficacy of moxibustion. Any object above absolute zero – 0° K; no motion, no heat – holds energy and emits electromagnetic radiation. Moxa’s specific radiation diffuses particle waves on a spectrum from 0.8-5.6 µm with a peak around 1.5 µm.

Electromagnetic waves can leave a thermal impression on our bodies as our molecules will convert absorbed infrared waves to heat as energy. This echoes back to results of improved cellular function and enzymatic activity. A more complex process catalyzed by near-infrared waves activates substances within our tissues that once absorbed (by connective tissue, blood and lymphatic vessels, and nerves underlying the treatment area), contribute towards better cellular metabolism and thermogenesis. It is thought that these effects, providing toward the re-activating cells which have lacked energy, supports the body’s immune and neurological functions.

About the Author

Wana holding a potted squash

Wana is a second year master’s student at AIMC with groundwork practice in reproductive and public health. They connect to East Asian Medicine through an ancestral root, and believe that land-based indigenous medicines deserve the privilege to supplement or substitute western care practices as conduits of more intimate contemporary healing.

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