TCM & Diabetes

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) refers to diabetes as Wasting-Thirst syndrome. The root of Wasting-Thirst is said to be a deficiency of Yin in the body and the presence of a Heat pathogen affecting the Lungs, Stomach, and Kidneys. When Yin is deficient, Heat from deficiency is produced; likewise, when Heat is present, it "burns up" Yin.

It is common for people diagnosed with diabetes to have a constitutional Yin Deficiency, but the deficiency may develop over time as well. Frequent causes are a diet that includes too many spicy and drying foods, insufficient rest, overwork, and sexual over indulgence. Deficiency of Yin and the presence of the Heat Pathogen lead to the symptoms of diabetes.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Categories of Diabetes

The most common manifestations of diabetes are excessive thirst, hunger, and urination, associated, respectively, with the upper, middle, and lower aspects of the body (known as the Triple Burners in TCM), so the disorder is commonly categorized as Upper Burner, Middle Burner, and Lower Burner Wasting-Thirst Patterns of Disharmony.

  • Upper Burner: Known as Heat in the Lungs, the primary symptom of this pattern is excessive thirst. The pulse is usually rapid and may be thin; the tongue is red and dry, possibly with a thin yellow coat.
  • Middle Burner: Related to Stomach Fire, the primary symptom of this pattern is excessive hunger. The pulse usually is forceful and rapid; the tongue is red with a yellow coat.
  • Lower Burner: Related to Kidney Yin Deficiency, the primary symptom of this pattern is excessive urination. The pulse is usually rapid and thin; the tongue is red with little coating.

Yin Deficiency and Heat can consume Qi and Fluids in the body and even lead to a "thickening" of Blood. Hence, Patterns of Disharmony such as Qi Deficiency, leading to symptoms of fatigue, and Blood Stasis, leading to circulatory disorders, may accompany these Patterns of Disharmony.

Patients who have been given a conventional diagnosis of diabetes, but who do not fall into these patterns, are diagnosed in TCM according to their particular signs and symptoms and are treated accordingly.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Treatment of Diabetes

Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments for diabetes focus on nourishing Yin, clearing the Heat, and resolving the Patterns of Disharmony in each of the Triple Burners. Because it is common for more than one Burner to be affected at the same time, treatment may be complex. While resolving the underlying condition, secondary treatment strategies for accompanying patterns such as Qi deficiency and Blood Stasis are carried out as well.

Traditional Chinese Medicine does not offer a cure for diabetes, and it is necessary for patients with diabetes to continue taking their medication and follow the diet prescribed by their physician. However, in many cases, TCM can help lower glucose levels in the body and thus reduce the need for medication. This reduction must be monitored carefully in a joint effort by conventional physicians and practitioners of TCM. Of the three modalities, herbal medicine is the modality of choice and offers the most potential benefit. Acupuncture and Qi Gong also may offer some benefit to diabetes patients.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 08 Oct 2015