Today, we cover a rather obscure topic. Most people are familiar with acupuncture and herbs as key components of Chinese medicine. But there’s another commonly used treatment which hasn’t gone as mainstream in the West – moxibustion. This involves burning a plant called mugwort near various parts of the body, often corresponding to acupuncture points (but you can also burn it near areas having pain).
So what on earth is mugwort? I had some vague memory that they used it in Harry Potter in various potions. I wasn’t aware it was an actual plant. Mugwort has been used throughout the world in various medicinal and ritual traditions. In Europe in the middle ages, mugwort was used as a magical herb to ward off evil, as well as a bug repellant. Roman soldiers used it to reduce foot fatigue. It shows up in both European and Asian cuisine. It is used for various healing purposes in the Ayurveda and among traditional medicine for indigenous Americans. Similarly, Chinese medicine uses mugwort for a range of medical issues, often when acupuncture alone is insufficient.
Conceptually, burning moxa produces heat which helps move qi. It can reach all meridians and can help dispel cold/damp as well as provide a mild analgesic effect (thanks to a compound called borneal). It can promote circulation and help with immune health. As with other forms of Chinese medicine, recently Western science has started to conduct studies on moxibustion. A nice summary of the thermal, radiative, and pharmacologic effects of moxa can be found here. Another PubMed study indicated moxa showed reasonable evidence of reversing breech fetal positioning and held some promise with reducing nausea in cancer patients. As sleep professional, I was also pleased to see some preliminary data it can help reduce insomnia (it appears most effective when combined with acupuncture). Another study found it could increase delta power and slow wave sleep.
Whereas many Chinese herbs are in short supply during this pandemic, you can still obtain moxa fairly easily. It is inexpensive, and makes for a fun ritual to try in your isolationist boredom. Below are a few links from Amazon if you are so moved:
Full sized moxa sticks – Pro-tip: only use outside or in a well-ventilated area, it has a strong scent. Also, it’s unlikely you will use the whole stick in a single session. Make sure you fully extinguish it before bringing inside to prevent accidental fires.
Smokeless mini moxa – These are ideal for apartment dwellers or those who want to put on a very targeted area of the body. The ones I’ve linked to have a small adhesive disc to stick on the skin, and these burn in just a few minutes for a treatment on the go. Make sure to have a bowl and tweezers nearby so you can remove the hot ash column safety when done.
My experience: My acupuncturist has encouraged me to use moxa for period cramps, digestive issues, and body aches. I actually enjoy the smell of it, though my wife hates it. She’s even sensitive to the smokeless variety, so has banned me outside to use them. As a bit of a pyro from a young age, it kind of feels bad-ass to light something aflame so near to your skin. And I just love the ritual of burning something. So I’m all in!
I used it today for GI issues related to trying veganism. Apparently the ol’ microbiome needs a little time to adjust to the high-fiber changes. I’ve had low grade tummy troubles for the week I’ve been on it, but I do feel a bit better having just burned some for the writing of this blog. Per my acupuncturist, I placed the mini-sticks on stomach point #36, below the knee near the tibia. So far, feeling a bit less sickly. It’s definitely something I’ll keep coming back to for various issues. It’s also just plain fun to use- it reminded me of smudge sticks and I loved the ritual of whirling smoke around the body.
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