What is Moxa?
Moxa (or moxibustion) is a therapy that is used widely in traditional East Asian medicine particularly in China, Korea and Japan.
As its raw material, it normally uses the wild herb mugwort (Artemisia argyii, princeps or vulgaris), a plant that grows in temperate climates across the Northern Hemisphere. Despite its ordinary appearance, this plant and its close relatives have remarkable medicinal properties and have been important in the herbal medicine of many cultures for thousands of years. Mugwort leaves are whitish underneath due to their many tiny hairs which contain aromatic oils. Due to the therapeutic and antibacterial properties of the essential oils and tannins in the leaves, tinctures and topical applications have been traditionally used to treat many conditions including digestive problems, infections, fevers, sore throat and parasitic worms. The dried leaves are also used as insect repellent, and in ancient folklore were hung in doorways to ward off evil spirits.
Within East Asian medicine, however, mugwort has been used in a different and unique way: it is smouldered. To enable this, the mugwort leaves are dried, ground and repeatedly sieved to remove the fibrous material. Progressive stages of refinement and ageing provide different grades of a soft, fluffy substance and it is this that’s called moxa. The purest Japanese grades (which are used by Moxafrica) are very fine-textured and yellow, containing large amounts of essential oils.
When moxa is smouldered it releases both heat and volatile oils – this process, known as “moxibustion”, is normally done either close to or directly on the skin and provides various therapeutic effects. Historical and archaeological records going back to around 400BC suggest that moxibustion actually probably predates the development of acupuncture in China, with the two therapies used alongside each other for the last two millennia. What’s more, moxa is still widely used in China and is still an integral part of any traditional acupuncture practice.
There are, however, many different traditional ways of using moxa. Coarse moxa may be rolled in paper to form a cigar-like stick, for example, which is then lit and held above the skin to provide a gentle radiating warmth, similar to an infra-red lamp (the most commonly used method today). Alternatively, an inserted acupuncture needle can be heated by fixing a Malteser-sized ball of moxa to its handle, providing extra relief for conditions such as back pain and sciatica than acupuncture on its own.
Over recent centuries in Japan, however, the practice of smouldering tiny grains of pure grade moxa directly on the skin surface developed to a particularly sophisticated level. This may at first sound primitive or even barbaric, but when done correctly it need not be painful nor cause burns. In fact, most people do not find it uncomfortable, and actually enjoy it. Tiny pieces (the size of a half a rice grain) is burnt down at a controlled peak temperature to a fine point on the skin. When applied regularly at appropriate places on the body, this practice has been found to be very beneficial for both circulation and general health and can also frequently relieve painful conditions like arthritis.
More recently, medical research in Japan has shown that tiny amounts of tissue injury caused by such small cone direct moxa can have beneficial effects on the blood and immune system. Japanese moxa therapists used specific points on the body for centuries to treat a very wide range of conditions and to improve general health and stamina with some dramatic claims made for the benefits of moxa for longevity. More recently, however, Dr Shimetaro Hara (1883-1991) was a particular medically trained proponent for regular moxa use and was also an active researcher. He is documented, interestingly, as surviving to the age of 108, for the last few weeks of his life holding the cherished official title of “oldest male in Japan”. As well as being a moxa proponent, however, he also researched its effects developing elegant experiments to demionstyarte its effect of white and red blood cell counts. During the 1930s, before antibiotics, he was using moxa in Japan to successfully treat many severe illnesses which included TB (this was before any TB drugs were available) and reported significantly improved recoveries in his patients which he proposed occurred because of improved ‘host’ immunity.
His work inspired the foundation of the Moxafrica charity which was set up in 2008 to investigate whether this therapy might help when the TB drugs were failing because of drug-resistance, particularly where medical infrastructures are poor. Since then the charity has re-ignited his research with some significant results in improving MDR-TB recovery rates, as well as increasing the speed of recoveries and even preventing activation of tuberculosis after infection. All of these findings were the result is small daily doses of moxa at specific points, cumulatively creating what appears to have been a beneficial effect.
Assuming that these positive findings were the result of moxa therapy strengthening the immune response to a chronic respiratory infection (and also probably a rallying of the innate human capacity to recover from illness) the charity is now determined to investigate with all its available resources whether it may be able to do something similar for those suffering from Long COVID (or PASC).
To find out more please visit the ‘100 Day Moxa Challenge’ page.
And if you are interested in enrolling while places are still available, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.