More than 95 million Americans suffer from digestive disorders ranging from constipation, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome to more serious conditions such as acid reflux (GERD), ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. In fact, more than 35 million physician office visits a year are due to gastrointestinal complaints. Reports confirm that acupuncture and Oriental medicine can offer relief from even the most complex digestive problems.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Digestive Disorders
Evidence that Oriental medicine has been used for digestive disorders can be found in early medical literature dating back to 3 AD, where specific acupuncture points and herbal formulas for borborygmus (rumbling or gurgling in the intestines), abdominal pain and diarrhea with pain are discussed.
According to Oriental medical theory, most digestive disorders are due to disharmony in the spleen and stomach. The spleen plays a central part in the health and vitality of the body, taking a lead role in the assimilation of nutrients and maintenance of physical strength. It turns digested food from the stomach into usable nutrients and Qi (energy). Many schools of thought have been formed around this organ; the premise being that the proper functioning of the “middle” is the key to all aspects of vitality.
By taking into account a person’s constitution and varied symptoms, a treatment plan is designed specifically for the individual to bring their “middle” back into harmony and optimize the proper functioning of the digestive system. A variety of techniques can be used during treatment including acupuncture, lifestyle/dietary recommendations and energetic exercises to restore digestive health.
Relief for Ulcerative Colitis
Ulcerative colitis is part of a category of diseases called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and it presents with inflammation in the lining of the large intestine, specifically the colon and sometimes the rectum. The lining becomes inflamed due to small wounds or ulcers, which then produce mucus and pus.
To be more specific, the condition occurs when the body mistakenly identifies food or other substances as foreign invaders. White blood cells are called up as part of an immune response, which proceed to cause inflammation and damage in the large intestine. Flare-ups may be triggered by stress, infections and certain anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen. However, the exact cause of ulcerative colitis is not known, but medical researchers suspect a link between a person’s genetics, general state of the immune system and environmental factors.
Most people start showing symptoms in their 30’s since the disease advances slowly over time, and men and women are equally as likely to be affected. Children are also at risk and, in general, the younger a child is the more likely the symptoms and complications will be severe. Growth and mental development may be a problem in this case.
As there can be weeks or even months without a patient experiencing symptoms, when they do occur, they are referred to as flare-ups. The inflammation and ulceration associated with ulcerative colitis can cause pain and different problems, including frequent, watery diarrhea, persistent diarrhea with pain and bloody stool, urgent bowel movements, incomplete evacuation of the bowels despite a feeling of urgency, abdominal cramping, loss of appetite, weight loss, body fluid depletion, fatigue, fever or urgent diarrhea that wakes you up in the middle of the night.
The symptoms and how long they occur for can vary widely for each patient. Many sufferers report only minimal or moderate symptoms, while others experience life-threatening complications such as severe dehydration and major bleeding from the colon.
Acupuncture and Oriental medicine is equipped to handle the symptoms of ulcerative colitis as demonstrated by a meta-analysis of different scientific studies conducted since the 1990’s. A team of researchers conducted a wide-scale analysis of 43 randomized, controlled trials investigating the efficacy of acupuncture and moxibustion for the treatment of irritable bowel disease. Of those 43 trials, 42 specifically analyzed and addressed ulcerative colitis.
Researchers then focused on 10 scientific studies that compared the use of acupuncture and moxibustion to the use of oral sulphasalazine for symptom relief. Sulphasalazine is a doctor-prescribed pharmaceutical drug that is commonly used in the treatment of ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis. After analyzing the studies, researchers concluded “acupuncture and moxibustion demonstrated better overall efficacy than oral sulphasalazine in treating inflammatory bowel disease.” This meta-analysis was performed by a team at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Shanghai, China. The study was published in the 2013 issue of Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal covering alternative medicine.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Acupuncture
A common disorder affecting 10 to 20 percent of adults at some point in their lives, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) was once called “spastic colon” and has a combination of symptoms that may include constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, fatigue and headaches that can be worsened by certain foods, stress and other irritants. IBS results from nervous interference with the normal function of the lower digestive tract. The symptoms are variable and change over time.
While other patterns may be present, IBS is typically considered a disharmony between the liver and the spleen meridians in Oriental medicine. The liver meridian is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi and blood throughout the body. This flow can be upset by emotions or stress, causing stagnation of Qi or blood. Oriental medicine views the spleen meridian as being associated with the function of digestion and transforming food into energy (Qi and blood). This can be weakened by a number of factors including overeating unhealthy foods, overwork, stress, fatigue, and lack of exercise. When the spleen meridian is weak and the liver meridian is not moving smoothly, the liver overacts on the spleen and can manifest as symptoms of IBS. Symptoms can be managed by avoiding overeating, exercise, identifying trigger foods and reducing stress.
Crohn’s Disease and Symptom Relief
Crohn’s disease is a medical condition that can cause chronic inflammation anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract–from the mouth all the way to the rectum. Often, but not always, the inflamed tissue is specifically found in the ileum (the end of the small intestine) and the beginning of the colon. Inflammation can spread into the deeper layers of the tract and frequently has what is known as a “cobblestone appearance.” This refers to the fact that some patches of diseased tissue are found next to patches of healthy tissue.
Although all age groups are equally at risk, people 15-35 years old are most commonly affected. Crohn’s is a difficult condition to cure, so the main focus of treatment is to help manage symptoms with medication and dietary changes and, in some cases, surgery to repair or remove affected areas of the gastrointestinal tract. Because the disease is chronic, the individual may experience periods of flare-ups and aggravating symptoms, while at other times the person will have periods with no apparent symptoms at all.
Symptoms vary from patient to patient, and may include persistent, recurrent diarrhea, bleeding from the anus, urgent need to evacuate the bowels, constipation or feeling of incomplete evacuation, abdominal cramping, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, mental and physical developmental delays (in certain cases occurring amongst children), fever, night sweats, or irregular menstrual cycle
It is important to receive an early diagnosis as untreated Crohn’s disease can eventually cause life-threatening symptoms such as tears in the lining of the rectum and fistulas. Fissures can cause excess bleeding and pain. Fistulas happen when inflammation erodes tissue, causing the formation of a tunnel starting from the intestines, going to the urinary bladder, vagina or even the skin.
A study called Acupuncture Helps Crohn’s Disease Patients was published in the journal World of Gastroenterology, and it had some very promising results. It concluded that “acupuncture provided significant therapeutic benefits in patients with active Crohn’s disease, beyond the placebo effect and is therefore an effective and safe treatment.” Even more encouraging, researchers also discovered that both lab scores and quality of life scores improved. This means that acupuncture and Oriental medicine is adept at handling the physical and emotional symptoms that often accompany the disease.
For the study, the acupuncture points selected for treatment focused on reducing inflammation in the intestinal tract. Each participant received three treatments per week for a total of 12 weeks. Additionally, moxibustion (moxa) was also used on four acupuncture points on the stomach. Moxa is a traditional technique that uses the smoke from the herb mugwort to penetrate the skin. In this way, it stimulates the body’s immune system. Often, the warm smoke provides a pleasant, comforting experience for the patient.
Diet is very important and the right choices can help reduce some symptoms. In general, acupuncture and Oriental medicine suggests refraining from eating raw and cold foods.
Enhance Digestion for Optimal Mood & Immunity
The NeuroEndocrine System (the Hormonal and Nervous systems that work closely together) also plays an important role in DIGESTIVE and overall health. Your Gastrointestinal system is the most abundant source of regulatory Neurotransmitters and Neuropeptides outside the brain. An example: Serotonin, one of the brain’s chemicals that influences mood, actually has its highest concentrations in the gut. Scientists and researchers are currently studying the numerous links between our nervous system, hormones and immune system. The gastrointestinal system serves as rich ground for observing these connections. One interesting link is the improvement that many Digestive-supporting Herbs and Supplements effect on Brain and Neurological function, Hormone balance, Immune Health and more.
Supplements are especially important for Digestive Health. They can offer significant and relatively fast-acting support for components of your digestion that are not functioning optimally.
Here’s a list of key nutrients for digestive and overall health:
* Probiotics and Prebiotics: These are two of the most important supplements you can take to help restore healthy digestion. Probiotics provide live strains of friendly bacteria that are crucial for Digestive and overall health. Prebiotics ensure that your friendly flora enjoy a nourishing environment in which they can thrive.
* Zinc: An important nutrient for Digestive health which also plays critical roles in hormone regulation, Immune health and Neurological function.
* Chinese Cardamom: Offers numerous benefits for digestion, increases Antioxidant levels and boosts Immunity. Also helps to combat unhealthy cellular growth and balance Hormones with the compound Indole-3 Carbinol.
* Cinnamon: Soothes Digestive discomfort, improves digestive capacity, boosts Immunity and balances Blood Sugar.
* Ginger Root: Improves Digestion, reduces Inflammation, purifies the GI tract, increases Antioxidant levels and boosts Immunity.
* Fish oil: Reduces inflammation and heals GI tract lining, improves nutrient absorption, balances Hormones, improves Neurological function and boosts immunity.
* Proteolytic Enzymes: Increase Digestive capacity and nutrient absorption, boost Immunity and increase vital energy.
Additional Tips for Improving Digestive Health and Well-Being
* There are many factors that influence the health of our digestive system. Some of the most common causes of digestive discomfort include poor diet, late meals, rushed eating, food allergies and, most of all, stress. Simply taking the time to slow down and eat healthy foods in a mindful way can greatly improve digestive health and relieve tension.
To improve overall digestion for optimal health:
* Include an abundance of FIBER in your diet from fresh fruits, vegetables and whole, unprocessed grains.
* Avoid processed foods, commercial meats and trans-fats (unhealthy fats).
* Test for food Allergies and sensitivities.
* Refrain from eating for two to three hours before bedtime.
* Drink plenty of filtered water and herbal teas for proper hydration.
* Find healthy ways to relieve stress such as Acupuncture, Meditation, exercise and laughter.
* Practice yoga for improving digestive function and reducing stress.
* Limit your use of over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
* Limit caffeine and alcohol which damage friendly bacteria.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) teaches that there are direct relationships between different systems of the body. Western medicine is uncovering many of these same relationships, such as the complex gut/brain connection, from a scientific standpoint. These striking parallels between modern science and ancient healing wisdom will continue to become evident as our research-based understanding of human physiology sheds new light on time-tested philosophies of health and healing. This is particularly relevant to digestive-supporting botanicals and nutrients, which also offer numerous health benefits to other related systems in the body.