By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D. & Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.
What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? IBS is a chronic gastrointestinal problem that causes uncomfortable changes in the body’s elimination process. One day you’re constipated, then a day or two later, you may have diarrhea. Pains move around the whole abdominal area, and your belly feels full and tight with excess gas. IBS treatment typically involves taking medications and following a special IBS diet, but many people continue suffering with no IBS cure. In this article, we’ll talk about how to get rid of IBS naturally with acupuncture and TCM.
IBS is a common digestive problem that can cause a lot of pain and anxiety around your daily bathroom habits. IBS can cause stress and even depression, compromising your ability to live life without worrying about when you’re going to have to go to the bathroom. Conversely, stress and anxiety function as triggers for bouts of IBS, so the problem becomes cyclical.
This gastrointestinal problem is called Irritable Bowel Syndrome because people who suffer from this disorder seem to have a more sensitive intestinal tract that is highly reactive to IBS triggers. Sometimes this condition is referred to as “spastic colon.” People who have primarily loose stools as a result of this condition are said to have “IBS-D” (diarrhea-predominant IBS), while people who suffer more from sluggish bowels have “IBS-C” (constipation-predominant IBS).
Many people never seek help from their medical providers for IBS treatment, perhaps because they think their discomfort is normal. The ever-changing nature of IBS means it’s hard to get a handle on what is actually happening. The pain in the gut seems to move around all the time, and bathroom habits can feel totally unpredictable.
According to conventional medicine, there is no one specific cause for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Having a more highly reactive intestinal tract may be due to many factors, some more clearly mechanical in nature, others more having to do with psychological factors. Inflammation in the gut, gastroenteritis, stressful or traumatic situations, heightened sensitivity to movements and sensations within the abdomen, and miscommunications of the autonomic nervous system between the digestive organs and brain may all play a role in IBS.
We usually think of serotonin as being a hormone in the brain that affects mood and the ability to fall asleep. But serotonin is a neurotransmitter that also plays a key role in the function of the gut, affecting how the intestines move and secrete gastric juices, as well as how we viscerally perceive these functions. Changes or abnormalities in serotonin release or uptake seem to be one of the issues related to IBS.
Top 5 IBS Triggers are:
- Abnormal levels of serotonin in the digestive tract
- An infection or abnormal level of bacteria in the digestive tract
- Strong reactions to certain foods/Celiac disease
- Weak colon muscle action
IBS involves, on some level, problems with both the motor function of the bowel itself and the extent to which a person is physically aware of “stuff going on” in their intestines and colon. Inflammation from infections or hormone changes caused by the menstrual cycle can also directly affect bowel motility. Those same things can cause a person to be hypersensitive to every little movement of the intestines, making them feel like painful cramps.
IBS and Gut Health
The balance of gut bacteria, or “flora” in the intestines, has been more recently shown to play a vital role in overall health. Gut bacteria are instrumental in the proper functioning of the immune system and the assimilation of nutrients from our food. The balance of the gut flora can be disturbed by taking antibiotics or a gastric infection, such as norovirus or other flu-type illnesses. Medical science is still making strides in learning how the health of the gut is very closely connected with the brain. It is becoming clear that gut health is inextricably related to mental health.
We know that stress, both chronic and acute, can cause all kinds of health issues. The mind-body connection is particularly apparent when it comes to IBS triggers. Feelings of anxiety create a ripple effect through the middle of the body, affecting the whole digestive system, causing pain and volatile action. Fear, shame, and even feelings of panic about having to run to the bathroom keep the whole process in a repeating loop.
IBS treatment often involves antibiotics or probiotics, but this has not been shown to be effective long-term. Many times doctors will prescribe medicines for anxiety (like Valium or Atavan) or depression to help provide IBS relief. However, these pharmacological treatments do not really address the root causes of the syndrome, and they may cause negative side effects, and sometimes create a dependency on the medication.
Top 5 Signs of IBS
A syndrome is a collection of symptoms that often appear together for which there is no clear medical explanation. According to conventional medicine, irritable bowel syndrome is evident when a person has frequent abdominal discomfort, which could mean a “stomach ache” or cramping, and bouts of constipation or diarrhea, or sometimes both, in alternation. In other words, IBS is signified by changes in the frequency or consistency of bowel movements, accompanied by marked discomfort before having them.
Top 5 Symptoms of IBS are:
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating and excess gas
- Constipation and/or diarrhea
- Mucus in the stool or other irregularities
IBS is more common among women than men. This may be due to fluctuations in hormones that affect the chemical balance and muscle action of the intestines. Women may experience more IBS symptoms in conjunction with their menstrual periods.
Conventional treatment for IBS typically involves the offering of various medications to deal with these symptoms. Anti-spasmodics may be used to help reduce cramping and contractions in the bowel, and anti-diarrheal medications such as Imodium may slow down the movements of the bowel, but these IBS medications do not help to restore true balance to the digestive system.
How to Treat IBS With Acupuncture
TCM and acupuncture work according to holistic principles, meaning that we are careful to look at the whole picture of what is going on with a person: emotionally, spiritually, physically, nutritionally, and energetically. According to TCM philosophy, the spleen is the organ responsible for processing our food and turning it into energy. IBS treatment with acupuncture is a matter of aligning the communications between the Shen (the mind) and the Spleen. Deficiency of the spleen is the primary TCM diagnosis for most patients with IBS symptoms. It is equally important to address problems of the Shen at the same time.
The most common TCM differentiations of IBS patterns are:
- Spleen Deficiency with Liver Qi stagnation: symptoms of this condition include diarrhea, mucus in the stool, abdominal pain, cramping, gassiness, bloating, irritability, and depression with lots of heavy sighing.
- Spleen Deficiency with Stomach deficiency: shows symptoms like watery stools, feeling of fullness and distension after eating, poor appetite, a pale complexion and fatigue.
- Spleen Deficiency with Kidney Deficiency: symptoms include diarrhea, especially in the morning, partially digested food in the stool, aches and pain in the abdomen, lower back, and knees, with a sense of coldness.
Moxibustion is a TCM treatment used in addition to acupuncture to treat IBS. One study showed that acupuncture treatment combined with moxibustion to get rid of IBS was extremely effective for reducing both the discomfort and frequency of bowel movements.
Another study that tested both herbal formulations and acupuncture treatment on patients with IBS showed that both methods were effective at reducing symptoms.
IBS Diet According to TCM
Chinese herbs, as always, are also integral to the successful treatment of IBS. In the TCM philosophy of healthcare, nutrition is considered to be just as important as acupuncture, moxibustion, herbal formulae, and other forms of therapeutic treatment. Herbs are a way to get nutrients into the body that are not necessarily present in the foods we commonly eat. TCM practitioners are trained extensively in the energetic and nutritional values of food and will spend time working with patients to modify eating habits and focus on a special IBS diet. Apart from reducing common problems like excessive coffee and alcohol intake, your acupuncturist will work with you to discover which foods act as IBS triggers for you and help you to make the most beneficial modifications to your IBS diet plan.
Top 5 Acupressure Points to Help IBS
Acupressure can be a very effective means how to treat IBS naturally yourself. Acupressure uses the same collection of points located along the meridians of the body as acupuncture to help eliminate blockages and encourage blood and Qi to move freely through the body. These points located along the spleen, bladder, stomach and “conception vessel” meridians can help provide IBS relief. The conception vessel meridian runs up the front and center of the torso, from the pubic area to the mouth. Also known as the “Sea of Yin,” this channel is instrumental in directing all the yin energy in the body. As it is very exposed, this energy center can feel vulnerable, and may be where we tighten up, hunch over, and try to hide and protect ourselves. Tension along this channel can be a major energetic factor in the cramping and spasming actions of IBS.
Try these top 5 acupressure point for IBS relief:
- CV6 – located two finger-widths beneath the navel, gently rubbing this point with circular motions helps to relieve belly pain, cramping,
- CV12 – located at the midpoint between the lower end of the sternum and the navel, rubbing this point in a circular motion can help relieve gas pain, bloating and acid reflux.
- SP4 – located on the inner edge of the foot, right above where the arch begins, stimulating this spleen point can help relieve gastric spasms and diarrhea.
- UB25 – these two points in the lower back, right beneath LV-4, can help relieve abdominal distension, constipation, and lower back pain.
- ST37 – also known as the “Upper Great Hollow,” these points are located along the outside edges of the shin bones, a few inches below the knees. Pressing firmly here can help relieve abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea.
Acupuncture Near Me for How to Solve IBS
If the IBS signs described here sound familiar because you or someone you know has been suffering from frequent abdominal discomfort and constipation or diarrhea, or both, it is important to seek help and advice from your healthcare providers. When conventional IBS treatment doesn’t seem to be helping, acupuncture and TCM may help you find IBS relief. Call us at Art of Wellness to get started with an IBS diet plan and course of acupuncture treatment.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.