If you live in Boston and suffer from IBS or IBD, you are not alone. Digestive conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) affect millions of Americans every year and in the case of IBS, is the second leading cause of missed school or work. Chinese medicine and acupuncture is very helpful in allowing patients with IBS or IBD to lead pain free and stress free lives. Despite their similar monikers, there are some very important differences between these conditions.
IBS is a purely functional gastrointestinal disorder. What this means is that based on Western medical theory, there is no known anatomical, biochemical or infectious cause. The syndrome categorization indicates that the diagnosis is based on a group of symptoms that typically occur together. The primary symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain, flatulence, bloating, diarrhea or constipation. The discomfort is often triggered by eating and relieved once the individual has had a bowel movement. One of the best places to find out more information about IBS is on the website of the Internal Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.
IBD includes Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis and is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the mucus membranes of the digestive tract. In the case of Crohn's Disease, the inflammation develops across the entire tissue of the tract and while it typically affects the distal ileum of the small intestine and the colon, can occur at any point along the digestive tract. Ulcerative Colitis involves inflammation of only the outer layer of mucous membrane in the colon. The symptoms of IBD tend to be more serious and if untreated, can lead to hospitalization. They typically include an increased urgency to defecate, blood or mucus present in stools, constant diarrhea and abdominal cramping. Due to the loss of blood, particular attention must be paid to the patient to ensure their wellbeing. Diagnosis is made based on visual confirmation of ulceration during a colonoscopy or through x-ray. An excellent source for information about IBD, Crohn's and Colitis is at the website for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.
Western treatment of these gastrointestinal conditions ranges from dietary or lifestyle changes to permanent medication to surgery in the case of severe IBD. Stress is often a major player in the flaring of symptoms although there is no known cause of either IBS or IBD at this point. From a Chinese medicine standpoint, these gastrointestinal diseases fall primarily under the realm of a spleen dysfunction. The spleen is the organ in Chinese medicine theory that is responsible for the transforming and transporting of the food we eat; a fancy way of saying that it is the major player in digestion and assimilation of food's nutrients into the body. When the spleen is dysfunctional in any way, this leads to gastrointestinal difficulties such as the symptoms of IBS or IBD. The fact that stress plays a large role in the severity of the symptoms also indicates that the function of the liver is either impaired or overwhelming the digestive capabilities of the spleen. The liver is responsible for the smooth movement of the Qi, or energy, in the body and when the movement is erratic or blocked, it can have effects throughout our systems.
Chinese medicine and acupuncture seeks to tonify and strengthen the spleen through nourishing acupoints and herbal remedies while relaxing the liver to promote the smooth flow of Qi through the body. In addition, other symptoms are addressed through treatment aimed at stopping any bleeding the gut, reducing inflammation, eliminating gas and bloating and restoring regular bowel movements.
Chinese medicine and acupuncture can give you an extra tool to use to relieve the symptoms of IBS or IBD but there are some simple things that you can do to improve your quality of life and management of your condition.
1) Decrease your stress levels. Since stress seems to have a large impact of the gastrointestinal health, the best thing you can do is remove yourself from stressful situations if at all possible. By using breathing or meditation techniques, you can decrease the harmful effects of stress and affect the symptoms of digestive diseases. There have even been references to hypnosis and mantra usage to relieve stress levels in people that suffer from IBS or IBD.
2) Exercise. This one could be piggybacked on the previous tip because exercising helps decrease stress levels in the body. Yoga is particularly helpful because many of the poses and motions involve twisting movements that actually massage the intestines and promote increased blood flow to the gut.
3) Dietary changes. This is often one of the hardest to make and stick to but there is very little doubt that diet does have an effect on gastrointestinal diseases. The main problem is that there is no diet that works for everyone. Track what you eat and your symptoms in a food log and you should be able to gradually form a picture of what your food triggers might be. Some basic recommendations include removing refined sugars, alcohol, and difficult to digest foods like nuts or seeds from your diet. The sugar and alcohol can cause inflammation in the system while the difficult to digest foods can tax an already fragile system.
4) Herbal remedies. A good acupuncture friend of mine says, "chamomile, chamomile, chamomile" whenever we talk about digestive disorders. Chamomile is thought to ease the nerves, reduce inflammation and relieve abdominal cramping. Another herb, turmeric, is also often used to decrease the damage caused by inflammation. A high quality probiotic can be helpful in decreasing the abdominal discomfort from bloating and gas.
5) Talk about it. Find a support group to join and discuss your condition with others who are going through the same thing. This can be invaluable in a world where bowel movements and the effects they have on one's life and perception of themselves are rarely discussed. In addition, having a supportive group of people sharing what therapies work for them, trusted doctors they like and hints or tips about living with these conditions can create an excellent environment for real physical and emotional healing to take place. You can find support groups in your area by looking at the website of the aforementioned foundations for IBS and IBD.
Digestive diseases like IBS and IBD can take a toll on your emotional state as well as your physical condition. While there hasn't been a specific cause or cure identified yet for them, there are numerous options out there for care. Chinese medicine and acupuncture are merely two of them but their emphasis on natural wellness and whole body balance might be just what you need to help you deal with your gastrointestinal illness.
If you would like further information about acupuncture or Chinese medicine and its treatment of Crohn's Disease or Ulcerative Colitis, I have some research articles available to share. Please contact me for them.