IBS & Digestion Issues? Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine Can Help
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common functional gut issue worldwide, affecting an estimated 3 in every 10 Australians. At Village Remedies in Sydney, we often use acupuncture for digestive issues, whether IBS is the main reason for someone seeking treatment or it just comes up as part of our overall health assessment. In this article, we’ll explore what IBS is, how it’s diagnosed and treated in modern medicine, then we’ll explore Chinese medicine for digestion and how we would approach IBS.
What Is It Like To Have IBS?
IBS symptoms can range widely in severity from mildly annoying to life alteringly awful. There are 3 main types of IBS recognised by the medical community:
Constipation dominant (IBS-C)
Diarrhoea dominant (IBS-D)
Mixed bowel habits (IBS-M) - i.e. alternating diarrhoea and constipation
Combined with the abnormal bowel movements, often comes issues with bloating, cramping pain and gas. Over time, it will also have a negative impact on things like energy and mood, and people often find that more and more foods become irritating to their symptoms. This can make it hard for some to socialise and lead a normal life.
How Is IBS Diagnosed & What’s The Cause?
Unfortunately modern medicine does not fully understand IBS and so there is no clear diagnosis other than fitting the symptomatic picture and ruling out any other possible causes such as inflammatory bowel diseases (such as crohn’s or ulcerative colitis) or infections.
There is research to support that IBS symptoms are related to unhealthy gut microbiomes - where the bacteria and microbes that live within us symbiotically, become unbalanced, either being overpopulated or underpopulated in the wrong areas. Though exciting, this area of science is still in its infancy.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is an example of a diagnosis that has come out of this research and is now commonly diagnosed by functional medicine doctors, naturopaths and alternative medical practitioners as a cause of IBS. The idea is that bacteria that normally lives in our large intestine, find their way to our small intestine and become overpopulated, affecting the breakdown and absorption of food. It is not, however, accepted by mainstream medicine and current testing methods are not reliable.
There is also a strong relationship between symptoms and stress, with people often reporting exacerbation of symptoms during periods of emotional stress. This relates to our sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) sides of our autonomic nervous system, as well as the gut-brain connection. If we experience stress for an extended period of time, our nervous system will default to a sympathetic-dominant state where our body’s remain in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, sparing less energy for the processes of recovery and digestion. This leads to suboptimal digestion which can contribute to microbiome imbalances, then, as digestion is further affected, this then becomes a stressor that keeps us trapped in a sympathetic dominant state. A vicious cycle.
How Is IBS Treated?
Since there is no clear diagnostic framework for IBS, there is also no universally accepted treatment for IBS. Depending on who you see, possible treatments include:
Symptom management via pharmaceuticals such as laxatives and anti-diarrheals
Treatment of gut infections with either pharmaceutical antimicrobials and/or herbal antimicrobials
Diet therapies such as FODMAP restrictions
Hypnotherapy or CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)
Ideally treatment would restore normal, healthy gut function and the person would be able to eventually return to a relatively normal life with minimal dietary restrictions. Unfortunately many suffer for years without substantial improvement of symptoms, becoming more and more sensitive to various foods and eating a more and more restricted diet.
Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture For IBS
In China, IBS is treated with a combination of acupuncture, herbal medicine and modern pharmaceuticals where needed with reportedly better outcomes than pharmaceutical treatments alone.
The first thing to understand is that the term “irritable bowel syndrome” does not exist in traditional chinese medicine, however, Chinese medicine for digestive issues has existed and developed over thousands of years. The same symptoms experienced by those with IBS and other modern gastrointestinal diagnosis have all been recognised in Chinese medicine and treatment strategies have been developed over thousands of years to address these concerns.
Chinese medicine employs a diagnostic approach referred to as “pattern differentiation” to arrive at a traditional diagnosis that fits an individual's unique expression of a disease. There is a common saying in Chinese medicine that one disease can manifest in many different patterns, and one pattern can manifest many different diseases. It is this more individualised approach that gives Chinese medicine and acupuncture for digestion it’s greatest strength.
At Village Remedies, when seeking help for IBS or your digestive issue, we would first run through a general health assessment where we gather information about your current symptoms, your history and other symptoms around things like sleep, energy, pain, stress, etc. This holistic look helps us to identify key patterns that could be contributing to your IBS. We then formulate a treatment plan of acupuncture and herbal medicine (where appropriate) to relieve symptoms and restore healthier function.
While chronic IBS and digestive issues can take some time to fully address, you should have some indication of the treatment working within the first few weeks of treatment and your practitioner will monitor things closely to ensure you are responding as expected.
If you would like to see if we can help with your IBS or digestive issues, please contact us or book online.