Digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and food intolerances are increasingly prevalent today. Symptoms such as stomach pain, bloating, gas, diarrhoea and constipation are very common. Naturally these symptoms have a huge impact on our quality of life. Simply avoiding certain foods often isn’t enough to reduce discomfort or socially awkward situations of having to regularly dash to the loo.
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective most chronic digestive complaints stem from a depletion of Qi (energy) in the stomach and spleen. Traditionally these two organs in TCM receive the food and liquid we consume and convert it into Qi, which is then distributed throughout our body. If for some reason our stomach Qi has been weakened it will be unable to carry out this function properly. The dynamic activities of the gut such churning, breaking down, absorbing and eliminating will become compromised, creating those nasty symptoms and intolerances such as fructose malabsorption, lactose malabsorption and gluten sensitivity (excluding Celiac disease).
What can cause an unhappy tummy?
According to TCM, there can be are many factors which can damage our stomach Qi and therefore impact functions of the digestive tract. Often a combination of issues can affect our health and create internal disharmonies. Here are some common examples I regularly see in the clinic:
- Stress – ongoing stress or emotional trauma can deplete Qi quickly. It will also create a pattern of stagnancy or blockage, which will disrupt normal digestive processes.
- Lingering pathogen – glandular fever is a common virus contracted by teenagers. Whilst the immune system fights this virus the body can become depleted, particularly the digestive tract. A virus or bacteria can often be the catalyst for disturbed gut function in later life.
- Diet – not only the obvious junk foods high in fat, salt and sugar can affect our gut but excessive spice or raw food could also deplete the Stomach Qi. Generally foods eaten to excess will create imbalance and digestive disturbance.
- Inheritance – according to TCM we are all born with a particular constitutional Qi. This can often be a cause of why particular issues arise, perhaps affecting the hormones, digestion or our emotional state. However this does not mean to say you cannot help your body by seeking advice and treatment.
TCM can help!
Through the use of acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and dietary advice you can restore and strengthen your stomach and spleen Qi. These modalities are used in combination or alone to promote healthy gut function. It’s common to initially significantly reduce the symptoms of bowel disturbance, bloating or pain. However, it is not the aim of TCM to simply ease your digestive woes. Follow up treatment over time can change how your body and gut functions and potentially achieve a more sustainable relief and improve tolerance to many different foods. To date there has been significant research documenting the positive effects of TCM treatment for IBS*.
Tips to help along the way:
- Avoid over eating, especially food groups that cause symptoms. It has been shown that following a FODMAPs** diet, which involves restricting your fructose consumption, can help even if you are not diagnosed with fructose malabsorption.
- Eat foods that are well cooked and warm, particularly in winter. Excessive salads in a cold damp climate can drain your stomach Qi. Click here for more guidance.
- Don’t eat too much spice, especially chilli. A little is okay but if you are spreading it on your toast or dousing a curry you might just deplete your stomach to the point where it cannot digest easily anymore.
- Try to manage your stress as best you can and be careful not to over exercise or party. Don’t underestimate the impact of emotional tension and physical exhaustion will have on your gastrointestinal tract.
- Probiotics are available in many forms and have proven to improve digestive processes.
- There are many Chinese medical teas available that contain herbs such as ginger, peppermint and fennel seed which soothe stomach distension and bloating.
*Chao, G.-Q., & Zhang, S. (2014). Effectiveness of acupuncture to treat irritable bowel syndrome: A meta-analysis. World journal of gastroenterology: WJG, 20(7), 1871.
** FODMAPS is a restricted diet of the following carbohydrates fermentable oligosaccharide, diaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.