As an acupuncturist, I have noticed that a number of the patients I treat complain primarily or secondarily of gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort or disorders. In fact, GI complaints are extremely common conditions for all healthcare providers and may have connections in today’s culture of processed foods, eating on the run, super-sized portions and generally poor eating habits. However, these same patients are also likely to dismiss their GI problems as something they just have to live with, having nothing to do with their primary complaint.
But Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sees the body as an integrated whole, and for me there is often a line that connects these GI complaints to other health issues. In fact, the GI imbalance itself may actually be the root of a larger health issue. If the root is not treated, then it is unlikely that the health issue for which the patient initially sought care will ever resolve itself.
Within TCM, digestion is one of the foundations upon which our overall health is determined. The food we take in provides the body with its capacity to be, and stay, healthy. TCM takes the old saying, “You are what you eat” to its furthest connotation.
It’s not just what we eat, either. The systems in charge of processing what we eat and use for energy, vitality, balance, and health must be strong enough to do its job. Over time, those systems can become unbalanced or weakened in some way. When this happens, we begin experiencing any range of symptoms from mild intestinal discomfort to severe health concerns, such as ulcers, cancers, etc. If this one area is out of balance, eventually other systems will become involved in the imbalance. This may lead to complaints or disorders seemingly unrelated to digestion.
Conversely, making changes in what we eat and the way we eat it, can have positive effects on our overall health and well-being. In fact, I have seen patients who were able to dramatically reduce or eliminate medications and other healthcare treatments just by making essential but significant changes to their dietary habits!
In conjunction with dietary changes, certain healthcare practices can provide support to the digestive system so that it remains strong (or regains its strength), such as acupuncture. For example, current research has shown that acupuncture can affect GI complaints by altering acid secretion, GI motility, and visceral pain.
Since GI complaints and disorders can be quite varied, it’s useful to describe some of the more typical conditions from which people suffer. Referred to as functional GI disorders, they include:
- GERD: GERD is typically characterized by increased acid secretion, motor dysfunction of the esophagus and stomach, and an increased sensitivity to acid secretion (i.e. esophageal irritation not seen in people who do not have GERD).
- Functional Dyspepsia: FD is a set of symptoms characterized by upper abdominal discomfort (usually after eating), reduced appetite, nausea and vomiting, abdominal distention, bloating, and weight loss that are chronic or recurrent and not due to the presence of an ulcer.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome: In contrast to the two conditions above, IBS presents mostly as lower digestive tract issues. Patients may have constipation-predominant or diarrhea-predominant forms of IBS resulting from either reduced or increased intestinal motility, respectively. It accounts for a significant number of doctor visits and has both physical as well as psychosocial components to its manifestation.
One study published in the Journal of Gastroenterology in 2006 looked at the effect of several specific acupuncture points on GI symptoms. Three specific points were investigated that are traditionally used to treat GI discomfort: Stomach-36 (ST-36), located about 3 inches below the knee; Pericardium 6 (P-6), located about 1 inch above the center of the wrist crease; and Ren-12, located on the abdomen about mid-way between the navel and sternum.
All three points have an effect on gastric motility (how fast food moves through the digestive tract) and on acid secretion. Some evidence suggests that ST-36 may do this via stimulation of the Vagal nerve, which is involved in stimulation the digestive processes. Whatever the mechanism, needling of these points can modulate the speed with which food moves through the digestive tract (extremely relevant for those with IBS), as well as increasing or decreasing acid secretion (relevant for those with GERD of FD).
Through effectively developed treatment plans, a licensed acupuncturist can help guide the patient’s body to reestablish normal digestive function based on the specific symptoms. However, as a holistic practice, I don’t believe that acupuncture is a replacement for good dietary habits. Rather, it is a supportive approach that seeks to balance the body and strengthen the digestive processes. Dietary modification is also essential to ensure long-lasting results.
Changing our dietary habits is by no means an easy feat. Acupuncture can help here as well by reducing stress and cravings associated with changing those behaviors. But it’s important to understand that this is a process that will take time (perhaps a lifetime), and not something that happens over night. Making small, achievable changes can often lead to better, longer-lasting results than trying to go “cold turkey”. I encourage my patients to identify manageable goals that can be incorporated in conjunction with their acupuncture treatments in order to ensure the highest chances for success.
While resources on diets abound, below are some simple recommendations based in TCM theory that you can use as a starting point. Remember, start small and build on your successes and you’ll eventually get to where you want to go.
Tips in Improving Digestive Health:
- Regularity is important. Try to eat your meals at the same time each day
- Cut out distractions. Meal time should be about eating. Light conversation is ok, but avoid studying, reading, TV, or discussions that are highly emotional during meal times.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day, Rather than stuffing yourself at 2-3 meals, try eating five, smaller meals a day.
- Don’t keep eating until you’re full. Stop yourself when you think your stomach is about 2/3 full.
- Minimize liquids during your meal; drink after you have eaten, or take small sips throughout your meal. Try to use room temperature or hot liquids to aid digestion rather than cold drinks.
- Eat slowly. Try chewing 20 times for every bite. Besides helping with digestion, this will allow your brain to catch up with your eyes!
- Portion control is important. Not only monitor the amount of food you eat at any sitting, but the amount of food you put in your mouth for each bite.
- Eat foods appropriate for the season. Colder foods might ok in the summer, such as watermelon, or ice cream, but not in the winter. Avoid iced drinks, ice cream, cold fruits, etc. in the colder months and instead rely more on soups and stews.
- Avoid too much raw food. Lightly cooking your food is preferable.
- Balance sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and bland flavors on a daily basis. Try not to favor one flavor over another, but incorporate each flavor throughout the day or into a single meal. Cravings for a particular flavor can sometimes be an indicator of an imbalance.
The above list is only general advice that would benefit anyone seeking to improve his/her digestive health. Your acupuncturist or Chinese Medical practitioner can help you to identify more specific foods and dietary changes based on your specific symptoms. I encourage anyone who may want to learn more about how acupuncture and Chinese Medicine may be beneficial for their health concern to contact me today.