Irritable Bowel Syndrome & Acupuncture

Irritable Bowel Syndrome & Acupuncture

19 September 2018 by Caitlin Armit

Irritable Bowel Syndrome – What is it?


Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition characterised by alternating constipation and diarrhoea, often with abdominal discomfort and bloating. There’s no specific test for irritable bowel syndrome but doctors will usually do blood tests, stool tests, abdominal assessment and a review yours and your family’s health history to rule out other conditions such as Coeliac Disease.

Diet and lifestyle are the key contributors to irritable bowel syndrome so the first step in management is to make sure that you are getting enough sleep, avoiding foods which trigger the symptoms, exercising, eating a healthy balanced diet, drinking enough water and implementing stress management techniques. Of particular importance is stress management because most patients report that their symptoms are worse with changes in their stress levels. Patients tend to be either more constipation dominant or diarrhoea dominant with their symptoms.


What does Irritable Bowel Syndrome mean in Chinese Medicine?


In Chinese Medicine, we refer to the energetics of the Spleen and Stomach for many digestive disorders. This is not the same as what Western Medicine refers to as the Spleen and it is more closely related to what we now know are the functions of the Small Intestine. It is your body’s ability to separate the useful parts of food from the non-useful parts of food and to distribute the useful parts around the body and to excrete the non-useful.  Signs and symptoms of weakness of Spleen qi include weak appetite, lethargy, diarrhoea, urgent bowel movements and more.


The Liver qi and Gall Bladder also play a crucial role in your digestive system for the production of bile to lubricate the intestines and for the digestion and break down of fats and fat-soluble vitamins.  The liver qi is also responsible for the free flow of qi throughout the body. It represents movement and function and when it is not functioning properly, qi becomes stagnant and cannot perform optimally. The liver is particularly affected by emotional stress – anger, frustration, hurt and resentment. The spleen is affected by emotion too but this is associated with worry, brooding and overthinking.


Irritable bowel syndrome is essentially a disharmony between these organs. When both are strong, bowel movements are regular, painless and the stools are well formed, S-shaped and do not contain water, blood, mucous or undigested food. There should not be an overly strong odour but it should not be odourless either.


For people with irritable bowel syndrome, the qi of the liver is in ‘excess’ and the spleen is ‘deficient’. When something has ‘excess’ it has to go somewhere and it this case it pours over to the Spleen and Stomach which for most people is already ‘deficient’ and it’s functioning becomes weaker. We call this ‘liver invading spleen’ and this is the primary Chinese Medicine Diagnosis for irritable bowel syndrome.


Managing Symptoms with Acupuncture


For both Western Medicine and Chinese Medicine, diet and lifestyle modifications are still the first steps to getting better. With acupuncture we select points on the Liver, Spleen, Stomach and Gall Bladder channels to regulate the intestines, nourish the Spleen qi and harmonise the Liver qi. The aim is to reduce the intensity and frequency of symptoms.




A study published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 2015 Comparative effect of EA and moxibustion on the expression of SP and VIP in patients with IBS found that both electroacupuncture and moxibustion were effective at relieving abdominal pain in patients with IBS. Electroacupuncture was more effective for those with constipation-dominant IBS whereas moxibustion was more effective for those with diarrhoea-dominant IBS. Both treatments down-regulated the abnormally increased Substance P and Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP) in the colonic mucosa. After dropouts, this study included 81 participants randomly allocated to either group.


In 2012, the study Acupuncture for irritable bowel syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis was published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology and the results of a 2 year follow up were published in 2016. The original study evaluated 17 randomised controlled trials which compared the effectiveness of acupuncture against either sham acupuncture or other active treatments. Effectiveness was judged by overall IBS severity and health-related quality of life. Problems with the reliability of sham acupuncture as a comparison method have been written about extensively, so with little surprise there was no evidence of an improvement with acupuncture relative to sham acupuncture on symptom severity of quality of life. In the randomised controlled trials that did not use a placebo control, acupuncture was more effective than pharmacological therapy or no treatment. Acupuncture as an adjunct treatment to other Chinese Medicine treatment was statistically significantly better than the other treatment alone. A 12 month follow up demonstrated sustained benefits of acupuncture as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome.



Categories: Brisbane Acupuncture Blog | Digestive Health Brisbane

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