What's Irritating You?

June 2011

In this newsletter, I am going to talk about a condition that bothers almost 20% of the population. You have symptoms like abdominal cramps, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or alternating of both. It’s painful, uncomfortable, very inconvenient, yet there is nothing structurally wrong about your guts… Sounds familiar? Some people experience mild symptoms, others very severe ones which affect your work and social life. I remember a patient talking about being bound to the house because of it. It comes and goes. Some people suffer for a short period in their life, others may have to live with it for their entire life. Conventional medicine doesn’t know what exactly causes this condition, so it gives the condition the name Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The good news is that these clusters of symptoms are nothing new to a thousand year old medicine like Chinese Medicine. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine have been treating this condition successfully for thousand years. And there are specific diet and life style guidelines for patients to follow so that not only symptoms can be relieved, but also future episodes can be prevented as well.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is indeed a very accurate name for the condition, because all the symptoms are showing that the bowel’s function is not normal, and it is irritated. Just like when you have a grain of sand in your eye, your eye becomes painful, red and teary. The solution? Get rid of the sand. And don’t get the sand in your eyes again. The same works with your bowel. You want to find out what irritates your bowel and get rid of it.

According to Chinese Medicine there are three main imbalances in people who suffer from IBS. They are: Qi deficiency, Qi stagnation and Excess Dampness. To put in a different way, the three problems are: not enough energy, not enough movement, and too much goo. Before we go into the specifics, let me explain one important perspective of Chinese Medicine, which is, if your bowel has problem, it is not just your bowel’s problem. It involves the whole body because your bowel is a part of your body and its function is connected with the function of your body, i.e., your nervous system or your immune system. Let’s start with the first problem: not enough energy. It takes energy to run anything. It takes energy for any organ to function normally. When this energy is not available, the bowel doesn’t function properly. It doesn’t move, or it moves too much. The second problem: not enough movement. It is obvious that the bowel has to move to carry out its duty in completing the whole digesting job — to move things down, to absorb useful nurtrients and eliminate waste. When it does not move, or moves very sluggishly, we get stuff piling up, hence the constipation, the bloating and the pain. Now the third problem is too much “goo” — which is the thing that blocks the movement of Qi and interferes with the bowel’s normal function. In Chinese Medicine, we call this “dampness” — the excessive amount of fluids, usually the waste of the body, which can’t be eliminated promptly and becomes the pathological cause of a lot of health conditions. In IBS, it is especially related to the symptoms of bloating, diarrhea, mucus in the stool, and poor appetite. For each individual who suffers from IBS, the predominant cause may be different. However, for most chronic cases, all three factors are involved.

After I find out which of the three main culprits that irritates your bowel, I am able to come up with the treatment plan and diet and life style guidelines for your specific case. Another important principle in Chinese Medicine: for each person who has the same disease, the treatment and dietary recommendations maybe different depending on what is the specific imbalance that leads to the disease. I have had patients who told me that the common IBS guideline (taking a lot of fibers and eating a lot of salad) didn’t work for them. They were frustrated and confused. After looking at their cases, I found that their imbalance often belonged to the first issue: not enough Qi (energy). After we dealt with this, their symptoms often improved greatly. And then their body is able to deal with the extra fiber and salad. In general, the treatment plan is to tonify the energy for people who don’t have enough, to course the Qi flow for those whose Qi is stuck, and to eliminate the Dampness for those who have too much “goo”. There are specific protocols of acupuncture and herbal treatment for each imbalance. However, these three imbalances are closely related. If you don’t have enough Qi, your bowels don’t move well and waste piles up; when you have too much “goo”, it obstructs the movement of the Qi, and your bowel doesn’t move; when you have too much obstruction, your body has to work hard to eliminate them in order to work properly, in long term a lot of Qi is consumed and you end up with not enough Qi. So, in most chronic cases, all of the three factors are involved and we have to treat all three imbalances.

Let’s take a look at what you can do to help yourself relieve symptoms or prevent any future episodes. We mentioned about three imbalances that contribute to IBS. There are things you can do to minimize those imbalances. I am going to talk about three aspects: diet, emotional health, and self -acupressure.

Although precisely what things you should eat varies in the three different imbalance patterns, there are common things that you should avoid — the irritants for the intestines. They are: diary products, alcohol, food containing caffeine: (coffee, chocolate, Coca-cola), greasy food, and spicy food. And, in general, avoid too big of a meal. In each individual case, there may be some other foods you should avoid, but to cut out the above-mentioned foods is a good start.

Emotional well being and stress management is essential in managing IBS. According to Chinese Medicine, worry (anxiety) and anger (frustration, resentment) are two main categories of emotions that affect IBS. They both cause Qi to stuck, and affect the Spleen Systems’ function. The Spleen System is in charge of digestion, production of Qi and metabolism of fluids. When the Spleen system doesn’t work properly, you end up with not enough Qi and a lot of “goo”. The Spleen system corresponds to the emotion “worry”, when the Spleen System functions abnormally, the person may experience more worry and anxiety. Deep breathing, meditation and exercise are several effective ways to manage stress. Another approach that helps to maintain one’s emotional health is to cultivate an awareness of one’s inner world. If you know what story your mind is running that makes you feel anxious or angry, you have the choice to stop running the story and change channel to a self talk that makes you feel more relaxed and at ease. In my practice, I help people to become aware of their stories, and I find that most people benefit from this approach and their physical symptoms improve once they are able to help their body and mind to work together rather than against each other.

Abdominal massage is a helpful self-treatment for people suffer from IBS. It helps relieve pain, constipation and diarrhea. Using your navel as the center, with about 8-inch diameter (the size of a dinner plate) draw a circle on your tummy. The circle is the area you need to cover when you massage. If you experience constipation, massage in a clockwise direction; if you experience diarrhea, massage in a counter-clockwise direction. Before you start, warm up your hands by rubbing them together or soaking in warm water. Use your palm to press down gently on your tummy, start massaging by using circular motion. As you massage your tummy, breathe deeply and be aware of the sensation in your tummy. Do this for about 10 minutes each time, twice a day.

With acupuncture and Chinese herbal treatment plus the good self care practice, the normal function of your digestive system can be restored. I have treated people with advanced case of IBS, often they say, “If only I knew that acupuncture could help me earlier, I would not have suffered and struggled for so long.” So if you are experiencing abdominal pain, bloating, bowel movement problems and fatigue, take action now and you can help your body to recover sooner!