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Digestive disorders are common afflictions that, according to the National Health Interview Survey done in 1996, affected 60-70 million Americans(1). There were over 230,000 deaths, including cancer cases. These numbers have only increased as Americans’ dietary habits and food supply have deteriorated over the last decade. The most common digestive disorders include abdominal wall hernia, Liver disorders such as hepatitis and cirrhosis, constipation, gallstones, reflux, gastritis, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids.
Oriental Medicine’s View on the Digestive System
The digestive system is universally understood as a key player in extracting nutrients and energy from food and drink. In Oriental medicine, the two main organs involved with digestion are the Spleen and the Stomach, which are said to receive, and then process food into Qi and Blood that nourishes our bodies and minds. It should be noted that the ancient Chinese understanding of the Spleen also includes the functions of the pancreas. If there is an imbalance in the Spleen or Stomach, then a huge variety of associated problems—ranging from pain, to chronic fatigue, to insomnia—can arise. Oriental medicine has successfully treated digestive disorders for thousands of years. Treatise on Spleen and Stomach, written in the 13th century, was the first known text to emphasize the centrality of a healthy digestive system, and the ideas found therein are still frequently used in contemporary practice.
Oriental Medicine Treatment Strategies
One of Oriental medicine’s foundational principles emphasizes that every individual is unique. That is, even if two people present with similar complaints, the cause of illness for one person almost certainly differs from that of the other. Therefore every person’s course of treatment must be individually-tailored to suit his/her particular need. Digestive disorders usually respond best to a combination of three types of therapies:
Acupuncture is the insertion of sterile, thin needles into specific sites on the body. Selecting appropriate acupuncture points regulates proper qi or energy flow, which encourages one’s body to bring itself back into balance. When treating digestive disorders, acupuncture can help strengthen the Spleen and Stomach, regulate metabolism, and is especially useful in curbing GI-related acute pain.
Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) is a science and art supported by at least 2,000 years of empirical practice. Medical practitioners have always prescribed herbs to aid in digestion, promote nutrient absorption, and adjust appetites. Modern research is also finding CHM to be useful in the gastroenterology department. Please see the “research” section below for more on that topic. For example, a study published in 1998 in the Journal of American Medical Association found that CHM individually formulated provided significant, long-term relief for sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Nutrition is an essential component of good general health, and it is an especially important aspect for those with digestive disorders. Understanding a person’s dietary habits and nutritional needs provides the framework for implementing specific, effective dietary changes. The suggested changes usually involve introducing nutritious and delicious foods into the diet rather than depriving one of particular cravings. Often, simple dietary changes make a profound difference within one week.
Western Medicine’s Approach
The Western Medicine treatment of digestive disorders obviously depends on what is being presented. Broadly speaking, Western medicine tends to address the symptoms of a medical condition with medications such as antacids, antibiotics, steroids, laxatives, etc. If symptoms persist, more radical procedures such as surgical intervention may be used.
What Does the Research Say?
A large body of work is building up around the topic of Oriental Medicine and digestive disorders. One of the studies that gained wide recognition early on was a 1998 article that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial concerning irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it was found that both standardized and individually-tailored Chinese herbal formulas significantly improved the bowel symptoms and global quality of life experienced by IBS sufferers in the short term. However, at the 14-week follow-up, only those subjects who took the individually-tailored herbal formulas had sustained improvement(2).
An aspect of acupuncture that makes it so versatile is its ability to have a homeostatic effect on the body. For example, whether one has an overactive or underactive digestive system (i.e. diarrhea vs. constipation), acupuncture can help to regulate the disorder, and bring the system back into balance. This effect was studied by Xu, et al. In 2006, who found that the stimulation of acupuncture points traditionally used to treat digestive symptoms accelerated gastric emptying in patients with delayed bowel responses, and relieved dyspepsia in subjects with normal gastric emptying(3).
One of the most promising fields for the use of acupuncture is in the field of functional gastric disorders. “Functional disorder” refers to any condition in which the function, or normal operation, of the body is disrupted, but at the same time, exams show no identifiable anatomical or structural abnormalities. In these cases, Western medicine has much difficulty finding the appropriate treatment modalities. Because Oriental medicine views the person as a whole, the treatment approach of a “functional disorder” is no different from other disorders. Clinical research is recognizing that acupuncture may be useful in functional disorders “because it has been shown to alter acid secretion, GI motility, and visceral pain”(4). As such, acupuncture is showing promise in the treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), functional dyspepsia (FD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), postoperative nausea/vomiting, and even visceral hypersensitivity(5).
1 - Adams PF, Hendershot GE, Marano MA. Current estimates from the National Health Interview Survey, 1996. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat. 1999;10(200).
2 - Bensoussan et al. Treatment of irritable bowel syndrome with Chinese herbal medicine: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 1998 Nov 11;280(18):1585-9.
3 - Xu, et al. Electroacupuncture accelerates solid gastric emptying and improves dyspeptic symptoms in patients with functional dyspepsia. Dig Dis Sci. 2006 Dec;51(12):2154-9.
4 - Takahashi, T. Acupuncture for functional gastrointestinal disorders. J Gastroenterol. 2006 May;41(5):408-17.
5 - Ibid