Digestive health

Digestive Health and Chinese Medicine

The cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and many other digestive disorders is not known and is not easily treated through western medicine. While the ‘function’ of digestion is obviously disrupted, there is no structural damage that can be found through testing. Chinese medicine can address digestive issues any number of ways depending on how the patterns responsible for the resulting imbalance present themselves. Some of the common patterns associated with digestive disorders include:

Liver Qi Stagnation Causing Digestive Issues

A common cause of digestive issues in Chinese medicine is Liver Qi Stagnation that has progressed and become more severe; the condition is sometimes referred to as the ‘Liver attacking, or overacting on the Large Intestine’. This type of digestive disruption would likely become more active with emotional stress. Liver Qi stagnation is seen in patterns with pain just below the ribs, agitation, insomnia between 1-3 AM, PMS or hormonal imbalances.

Spleen Qi Deficiency and Digestion

In Chinese medicine, the Spleen is one of the primary organ systems involved in digestion. Spleen Qi Deficiency is often associated with a poor diet that may include fried foods, sweets, refined foods, and an over consumption of raw foods and iced drinks. Over-thinking and worrying can also damage the Spleen function. Often, digestive problems related to Spleen Qi Deficiency will have elements of Dampness, including sticky stools. Also, abdominal pain relieved with pressure or warmth to the area is common when there is Spleen Qi Deficiency.

Large Intestine Damp-Heat

If Liver Qi Stagnation creates heat that combines with Dampness due to Spleen Qi Deficiency, more severe chronic digestive disorders such as IBS can develop. Large
Intestine deficiency patterns typically include bouts of constipation, and the intestinal inability to properly absorb nutrients and the intestines. See below for foods to avoid with IBS.

With Intestinal deficiencies, Dampness can accumulate in the Large Intestine producing pain and diarrhea with a sense of urgency. The diarrhea is commonly yellow and explosive with a strong odor and a sensation of burning with Damp-Heat. This heat indicates that there may be a low-grade infection that may not show up on lab tests. The resulting, alternating diarrhea and constipation is a common type of IBS.

Spleen and Kidney Yang Deficiency and Digestive Disorders

Spleen Qi and Kidney Yang deficiency type imbalances result in diarrhea first thing in the morning, which often contains undigested food. This type of imbalance may include abdominal pain that improves with the application of heat. While herbal therapy can take many months to resolve digestive issues, it does actually address the underlying causes, thus, providing lasting relief for mysterious digestive problems. Chinese herbal practitioners do not like to use the word ‘cure’ in predicting treatment protocol outcomes, rather striving to restore optimal health and enhance wellness while alleviating suffering. It is always about bringing the body and energetic Organ System in to balance with TCM.

Foods for Better Digestion

A whole foods diet can greatly influence improved digestion. Choosing foods that are rich in fiber such as legumes, whole grains, vegetables, and a small amount of fruits seems to benefit those with sensitive digestive systems. Look to cultured dairy products such as yogurt, and healthy oils rather than fried foods. Processed food and fast foods should be avoided all together; a whole foods organic diet would be most beneficial.

Stress and Digestion

Stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga, and qi gong exercises can help to moderate digestive issues and IBS that is due to stress. Stress is actually a normal event in our daily modern lives, however, if one over-reacts to normal daily stressors it is considered abnormal and this can trigger digestive issues.

Emotional Factors Leading to IBS and Large Intestine Imbalances

In Chinese medicine, disorders associated with the large intestine point to a Metal Element imbalance. This typically indicates that some type of loss has occurred that has not been fully processed, or dealt with. Loss in life is normal, as most people will lose a loved one, a pet, a business, a marriage, or a dream. One must actually experience each of the stages of loss, rather than getting stuck in one specific phase, to progress as a healthy individual after loss. It is worth carefully examining when the digestive issues began, and determine if the disease relates to a specific loss in your life and if you have effectively worked through the emotions relating to that loss. A separation from a father figure would be especially significant.

IBS and Traditional Chinese medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) views irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as a complex condition with several underlying imbalances leading to digestive irregularities such as alternating constipation and diarrhea; however, IBS presents differently in each individual depending on underlying constitutional weakness. Often, all of the factors play in to IBS. In order to address this imbalance effectively and achieve long standing relief, each organ level imbalance must be addressed:

Liver Attacking the Large Intestines and IBS

Liver Qi Stagnation is a common disorder often caused by emotional constraints. Those who have Liver imbalances may have unresolved emotional scars resulting in feelings of frustration and anger. When the Liver energetic organ becomes heated up due to constrained energy, it strikes out at other organ system according to Chinese medicine. Stress may be a trigger for this type of irritable bowel syndrome. Explosive bowel movements would be a clear indication of Liver Fire attacking the Large Intestines.

Liver Attacking the Spleen and IBS

In TCM, the Spleen energetic organ system is central in digestive issues; functionally, the Spleen in Chinese medicine is very different than the spleen organ of western medicine. Because the Spleen oversees the transformation of foods and fluids according to TCM, IBS is nearly always linked to a Spleen imbalance. Symptoms would include any bowel irregularities, but would be clearly indicated with chronic loose bowel movements and sticky bowel movements.

Liver-Spleen imbalances leading to Damp-Heat and IBS

As IBS progresses and Liver Qi Stagnation becomes chronic, the Heat of the body consumes Yin and Blood of the body. TCM recognizes many causes of constipation including Dryness. Because there is an element of Heat consuming fluids alongside Internal Dampness due to Spleen imbalances, the Damp fluids condense creating sticky Phlegm fluids. Depending on the diet or emotional stressors, IBS will present with alternating symptoms in this complex condition.

Stress and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The inability to adapt well to stress is common after a period of ongoing stress due to familial friction, economic distress, or chronic illness. When our nervous system is unable to distinguish between a truly life threatening situation, and a common daily stressor such as a traffic jam, we begin to react to every little common life stressor as if it is a true crisis. This makes us emotional fragile and unable to adapt well to inevitable changes. In these cases, herbal ‘adaptogens’ are invaluable for ‘re-setting’ our nervous system so that we are able to battle each life challenge competently.

Metal Element Imbalances and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

In Chinese medical theory, the Metal Element governs over the Large Intestines. The emotion associated with the Metal Element is grief; therefore, any type of loss including death of a loved one, separation or divorce, loss of a job or status, or the death of a pet can be a trigger for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Working through all of the stages of grief is crucial in fully resolving IBS which is complicated by emotional constraints. The Metal Element also encompasses the Lungs, skin, and sinuses; this means that IBS is often seen in those who suffer with chronic asthma, psoriasis, eczema, or sinusitis.

Diet and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Avoiding foods that create Internal Dampness and cause Spleen damage is crucial in the recovery of IBS. Inappropriate foods with Spleen imbalances would include raw vegetables and juices; fruit and fruit juices; iced water and iced drinks; frozen desserts; fried foods and greasy foods; highly processed foods; white flour and sugar. Click here for appropriate

Acid Reflux and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been resolving heartburn effectively for thousands of years. Acupressure and Chinese herbs can help not only reduce the symptoms of heartburn, but more important to help recover from the cause of reflux by adjusting the esophageal pressure, lowering gastric acid, and balancing the the digestive organs.

Liver Qi Stagnation and Acid Reflux

Because the Liver energetic organ system controls the direction of Qi (Chi) in the body, acid reflux is often associated with a Liver (TCM) imbalances and “Rebellious Qi” (which simply means that the energy is flowing in the wrong direction). Common indications of acid reflux associated with Liver Imbalances can include:

  • Acid reflux associated with stress
  • Feelings of frustration or anger
  • Acid reflux occuring at night

The Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi (vital energy) in the body; when the Liver is not functioning at its optimal capacity, digestive issues may ensue. Additionally, when the energy of the Liver becomes constricted, Liver Qi Stagnation develops. Thus stagnant energy tends to create heat and inflammation in the body.

Spleen Qi Imbalances and Acid Reflux

In Chinese Medicine, the Spleen is central in digestive issues. Poor eating habits with the consumption of the following foods can damage the Spleen function in Chinese medicine and cause Dampness and Phlegm creating further obstructions for the digestive process and a propensity for the Stomach to develop digestive disorders:

  • Cold foods
  • Fried foods
  • Simple sugars and carbohydrates
  • Juices
  • Raw foods or uncooked foods

Lifestyle choices to reduce the occurrence of acid reflux:

  • Stress Management: Tai Chi, Qigong, Meditation and deep breathing techniques can all help to lower stress.
  • Diet: Chinese food therapy can aid in reducing heartburn. Avoid chocolate, tomato, peppermint, coffee, acidic fruit juices, sour, hot spicy, fatty and fried foods and alcohol.
  • Change your eating habits: Good eating habits can help to ease acid reflux. Eat slowly and chew well. Avoid eating big meals. Do not over eat; only allow your stomach to be moderately full. Eat 5-6 small meals daily. Eat your dinner at least 3 hours before bedtime. Sit down in an upright chair and rest 20-30 minutes after eating prior to any activity.
  • Stop Smoking
  • Posture: When sleeping, elevate your upper body by 5 – 6 inches or try sleeping on your left side. Avoid bending from the waist or stooping just after meals.

Acid Reflux from the Western View

In healthy people, the lower end of the esophagus (lower esophageal sphincter) normally stays closed, preventing acidic fluid in the stomach from backing up into the esophagus every time the stomach contracts. In fact, the lower esophageal sphincter is not a muscular valve but rather an area of relatively high pressure.

The high pressure keeps the esophagus closed off from the stomach and helps prevent stomach acid and food from traveling back up the esophagus. When the esophagus fails to function properly, the stomach acid backs up and heartburn occurs. Based on traditional Chinese medicine; the Liver, Gallbladder, Spleen and Pancreas work together to help the Stomach’s digestion. Once these organs function improperly, excessive stomach acid travels up to the esophagus and causes acid reflux or heartburn.

What conditions can contribute to acid reflux and heartburn?

Anything that decreases the lower esophageal pressure or irritates the esophagus might contribute:

  • Hiatal Hernia: A hiatal hernia is an anatomical abnormality in which part of the stomach protrudes through the diaphragm and up into the chest. This condition often occurs during pregnancy and if one is overweight.
  • Improper diet
  • Overeating
  • Eating late
  • Stressful lifestyles
  • Obesity
  • Tobacco
  • Pregnancy

Related symptoms and complications:

Other symptoms may include:

  • Sore throat or voice change
  • Nausea
  • Burning pain when swallowing
  • Sour taste in your mouth
  • Coughing and respiratory conditions such as, asthma, pneumonia and chronic bronchitis

If heartburn or acid reflux occurs frequently, it may cause complications in the esophagus, such as ulceration and Barrett’s esophagus, a pre-cancer lining of the esophagus. The inflammation of the esophagus may cause pain and bleeding during swallowing.

It is worth noting that pharmaceutical antacids suppress the natural digestive process and cause digestive disorders (Food Qi Stagnation) with habitual use according to Chinese medical theory. If food is not being properly digested in the stomach, many health disorders can develop over time; they can range from slow digestion to serious health concerns. This is why many prefer to utilize natural Chinese herbal therapy which can address acid reflux by addressing the root organ imbalances which cause acid reflux rather than suppressing stomach acid, as stomach acid is necessary for proper digestion.

Crohn’s Disease and Traditional Chinese medicine

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Crohn’s disease may be caused by constitutional deficiencies, invasion of the exterior pathogenic factors or an inappropriate diet. Constitutional deficiencies can be genetically induced tendencies, or could be due to improper diet during childhood such as too much fruit juice damaging the Spleen (TCM). In any case, Chrohn’s is well addressed with tonic herbal therapy, whereas, there are not many options or treatments available through modern western medicine.

Spleen Deficiency Causing Crohn’s Disease

According to TCM, the a proper Spleen function is necessary for healthy digestion and a diet high in raw or cold foods will injure the Spleen and Stomach

Liver Heat Contributing to Crohn’s Disease

Liver Qi contraints will cause Heat if not properly addressed in a timely manner. When the Liver heats up and becomes discontent, it tends to strike out at other organ systems. The Heat that is produced from Liver Qi Stagnation can combine with other pathogenic factors such as Internal Dampness to create more complex patterns of imbalance. One of the imbalances is referred to as the Liver Attacking the Large Intestine; this would cause digestive issues relating to bowel movements.

Damp-Heat Causing Crohn’s Disease

If Spleen Qi Deficiency goes unchecked, Internal Dampness will develop and can combine with the Heat produced by the Liver Qi Stagnation. Also, exterior pathogenic factors can develop in to Damp-Heat in the Large Intestine. Exterior invasion of Damp-Heat in the Large Intestine is characterized by an acute sudden onset of gastrointestinal distress; whereas, Damp-Heat originating from Spleen-Liver imbalances would be more chronic in nature. Indications of Damp-Heat in the Large Intestine would include diarrhea, presence of mucus and possibly blood in the stool, foul-smelling bowel movement (BM) with extreme urgency. There may be a burning sensation after the BM. Indications often include dark yellow urine, and abdominal fullness and pain. As Heat increases it will travel upwards causing irritability, increased thirst, and preference to drink iced water.

Spleen – Kidney Deficiency Causing Crohn’s Disease

For those with a familial history of Crohn’s Disease, Ancestral Kidney Qi Deficiency is very common. Those with a genetic disposition to suffering with Crohn’s can also find relief with TCM utilizing tonic herbs, but may have to rely on tonic herbs throughout their life to experience ongoing wellness. One sign of Spleen and Kidney Deficiencies is abdominal pain that increases with cold but decreases with a BM. Other indications of Kidney Deficiency such as lower back soreness, impotence, ED, premature gray hair, or anxiety may also be present. Look to Yin Valley Formula and Restore the Middle Way formula

Qi and Blood Stagnation Causing Crohn’s Disease

Lastly, Qi and Blood Stagnation can cause sharp stabbing pain in the abdomen; this condition mimics acute appendicitis. Blood goes where Qi Goes, so if there is long standing Qi Stagnation, than Blood Stagnation will develop. Often, severe abdominal pain and fullness with a palpable mass in the right lower quadrant diarrhea, lack of appetite, muscle wasting, lethargy, dark purple tongue will be present with this pattern. Because the Liver controls the movement of Qi throughout the body, Liver Qi Stagnation can be the underlying cause. However, Internal Dampness can also cause Qi to stagnate. Chances are that both imbalances are present.