The prevalence of digestive diseases in the United States is far greater than most people realize. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “for every 100 U.S. residents there were 35 ambulatory care visits at which a digestive disease diagnosis was noted,” and prescription drugs for digestive diseases “dominate” the total number of those prescribed. The diseases being suffered range in severity from uncomfortable nuisance symptoms to chronic and debilitating.
Traditional Chinese Medicine views the body in terms of balance, and this is particularly true of the digestive system. The stomach is identified as one of the longest meridians of the body, and the digestive system’s function is considered essential to the nourishment of the body, mind and spirit. Both acupuncture and the use of Chinese herbal medicine have proven extremely effective in the treatment of conditions including nausea and vomiting, acid reflux and bloating, as well as chronic conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, gallbladder disease, postoperative ileus, and more.
Diagnosing Digestive Disorders
Digestive disorders can be the result of the foods that we eat as well as our external environment and the way that we react to what is happening around us. No two patients are alike, and neither are any two treatments. Diagnosis begins with an examination of the tongue and mouth, which is where digestion starts, then moves on to the stomach, the spleen and pancreas, the liver and the intestines. Hair and skin will be examined as well.
The Mouth and Tongue
As the point of entry for everything that you eat, the mouth is the beginning of the digestive system, and the tongue provides essential indications of what is happening inside your body. Tongue diagnosis is an essential aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine and is particularly important for diagnosing digestive problems.
The body is mapped onto the tongue, and its structure, color and coating (or lack of coating) provide information about both physical and emotional health. It is a microcosm of the body, and in combination with pulse diagnosis and talking to patients to get the answers to specific questions, the tongue can help an experienced practitioner formulate a working diagnosis.
The Stomach, or Cooking Pot
Both Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine recognize the essential nature of nutrition, but the two philosophies take a very different view of how nutrients are processed and utilized. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, food is processed in the cooking pot of the stomach and the process is supported by the spleen, which extracts and distributes nutrients to the rest of the body. The process is greatly affected by the temperature and moisture of the body’s internal climate, as well as by the inherent temperatures and qualities of the foods themselves. Thus, eating foods that are physically cold (such as ice cream) or that are classified as cold (such as kiwi fruit or raw salads) can dampen and impair the body’s digestive abilities and lead to diarrhea, bloating or fluid retention. The impact of different types of food can go beyond digestive symptoms and lead to the extremities being cold. Likewise, hot, spicy foods can overheat heat the body too much when used excessively, leading to heartburn, constipation or dry mouth. Too much or too little of either puts the system out of balance, as does eating in an environment that is stressful, or habitually eating too much.
The stomach has two roles: to digest the food and send beneficial, pure nutrients to the spleen for distribution to nourish and sustain the rest of the body, and to send impure components, or waste, to be eliminated. When the stomach Qi (or flow of energy) is healthy, those components flow downward. When symptoms such as bloating, nausea or vomiting are present, it may be an indication that the natural flows of Qi have become disharmonious or reversed in direction. This is called rebellious qi.
The spleen is the stomach’s paired organ partner in nourishing the body and spirit. It is called the Official of Transformation and Transportation, and after food is digested by the stomach its pure components are sent upwards, where a healthy spleen distributes them as nutrients, Qi, blood and fluid. While a healthy spleen delivers energy and blood to mind and body, an out-of-balance spleen can result in digestive symptoms including bloating, diarrhea, and constipation, and may be associated with chronic gastritis, colitis, and other illnesses.
Liver and Gall Bladder
Like the stomach and spleen, the liver and gallbladder are partnered organs. Problems with either can have a direct impact on the digestive system, as the liver meridian controls the free unencumbered flow of Qi and blood that is part of the digestive function, and the gall bladder is responsible for the transport of bile. Imbalance in either of these organs can have a direct impact on the small intestine’s functions. They can also cause symptoms of reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux).
Small and Large Intestines
The intestines’ meridian takes the food that leaves the stomach and either sends it up to the spleen or down for excretion. Imbalance in these organs can lead to problems including assimilation issues, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation.
Chinese Medicine as Treatment for Digestive Disorders
Though Western medicine has only recently begun to focus on the human microbiome and the role of bacteria, viruses and other genetic material on mind and overall body health, Traditional Chinese Medicine has long used herbal formulas and medicinal plants to address imbalances tailored to each individual patient’s symptoms and pattern differentiation.
Treatment of digestive disorders at Empirical Point Acupuncture
Sharon Sherman has been licensed to practice acupuncture and Oriental Medicine since 2001 and holds the highest credential available from both the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. She has deep knowledge and understanding of how diet, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can provide relief and numerous benefits for the unique range of symptoms experienced by her patients.