A common disorder affecting 10 to 20 percent of adults at some point in their lives, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) was once called "spastic colon" and is the end result of nervous interference with the normal function of the lower digestive tract.
Women are 2-6 times more likely than men to develop IBS, and the American College of Gastroenterology suggests that women may be more sensitive to inflammation in the GI tract.
In general, irritable bowel syndrome involves alternating constipation and diarrhea with a noticeable and sustained increase or decrease in frequency of elimination. Patients with IBS may experience fatigue, pain during stool elimination, cramping, nausea, bloating, gas, headaches and backaches. These symptoms are variable, can appear in any combination, may change over time and can be worsened by certain foods, stress and other irritants.
While other patterns may be present, irritable bowel syndrome is generally considered a disharmony between the liver and spleen meridians. The liver meridian is responsible for the smooth flow of qi and blood throughout the body. This flow can be upset by emotions or stress, causing stagnation of qi or blood. Oriental medicine views the spleen meridian as being associated with the function of digestion and transforming food into energy (qi and blood). The spleen meridian can be weakened by a number of factors including overeating unhealthy foods, overwork, stress, fatigue, and lack of exercise. When the spleen meridian is weak and the liver meridian is not moving smoothly, the liver overacts on the spleen and can manifest as symptoms of IBS.
Acupuncture and Oriental medicine support qi flow throughout the body, ensuring that all physiological and emotional processes run smoothly. Tension can result in a qi stagnation, irregular qi flow, uneven physical processes (including bowel movements) unpredictable flare ups, and uncomfortable or irregular bowel movements. For a healthy qi focus on taking care of one's self and ask for help when needed. Treatment focuses on alleviating symptoms and correcting any underlying imbalances using a variety of Oriental medicine techniques including acupuncture, stress management, dietary changes and exercise.
Acupuncture points can help relieve IBS symptoms, according to researchers from the University of York in the U.K., who found that integrating acupuncture into a treatment plan led to less severe symptoms. On the herbal front, patients receiving individualized TCM herbal formulas may experience the most benefit, according to an Australian study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers in this study offered either standardized or customized formulas to patients with IBS. Patients receiving customized herbal formulas experienced fewer IBS symptoms, even after the treatment period had ended.
Bensoussan A, Talley NJ, Hing M, Menzies R, Guo A, Ngu M. Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome With Chinese Herbal Medicine: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 1998;280(18):1585–1589. doi:10.1001/jama.280.18.1585
MacPherson et al.: Acupuncture for irritable bowel syndrome: primary care based pragmatic randomised controlled trial. BMC Gastroenterology 2012 12:150. doi:10.1186/1471-230X-12-150
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*Some content included in this article was provided by contributing writer Trina Lion L.Ac., Dipl.Ac.