Acupuncture for Your (Upper, Middle, and Lower) Digestive Problems
In Chinese medicine, we say that your digestion is the “center” of your health.
This is where, for many people, we start the healing process - in the center. Your digestion is where Qi – life-force energy – is made! From there, Qi can emanate to the rest of your body.
The first thing we look at is examining the types foods you eat.
It makes sense, right? The food you eat affects the organs that the food is running through. We want to make sure that the foods you eat support a healthy digestive tract.
Once we get the food situation straightened out, we’ll also make sure there are no organisms interfering with your digestive organs.
Frequently, we find that bacteria, viruses, fungi, or even parasites are causing some imbalances. If we do find this, we can make herbal and nutritional recommendations to re-balance your intestinal flora.
In the healing process, we often use acupuncture to encourage circulation to the digestive organs and speed along the healing.
Food-based supplements and herbs are helpful. Some examples of what we may use include beet leaves for liver health; pre and pro-biotics and fiber for intestinal flora; digestive enzymes to aid nutrient absorption; and herbs like chamomile and licorice to relax or tone the digestive tract.
Most digestive complaints respond positively within just a handful of treatments.
UPPER GI (Gastro-Intestinal) PROBLEMS
When it comes to curing acid reflux and heartburn (Gastro-Intestinal Reflux Disorder, GERD, gastritis, etc.), natural solutions are the way to go.
Acid reducing medications not only have a slew of side-effects, but they make the underlying problem worse over time.
The underlying problem for most cases of GERD is that the stomach is actually UNDER-PRODUCING acid, not over-producing.
Your upper GI inflammation may be due to ~
1. Food intolerance. If your body has a relative deficiency in enzymes necessary for the digestion of dairy (lactose), fats, carbohydrates, or proteins, when you eat them, or eat too much of them, or eat “cheap food,” the food will sit in your stomach and putrify. This putrification is what leads to the sensation of burning, bloating, and discomfort.
2. Stress. When your body or mind are under stress, from overwork, not enough sleep, or trauma, it doesn’t take a doctor to tell you that it takes a toll. Stress can lead to leaky gut disorder, histamine release (allergies), and redistribution of blood flow away from the digestive organs. Studies show that chronic stress can lead to a reduction of stomach acid production which eventually leads to the putrification of food in the digestive tract, which is the precursor to GERD.
3. Infections. If your digestive tract is healthy, the ph in your stomach is very acidic, around 1.5. (There goes the theory of “everything must be alkaline!”) If your ph gets too alkaline, it’s easier to get an infection. The acidity of the digestive tract helps to kill invaders. If you do experience an upper GI infection, like H-Pylori or candida (thrush), acidifying the stomach is helpful to the healing process.
Eating healthier is an essential part of healing from digestive distress. This will include figuring out which foods you are allergic, sensitive, or intolerant of and avoiding them. The avoidance is temporary (1-3 months) in most cases of mild sensitivity. Most sensitivities and some allergies will clear up within that time period.
Lifetime avoidances of gluten or dairy are common, and we can help you navigate those issues once we determine if it's something you can recover from or not.
In cases of infection, we recommend using raw garlic, myrrh, andrographis, berberine, oregano oil, or arteminsinin. A 6-week protocol to readjust the microbiome is typical, but it may take longer. We use NRT (Nutrition Response Testing) in our office to determine if you have an infection, and if so, which herbs will help the most.
If the GERD has progressed to the point of an ulcer, or if you've been on acid-reducing meds for a long time, we start with a more gentle approach. We may try using digestive enzymes, and recommending adding beets and cruciferous veggies in your diet. Also helpful are chlorophyll to heal the GI lining, and pepsin taken on an empty stomach with a big glass of water a couple times per day. This is also a 6-week protocol, on average.
Herbs such as licorice help tone the digestive tract. Chamomile helps relax the muscles, including the sphinter that connects the stomach to the small intestine. Bitter herbs like gentian, feverfew, cinnamon, fenugreek, black cumin seed, and wormwood help with motility, and to reduce bloating. Bitter herbs combine well with aromatic digestive herbs like ginger and Chen Pi (tangerine peel) to sooth the stomach, and promote Qi circulation in the digestive tract.
Always consult with a licensed herbalist before self-prescribing herbs!
LOWER GI PROBLEMS
Problems in this area can include constipation – dry, hard stools or infrequent bowel movements – or diarrhea – watery or loose stools that may be multiple times a day. Lower GI problems also include Chron's, IBS, SIBO, and Ulcerative Colitis.
First off, we should discuss what’s normal and what’s not. A normal bowel movement is once per day (or maybe twice), without pain, and the stool is not too soft and not too hard. If the stool hurts either before, during or after going to the bathroom; if it’s coming out in small pebbles or chunks; or if you’re skipping a few days of going to the bathroom – you have constipation. More than 2 or 3 BMs per day, especially if they're not fully formed, is considered diarrhea.
One reason for irregular bowels may be your diet.
2 most important things: fiber and water.
Avoid inflammatory foods, first and foremost.
Travel makes digestive problems worse due in part from the stress - you know, the itineraries, making sure we have everything packed, leaving on time, etc. Acupuncture is a great treatment for this. Another reason is you're eating things you don't normally from restaurants that don't prioritize your health.
Travel pro-tip: pack "safe" snacks for the road. When you arrive at your destination, find a grocery store. Stick with water for drinking, and drink lots of it. Traveling makes you dehydrated.
Another reason for irregular bowels may be your hormones. You may notice that some times of the month are easier to “go” than others. Dang Gui (Angelica Root) is a very helpful herb in the case of constipation, especially postpartum, with hemorrhoids, or after surgery.
Unfortunately, what’s really common these days is an overgrowth of yeast and fungus in the intestinal tract, or “GUT DYSBIOSIS,” typically from antibiotic over-use. Gut dysbiosis is treatable with diet changes and herbal medicines.
Other things to try:
Drink plenty of water. Your body is mostly water. You NEED to drink water, even if you don’t want to drink it. If you don’t like the taste of water, try a different kind of water. Try different filter types, different sources, or even adding a squeeze of lime or lemon to your water for flavor. There’s no specific amount you need, but some people say at least HALF of your body weight in ounces. So, for a 100 pound person, that’s 50 ounces of water daily. If you sweat a lot, it’s definitely more.
Exercise. Walking alone can be enough to stimulate peristalsis (your colon’s natural movement). Park your car at the far end of the parking lot at work, at the mall, and at the grocery store. Take the stairs. Go for a walk after dinner every night or before breakfast every morning. Get up from your desk at work or at school every hour and walk somewhere.
A nice side-effect of walking – a strong perineum. Your perineum is the space between your anus and genitals that you sit on when you sit. When it’s strong, you are less likely to leak urine when you cough or sneeze, and less likely to have hemorrhoids.
Digestive Enzymes or Hydrochloric Acid. Stress and other factors reduce the levels of acids and enzymes produced in our bodies. Sometimes we need to supplement them. Ask your natural healthcare provider which ones are best for you. Natural sources of enzymes are fresh fruits and vegetables. Apple cider vinegar is great for stimulating stomach acids to promote digestion.
Abdominal massage. When I was suffering with chronic constipation, doing this daily for 30 days is what finally “cured” me. You should do it on an empty stomach and use deep breathing while you push in with your fingertips on your exhale and release on your inhale, moving over your entire lower abdominal area. Afterward, drink a lot of water to flush out the toxins.
Diarrhea is concerning because, according to Chinese medicine, too many bowel movements means you’re losing Qi (energy). Your food is not properly absorbed, and you’ll notice problems in other areas – such as your sleep and stress levels – if it’s not corrected. Many times we diagnose diarrhea as either a symptom of Qi or Yang Deficiency.
If these conditions are uncomplicated or haven’t been going on for long, they may clear up quickly with acupuncture, nutritional care, and herbal medicines. If the constipation and diarrhea are related to another condition in the body such as food allergies, leaky gut, or an auto-immune condition, it will take longer.
As an acupuncturist, I treat your body holistically, which will almost always include these steps:
1. Diagnose any potential food sensitivities and make dietary recommendations based on this. Food avoidances can last anywhere from 3 weeks to a lifetime, depending on your individual level of sensitivity or allergy to that substance.
2. Recommend healing foods. In Chinese medicine, if your digestion is compromised in any way, we recommend small, warm meals several times per day. Including organic, healthy proteins, fats, and seasonal vegetables are essential. Other healing foods we can recommend may include bone broth and fermented foods. Certain herbal remedies, enzymes, or probiotics are recommended in some cases as well.
3. Acupuncture can help your body rebalance a stress response, improve blood flow to injured areas, and increase the flow of your body’s digestive acids and enzymes to improve digestive functioning.
Regardless of the condition, within 2-3 weeks, we should see some signs of improvement in your condition. This way we know we’re heading in the right direction!
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