Celiac disease, also known as celiac sprue, is a condition for which the only conventional way to manage symptoms is to eliminate gluten from your diet. However, gluten is a hidden ingredient in all kinds of products making it difficult to avoid completely. The other downside of this approach is that it does nothing to address the underlying autoimmune issues which caused the condition in the first place.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) takes a very different view of how the body works compared with what we are familiar with in the west. So could this alternative approach help to relieve the symptoms of celiac disease and make the condition more manageable? Read on to find out more.
The Digestive System in Traditional Chinese Medicine
In order to understand how the digestive process can go wrong, it is first necessary to understand how it works when it is healthy. In TCM, the digestive system is viewed in a fairly similar way to the western medical model. However, there are a few key differences which are worth exploring.
The main organs involved in digestion from a TCM perspective are the Stomach and the Spleen. The Stomach may come as no surprise, but how about the Spleen? According to western medicine, the spleen is primarily involved in the immune system and nothing to do with digestion. This is why when we talk about the Spleen in TCM, we usually use a capital “S”. This is to distinguish it from the physical spleen as we know it in western medicine, since its functions are quite different.
In TCM, the functions of the Spleen have a lot of crossover with the functions of the pancreas. The pancreas is located in the abdomen, nestled between the stomach, spleen, liver and small intestine. In ancient China, the dissection of cadavers was frowned upon for a long time. So as TCM developed, it placed more importance on the functions of organs rather than their exact physical location. Because of this, the pancreas was not seen as a separate organ and was considered part of the Spleen system.
The function of the pancreas is to produce digestive enzymes which help to break down the nutrients from food into a form which can be used by the body. It also produces insulin, a hormone which controls how glucose (sugar) is used and stored by cells.
In TCM, the Spleen is said to “govern transformation and transportation”. This describes the transformation of food (which has already been broken down by the Stomach) into nutrients, and the transportation of these nutrients to the organs and tissues where they are needed. This function is very similar to the action of the enzymes and insulin produced by the pancreas.
Once food has passed through the Stomach and Spleen, it enters the Small Intestine. Here it is separated into what are known as its “clean” and “dirty” parts. The clean parts are reabsorbed by the body for use, and the dirty parts are sent to the Large Intestine and Bladder to be expelled as waste.
So now we know about how digestion works from a TCM viewpoint, how about when things go wrong?
Spleen-Qi Deficiency and Celiac Disease
When the Spleen is healthy, it keeps the digestive process running smoothly and provides enough nourishment and energy for all of the other organs to do their work. However, the Spleen can easily be damaged, causing its qi to become deficient. The Spleen needs plentiful qi to keep it running, and when there is not enough, this causes a number of different symptoms.
The symptoms of Spleen-qi deficiency include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal bloating after eating
- Diarrhea or loose stools
- Pale or dull complexion
- Weakness of the muscles or limbs
Many of these symptoms are similar to those of celiac disease, and Spleen-qi deficiency is the most common TCM diagnosis of this condition.
The bloating and diarrhea is caused by an instant reaction to gluten in the small intestine. If gluten is consumed regularly, the lining of the intestine will eventually be damaged, making it more difficult to absorb the nutrients from food. Over time this leads to nutrient loss, conditions such as anemia and the symptoms of tiredness, weakness and pale skin.
Taking Care of Your Spleen
It is important to take care of your Spleen and your digestive health, whether you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or not. Unfortunately, due to the typical western diet which is high in fat, sugar and processed foods, Spleen-qi deficiency is a very common problem.
The best way to avoid damaging your Spleen is to eat a healthy, balanced diet. The best foods for supporting your Spleen are sweet, starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yams, squashes, carrots, beans and pulses. Eating more strong-tasting vegetables and spices such as onions, garlic, ginger and cinnamon can also help to stimulate the Spleen and aid the digestive process.
Foods such as soups, stews and congee are ideal for supporting the Spleen. This is because they have already been cooked for a long time and partially broken down, meaning that the Spleen does not have to work so hard to extract the nutrients.
It is also important to eat small, regular meals at around the same time each day. Make sure you do not skip meals, especially breakfast, and do not eat too late in the evening. Take time to sit and enjoy your food rather than eating on the go, chew every mouthful properly and try to avoid eating when stressed. All of these things will help your Spleen to digest food properly and prevent it from becoming weakened over time.
Foods to avoid are greasy or fatty foods, fried foods, processed foods, refined sugars, dairy products, wheat products, concentrated fruit juice, bananas and raw foods which are difficult to digest. If you consume too many of these products, your Spleen will struggle to digest them properly. This can lead to a condition known in TCM as “internal dampness”.
Internal Dampness and Phlegm
One of the functions of the Spleen is to transform the fluids from food and send them to the Bladder for excretion. If it fails to do this due to qi deficiency, the excess fluids will not be drained off and will begin to collect within the body.
The symptoms of internal dampness include:
- Feelings of heaviness in the body, limbs or head
- Difficulty thinking clearly
- Loss of appetite
- A feeling of fullness in the chest
- Sticky mouth or tongue
- Sticky vaginal discharge
- Loose stools
- Difficult urination
When dampness is present in the body for a long time, it can begin to transform into phlegm. Phlegm is a very serious problem in TCM. It can cause problems such as lumps and bumps under the skin, tumors, and as it is very thick and sticky, it can even cause your mind to become “misted” resulting in mental illness.
Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for Celiac Disease
Acupuncture and TCM can help with celiac disease in a number of different ways. If you suffer from celiac disease, your body responds to gluten by producing inflammation in your intestines.
According to TCM, inflammation is a blockage in the free flow of qi and blood. This blockage is what causes abdominal pain and many of the other symptoms of celiac disease. By freeing up the circulation of qi and blood, acupuncture can help to reduce inflammation and relieve these symptoms as they occur. Acupuncture can also help to relieve pain by influencing your nervous system and triggering the release of endorphins, your body's natural painkillers.
In addition to this, acupuncture and herbs can be used to strengthen the Spleen, improve digestive function and remove any dampness or phlegm. However, some of the herbs commonly used in TCM to improve digestion do contain gluten. These include medicated leaven, germinated barley and maltose. This is why it is very important that you have a full consultation with a qualified acupuncturist before deciding to take any herbal medicines.
Acupuncture and TCM can help you to manage some of the symptoms of celiac disease, but they are not a miracle cure. The only way to prevent the symptoms of celiac disease is by completely eliminating gluten from your diet. However, if you have just been diagnosed with celiac disease, it can take time before your body settles down. Acupuncture can help to support you through this uncomfortable process and may also help you to cope if you accidentally eat something containing gluten later on.
In addition, acupuncture may help to improve your digestion in general, giving you a sense of better overall health and well-being.