Inflammatory bowel disease has many different types, but the most common by far are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. The main difference between these two conditions is that ulcerative colitis only affects the large intestine, whereas Crohn’s can affect any part, but is usually found in the small intestine. Both conditions are caused by inflammation in the digestive tract, and the symptoms are fairly similar.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), there are a number of different reasons why these conditions can develop. First, let’s take a look at the digestive system in TCM.
The Digestive System in Traditional Chinese Medicine
The Stomach is said to be in charge of “rotting and ripening”. The “rotting” part refers to breaking down food with a combination of stomach acid and muscular contractions. This turns it into a kind of soup, making its nutrients more available, or “ripening” it, ready for the Spleen.
The Spleen is in charge of “transformation and transportation”. In TCM, the Spleen’s function is similar to that of the pancreas in western medicine. The pancreas is a small gland which releases enzymes and insulin, and plays an important role in digestion. Here, food is “transformed” into substances which the body can use for energy, growth and repair. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, fats into fatty acids, and carbohydrates into sugars. They are then ready to be “transported” to the part of the body where it is needed via the bloodstream.
The Small Intestine
The Small Intestine is responsible for “separating pure from impure”. It has a huge surface area and this is where most of the nutrients from food are absorbed into the blood. The parts of food which cannot be digested (such as fiber) continue their journey along the intestines to be excreted.
The Large Intestine
The function of the Large Intestine in TCM is “draining the dregs”. Much like in western medicine, it is responsible for excreting the waste from the digestive process, for getting rid of what is not useful to the body anymore.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Traditional Chinese Medicine
In TCM, inflammatory bowel disease is usually attributed to the Large Intestine, the Spleen or the Spleen and the Kidneys. Although the Kidneys are not directly related to the digestive process, they do provide warmth and energy for the entire system to work, and have an especially close relationship with the Spleen. The Kidneys are also responsible for controlling the lower orifices, including the anus. This is why the Kidneys may be involved in any condition which causes diarrhea such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
Spleen deficiency is one of the most common causes of inflammatory bowel disease. It can be due to a constitutional weakness, or it may stem from a poor diet or bad eating habits. Cold and raw foods are difficult for the Spleen to digest and may weaken it if they are eaten regularly. Eating too quickly, eating too much at one time, or not chewing food properly can also have a similar effect. Spleen deficiency is a chronic condition, and its symptoms may be there most of the time.
The symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease due to Spleen deficiency include:
- Frequent diarrhea
- Watery stools which may contain undigested food
- Abdominal pain
- Poor appetite
- Discomfort after eating
In this condition, food passes through the gut without being digested properly. This means that fewer nutrients are absorbed from food and eventually this can lead to vitamin deficiencies or anemia.
Spleen and Kidney Deficiency
Spleen and Kidney deficiency can be due to a constitutional weakness, or the Spleen and Kidneys can be weakened over time by chronic illness or overwork. The symptoms are similar to those of Spleen deficiency, but because the Kidneys are also involved, there are a few small differences. Like Spleen deficiency, this is also a chronic form of inflammatory bowel disease.
The main symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease due to Spleen and Kidney deficiency are:
- Early morning diarrhea (usually around 5am)
- Abdominal pain which is worse with cold and better after clearing the bowels
- Cold hand s and feet
- Dislike of cold
The Kidneys support the digestive process with their warmth, and when they become deficient the whole body can become cold. As well as digestive symptoms, there may be lower back or knee pain, extreme tiredness, or fertility issues.
Damp-Heat in the Large Intestine
Dampness and heat are two of the six evils, a name given to exterior pathogenic factors which can enter the body and cause disease. Excess dampness and heat can come from a diet which contains too many greasy or spicy foods, or drinking too much caffeine or alcohol. This syndrome can also be caused by an infection, for example, some cases of food poisoning could be classed as damp-heat in the Large Intestine. This is an acute phase of inflammatory bowel disease, and symptoms are usually severe, coming on quickly and suddenly.
The symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease due to damp-heat in the Large Intestine are:
- Sudden and urgent need to empty the bowels
- Foul smelling diarrhea with mucus or blood
- Abdominal pain and bloating
- A burning sensation around the anus
Other signs that there is too much heat in the body include fever, thirst, dark urine and irritability.
Qi and Blood Stagnation
Qi and blood need to circulate freely in order for the digestive system to function properly. They keep the digestive organs well nourished, and keep the movements of the intestines smooth and unhindered. Unfortunately, these vital substances can easily become blocked, either by physical obstructions or as a result of emotional stress. When qi and blood stagnate, they cause a wide variety of symptoms throughout the body. If they affect the digestive tract, acute inflammatory bowel disease may occur.
The symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease due to qi and blood stagnation include:
- Severe pain and bloating
- A mass in the lower-right part of the abdomen which can be felt through the skin
- Poor appetite
- Muscle weakness
These symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of appendicitis, so if you are affected in this way, see a doctor as soon as you can.
Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine may help with the symptoms of ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and other inflammatory bowel diseases in a number of different ways.
From a TCM perspective, these therapies can be used to improve digestive function by supporting the Spleen and Kidneys. They can also help your body to expel dampness and heat in acute cases of inflammatory bowel disease. Acupuncture and herbs also promote the free flow of qi and blood to relieve bloating and pain.
From a western medical viewpoint, acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help inflammatory bowel disease by reducing inflammation in the intestinal lining and increasing circulation to the local area to promote healing. Acupuncture is also a great stress reliever, so if your symptoms are worse when you are under pressure, it can be especially beneficial.
When you go for acupuncture for inflammatory bowel disease, there is no need to feel embarrassed about discussing your toilet habits. Talking about digestion and bowel movements is a very important part of making a TCM diagnosis, and acupuncturists actually ask all of their patients about this. You can be sure that whatever you tell your practitioner will be treated with the greatest sensitivity and confidentiality.
Managing Inflammatory Bowel Disease Naturally
If you have been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease of any type, the most important thing you can do is make some changes to your diet.
Eat more foods which support the Spleen such as starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, corn etc.), whole grains, soups and stews. Your meals will be digested more effectively if you sit down to eat and focus on your food, rather than being distracted while you eat. Chew your food well to kick-start your digestion, and stop eating just before you are full.
Foods to avoid include greasy, fatty or fried foods, strongly spiced food, raw food, and iced drinks. Limit your intake of dairy products as these can contribute to damp, and reduce caffeine and alcohol which can both cause excess heat.
Try to stay on top of your stress by practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation, or treating yourself to regular massage or acupuncture treatments. Exercise regularly, but don’t overdo it, as this can actually put your body under more stress.
Talk to your acupuncturist to find out which TCM syndrome is at the root of your inflammatory bowel disease, and get personalized dietary and lifestyle advice to suit your individual needs.