Acupuncture and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

by Mary Vincent, L.Ac.

Many people have been turning to acupuncture for chronic digestive issues, with especially good outcomes for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a common, chronic condition that affects the large intestine, causing uncomfortable symptoms which include:

  • Constipation and/or diarrhea (can alternate between both)
  • Bloating and gas
  • Abdominal pain and cramping

A diagnosis of IBS is given based on the presence of the above symptoms, but without bloody stools, weight loss, or inflammation so severe that it causes discernible changes in the tissue of the large intestine. If you present with the above symptoms, your doctor may run tests to rule out other diseases (e.g., stool sampling tests, blood tests, and x-rays). If something more serious is suspected, you may also undergo a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. Contrary to more serious gastrointestinal disorders, there is no increased risk of colon cancer with IBS. While the symptoms that do exist can be ongoing, they are rarely severe, though they can cause enough physical discomfort or embarrassment to interrupt one’s regular daily activities. Currently, there is no known cause of IBS, though there has been some speculation that it may be caused by incorrect signals to the bowel from the brain. It is recognized that it is common to have an IBS flare up after stressful life events or a gastrointestinal illness, and it is more common among those who suffer from anxiety or depression.

IBS typically affects people younger than 45, and is about twice as common in women as in men.

How does acupuncture help?

A great number of acupuncture points exist on areas of the body that correspond with many large nerve branches of the peripheral nervous system (the part of the nervous system that exists outside of the brain and spinal cord). Acupuncture has a positive effect on the digestive system (and many other systems of the body) due to the response of the autonomic nervous system (a part of the peripheral nervous system that helps regulate the internal organs) to the needles. There are two branches to the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). When the needles are placed in these acupuncture points, messages are sent to the brain that cause the body to respond by calming our “fight or flight” responses, and activating mechanisms that help our bodies to “rest and digest”. This seems to be why the majority of people get very relaxed and sleepy during treatments, and many also notice some mild digestive stimulation while the needles are in as well.

Most people with IBS get good results rather quickly with acupuncture, usually within the first few treatments. At BCA, we would typically suggest 2 times a week for one or two months to start. For more stubborn or long term cases we will likely recommend some specific herbal formulas to help further lessen your IBS symptoms and facilitate your digestive improvement.

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