Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS is a medical disorder relating to a problem in the function of the large intestines. The key symptoms of IBS are diarrhoea or constipation or an alternation between both. Other symptoms include bloating, abdominal discomfort, gas, urgency to defecate or a feeling of incomplete evacuation of the intestine and sometimes mucous in the stool. However IBS is not as serious as other intestinal conditions like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. This is because it is does not cause structural changes to the tissues of the bowel. For a diagnosis of IBS these symptoms are present without a detectable structural problem in the intestines.
The exact cause of IBS is not currently known. However there are a number of proposed causes. After a gastrointestinal infection the risk of developing IBS is 6x more likely, therefore acute infection of the bowel is said to be a key factor in the development of IBS. Also, stress or a stressful life event can effect gut function and lead to the symptoms of IBS. For women, changes in hormone levels can be a major contributing factor in experiencing IBS. This is usually in the PMT phase of their cycle. Lastly, different types of foods can exacerbate the symptoms of IBS, in particular mucous forming foods such as milk, cream and ice cream. Others include very sweet food such as chocolate or sweets as well as alcohol.
Due to the fact that there are no structural problems in the bowel IBS can be difficult to diagnose. For this reason IBS is classified into one of three different subtype based on symptoms. The first subtype s called IBS-D I which diarrhoea is the predominant symptom. Whereas in IBS-C constipation is the main symptom. In IBS-A sufferers tend to have a combination of constipation and diarrhoea. To be classed as suffering from IBS, people need to have had the symptoms for at least 3 months as well as at least two of the key symptoms mentioned above.
Acupuncture is an excellent choice in the treatment of a number of different bowel problems. It is thought to have a beneficial effect on regulating the function and immune activity in the bowel. For irritable bowel specifically, current evidence shows that acupuncture is helpful whether it be of the constipation dominant type, diarrhoea dominant type of a mixture of the two.
In Chinese Medicine irritable bowel is divided into a number of different syndromes. IBS which occurs after an acute gastrointestinal infection, is divided into either damp-heat or damp-cold syndromes. In both of these conditions it is thought that some of the virus or bacteria from the initial infection is still inside the intestine. Here the goal is to improve the body’s immune response to get rid of the remaining pathogen. As well as improving immune function acupuncture is thought to be helpful at regulating the body’s inflammatory response. Specifically by reducing the numbers of a cell called mast cells in the mucosal membrane of the intestine. Part of this response is thought to be by decreasing levels of a hormone called cortico-trophin-releasing hormone in the hypothalamus in the brain.
Other syndromes which can cause IBS relate to the under-functioning of the stomach and bowel, called stomach and spleen deficiency in Chinese Medicine. In these cases research shows that acupuncture is helpful at improving intestinal motility (movement of stools along the bowel) and the absorption of water in the large intestine to help with both constipation and diarrhoea. For more specific constipation information see my article.
Things you can do to help
• Avoid foods and fluids you notice make your symptoms worse. Usually these are dairy products, sweet refined foods, alcohol, or caffeine.
• Try to eat more fibre from green vegetables, whole grain foods or beans. For some people this will help greatly, for others it could exacerbate the symptoms of IBS. The best approach is to try it and see what the results are.
• Small regular meals are helpful for people who suffer from IBS with diarrhoea whereas larger high fibre meals are helpful for people suffering from constipation.
• Keep well hydrated, this is especially helpful for people suffering from constipation.
• Regular exercise helps to stimulate the contraction of the intestines and normalise bowel function. It can also help because it has a regulatory effect on the body’s stress response and stress is an important trigger for IBS.
© Sam Corban Acupuncture