What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the most common digestive disorder, affecting 50% of all patients referred to gastroenterologists. It is a non-inflammatory bowel disease suffered mostly by young adults. Women are affected three times more than men (it is possible that more men suffer from IBS but don’t report the symptoms as often). Although IBS does not appear to do damage to the colon, cause colon cancer, or increase the risk of intestinal bleeding, the frustrating reality is that doctors are unsure of the causes of IBS. Therefore, no cure exists in Western medicine.
What are the symptoms? IBS tends to begin in the second or third decades of life, causing bouts of symptoms that recur at irregular periods. Onset in later adult life is rare. The characteristic symptoms of IBS include any of the following: The more symptoms present, the more likely the patient has IBS.
- Alternating constipation and diarrhea, frequently related to mood changes
- Cramping pain in the lower abdomen
- Location of abdominal pain may vary from site to site and attacks tend to be episodic and severe Mucus in the stools; Stools are often small and round and may have the appearance of rabbit droppings or be thin or ribbon-like
- Sensation of incomplete evacuation after having a bowel movement
- Occasional relief of pain with bowel movements; Pain worse after eating
- Abdominal distension (bloating), Gas, Nausea, and Poor Appetite
- Varying degrees of anxiety, depression, fatigue, and sleep disturbances which may also worsen the condition
In diagnosing IBS, it is important to rule out other common diseases such as lactose intolerance, diverticular disease, duodenal ulcer, biliary tract disease, parasites, abuse of laxatives, and early ulcerative colitis. Diagnosis is difficult as there is no actual intestinal structure abnormality that can be seen with x-rays or endoscope. Therefore, people with this condition do not lose weight or become malnourished.
Western medical treatments for IBS: There is no cure for IBS in Western medicine. It merely provides symptomatic relief without fixing the root of the problem. Although antidiarrheal drugs, anticholinergic (antispasmodic) drugs, mild tranquilizers or antidepressants may be given (side effects are common), not ensuring their permanent use usually results in recurring symptoms. Increased dietary fiber may help slightly but some report either feeling “plugged up” (more constipated) or getting diarrhea if too much fiber is taken. Psychotherapy (stress reduction techniques, hypnosis, counseling, biofeedback) helps if stress is indeed causing the symptoms.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Treatment for IBS: IBS responds extremely well to Traditional Chinese medical treatment. TCM includes Chinese Herbal Medicine, Acupuncture, Nutrition, and Massage. Its theoretical basis has been developed in China over the past 3,000 years. The goal of TCM is to restore balance to the body and to treat the root cause of IBS, thereby eliminating the symptoms and also preventing the condition from recurring. This approach gives TCM a special advantage over the western medicine therapies that focus on merely providing temporary symptomatic relief. TCM is also free of side effects.
TCM looks at the whole body and does not merely focus on one symptom. Each symptom is analyzed in relation to all other presenting symptoms. The first visit with the TCM Doctor involves quite a lengthy consultation. The symptoms, medical history, and a tongue and pulse diagnosis are included in the examination. Following the consultation, the best methods of treatment will be discussed with the patient. In all cases, specific guidance about nutrition will be given. The TCM diagnosis is very specific to the individual patient. For example, many patients can have IBS, but their diagnoses according to TCM may be very different. In most cases, a TCM doctor does not treat two patients with the same combinations of herbs and acupuncture points. With great precaution, herbs are customized and acupuncture points are selected to fit the individual patient and ensure successful treatments.
How does TCM view Irritable Bowel Syndrome? According to TCM, IBS is caused by a number of different factors, the following of which are the most common:
- Long term bottled-up emotions such as anger, frustration, resentment, grudges, stress, tension, depression, and general fluctuations in mental state
- Periods of prolonged worrying, melancholy, over thinking, and excessive mental work or studying
- Irregular or poor eating habits such as overeating, insufficient eating, or excessive consumption of damp and cold foods such as dairy products, raw vegetables and fruits (ie: bananas are very damp), and deep fried foods
- Overuse of antibiotics
There are many patterns of diagnosis and treatment for IBS in Chinese medicine. It can be quite a complex process to find the root cause of the condition. In clinical practice, the organs involved in IBS are the Liver, Spleen, Stomach, Intestines, and Kidneys, the most common of which are the liver and spleen. The organ most affected by one’s emotions (stress, tension, anger, etc) is the liver, which can in turn quickly affect the digestion when the Liver-Qi becomes stagnant (not moving freely). The spleen is damaged by inappropriate diet, over thinking, and worrying. The spleen is in charge of the digestive process in TCM.
Some Research: In a 1998 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Chinese Herbal Medicine was shown to be safe and effective for IBS patients with results lasting up to 14 weeks after stopping treatment. This study lends strong scientific research for the use of Chinese herbs to treat IBS.
Dietary : There are common recommendations that are given to individuals with IBS, but TCM doctors go beyond these general recommendations. They also get specific on exactly which fruits and vegetables, or which protein sources etc. to include in the diet. In most cases, no two patients with IBS will necessarily be given the same nutritional guidelines (just like no two patients will be given the same herbal medicine) because each individual will have a different root cause of their IBS symptoms.
The following are some general guidelines that those suffering from IBS can follow with their diets:
Sometimes foods high in fat and caffeine, dairy products, or alcohol, can make IBS symptoms worse. Avoid coffee, tea, chocolate, carbonated drinks, and alcoholic beverages. In addition, smokers should be aware that IBS may be aggravated by nicotine.