Using Acupuncture to Heal Digestive Issues

Marnie Joyce

I have been going to acupuncture on and off for about eight years after a friend recommended it to me. The first time I went was because of extreme fatigue and constantly feeling cold. Within a few treatments, I noticed a difference and became a believer. Over the years, I have gone for managing stress and pain and healing colds. In the fall, I was bloated for a while and my usual tricks of the trade were not working. No matter what foods I ate or did not eat or healing drinks I drank, I could not reduce my bloating. I knew it was time to go back to acupuncture. After going once a week for a month, I was back to normal. Acupuncture can heal many different illnesses or pains, including back pain, stress, anxiety, depression, fertility issues, insomnia, migraines, allergies, diarrhea, acid reflux, and more. However, whenever I mention acupuncture to family or friends, it raises a lot of questions, including what is acupuncture and how does it work. So, I asked my acupuncturist, Lisa Blake at Turning Leaf Acupuncture if she would answer a list of questions to help better explain the benefits of acupuncture. I also asked some digestive specific questions. If you have other questions that are not addressed, please leave them in the comment section and I will get back to you.

1. What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is one of the oldest systems of healing in the world. It originated in China 3,500 years ago and has become popular in the United States in the last thirty years or so. It is a safe, effective, and natural approach to help one regain and maintain one’s health and well-being. According to Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), there are as many as 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body, which are connected by 12 main ‘pathways’ called meridians. These meridians conduct energy, or qi (“chi”), between the surface of the body and its internal organs. Qi is believed to help regulate balance in the body and each point has a different effect on the qi that passes through it. Qi is influenced by the opposing forces of yin and yang, which represent positive and negative energy and forces in the universe and human body. Acupuncture is believed to keep the balance between yin and yang, thus allowing for the normal flow of qi throughout the body and restoring health to the mind and body.

2. How does acupuncture work?
Traditionally speaking, it is all about balance. An acupuncturist is trained to locate where qi gets blocked, which leads to symptoms like pain, bloating, or an inability to move and then clear the blockage to free the flow of qi. There are many ways this may be achieved with different needling techniques or needle types. Most acupuncturists use tools other than needles as well. For example, Japanese style practitioners have many techniques, such as Shakuju or the use of magnets or metal pellets to replace the needles. This can be used for people who are very sensitive or just don’t want needles inserted.  Tuina, the Chinese form of therapeutic massage and cupping, historically used in many different cultures, can be used to stimulate various points and to move qi and blood in large areas of the body. An acupuncturist also takes a great deal of interest in how a person lives, what they do for work, what they eat, how they eat, if they exercise, how/if they sleep, and makes recommendations to facilitate the success of the treatment.

3. How do you assess what is wrong?
In studying Chinese Medicine we learn about the “four examinations” in our assessment of a patient:  looking, listening and smelling, asking, and touching.  All of the information I gather helps me to form my diagnosis.

  • Looking: Takes into consideration the general appearance, complexion/facial color, manner, and tongue diagnosis among other things. People are always intrigued when I ask to see their tongue. The tongue gives me a lot of information about the body and how it is functioning. The energetic organs are mapped out on the tongue so changes in color or texture in an area of the tongue gives me an indication of what organ system to consider in my diagnosis. The texture of the tongue body reflects the quality of circulation of qi, blood, and fluids and the tongue coating tells me the condition of the body fluids, the functioning of the organs, and the strength/depth of the pathogenic factors in the body.
  • Listening and smelling: Include voice strength, desire to speak, breathing patterns, and body odors. Not all practitioners use smell as a diagnostic tool as it depends on a strong sense of smell.
  • Asking: I ask many questions, such as when did the pain begin, what makes it better or worse, how does this affect how they live, what have they done so far to alleviate this problem, what medications are they taking, what are their goals, why did they choose acupuncture. I then ask questions about the rest of their body. Once we finish talking about the main concern, I often tell people that I am going to ask a lot of questions that seem unrelated to their main concern, but it helps to form a more complete diagnosis. Patients become accustomed to regularly talking in detail about their periods and bowel movements.
  • Touching: Includes a pulse diagnosis or palpation of the channels to feel physical blockages or changes in the skin around certain acupuncture points. The pulse is felt along the radial artery, which is on the thumb side of the inner wrist. In Chinese medicine the pulse is felt in three positions on each wrist. Each location is assigned to different energetic organ systems. I feel for many different things when reading the pulse. The basic parameters I am checking for are speed, depth, width, and strength. There are also different qualities that help in diagnosis. I may tell my patients that their pulse is “wiry”, which is described as feeling like a guitar string, or “slippery”, which feels like it sounds.

The combination of tongue, pulse, and symptoms are the main factors in a Chinese style diagnosis. I specify Chinese style here because I also practice Japanese style acupuncture and a main component of diagnosis in Japanese Acupuncture is abdominal palpation. In this style, the practitioner is feeling for overall temperature and muscle tone of the abdomen. The practitioner is also palpating specific reflex areas feeling for tension and also relies on the patient to indicate areas of pain. Pulse is also used in combination with the abdominal palpation for diagnosis, although this is slightly different than Chinese pulse reading.

4. Does acupuncture work?
From a more Western perspective, research has not found clear evidence of qi and meridians or even really identified how acupuncture works. However, research has shown that acupuncture can help to trigger the body’s own natural healing process by stimulating the release of various biochemicals, such as hormones. This is one of the reasons acupuncture is widely recognized as effective in managing pain and stress.

5. Is it common for acupuncturists to see patients complaining of digestive issues?
We do commonly see patients with digestive issues. Sometimes it is the main complaint and other times we discover through the diagnostic process that they have been struggling with acid reflux or alternating constipation/diarrhea for years. I think patients sometimes accept these and other symptoms as normal, not always realizing the symptoms may be alleviated with some basic changes in combination with acupuncture or Chinese herbal therapy.

6. How does acupuncture help with digestive issues?
When someone complains about bloating or diarrhea, I focus on identifying those areas that are presenting with a blockage and then work to balance the body. I will use acupuncture in conjunction with food and lifestyle adjustments. Many times that means helping the person identify ways to balance their life outside of acupuncture through food, work, study or sleep habits, etc. This may include recommending meditation or a mind-body practice such as yoga to help manage conditions that are triggered by stress or anxiety. I also practice Chinese Herbal medicine, so in more long-standing or stubborn cases I will formulate a Chinese herbal formula for a patient.

7. Is acupuncture considered a stand-alone treatment for digestive issues or mainly used in conjunction with other types of treatments?
This depends. Sometimes in more mild cases acupuncture and herbal medicine alone can be the sole treatment. In more severe or long standing cases the patient is already on existing Western medical treatment, so I work within that framework and hope to make changes that will help the patient reduce any drugs or other treatments. I have seen cases of severe IBS being managed successfully with ongoing herbal medicine. But again, that may not be typical for everyone.

8. What foods do you recommend?
It depends on the complaint, the constitution of the person, and the time of the year, etc. In Chinese nutrition the properties or energies of food and combination of foods is identified and taken into account. For example, if I learn that someone eats a lot of cold foods such as a salad, I encourage them to drink a warm glass of water or tea afterwards.  Our digestive energy needs warmth to process fully. An occasional cold meal is fine, but if that occurs consistently, over time that can cause poor digestion. The main points I try to convey to my patients are:

  • Eat real food, stay away from pre-packaged foods.
  • Eat seasonally. Know which foods grow in your geographical area during the different times of the year.
  • Don’t eat on the run, sit down and eat without distractions.
  • Eat in moderation, both in the portion size and eating a variety of foods.
  • Listen to your body. If you eat something and you feel foggy or sick afterwards then maybe it’s not good for you.
  • Don’t stress about it, occasional splurges are fine.

9. How long are patients typically in treatment before they see improvement?
The answer to this question varies. A major factor that determines this is how long a person has had the symptoms. Some other factors are how an individual’s body reacts to treatment, the general state of health, the well being of the patient, and adherence to the recommendations made by the practitioner. Some texts approximate that for each year you have had a condition you need at least a month of treatment. Consistency in treatment is vitally important. Acupuncture treatments are cumulative, meaning that each treatment builds on the previous. Acupuncture is not always successful after just one or two sessions, though it is possible.

Lisa Blake practices using both Chinese and Japanese style acupuncture as well as Chinese Herbs.   She received her Masters of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine from the New England School of Acupuncture and is nationally Board certified through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Lisa is also certified in Auricular Acupuncture through the Auriculotherapy Certification Institute, Inc. Lisa studied Biology and Chemistry to earn her Bachelor of Science degree from Eastern Connecticut State University and also has a Master of Business Administration from Averett University. She works at Turning Leaf Acupuncture in Melrose MA and Brookline MA.

Photo by Marnie Joyce on Flickr


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