Acupuncture Help with GI Issues?
Acupuncture has a rich history in Chinese medicine, with thousands of years backing the practice. And over the centuries, acupuncturists have discovered an ever-increasing number of conditions that treatment can help with.
This includes various forms of GI upset and gastrointestinal symptoms. In fact, acupuncture is particularly well-suited for supporting GI function because gastrointestinal symptoms tend to be non-specific and may emerge due to many factors.
Acupuncture – like all forms of Chinese medicine – addresses those systemic factors that can tip the body out of balance. By doing so, treatment can fortify GI organs and resolve a range of symptoms.
What GI Symptoms Can Acupuncture Treatments Help?
Acupuncture is a useful adjunct (support) therapy for diagnosed GI conditions and for general GI upset. Specifically, acupuncture treatment can help with the following symptoms:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
Numerous studies have demonstrated acupuncture’s efficacy in treating pain and inflammation – effects that are also relevant to several GI disorders, including:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Acid reflux
Although more research is needed, early studies show that acupuncture can serve as an effective complement to western modalities.
Five Ways Acupuncture Can Help with GI Conditions
Although acupuncture has been around since the Roman Empire, we’re still working to understand exactly how it works – at least from a western perspective. This is a primary goal for western osteopaths, and useful theories are emerging.
One idea is that acupuncture needles have local and distant effects on the nervous system when used at the right acupuncture points. These effects can boost GI health and include:
- Reduced pain and inflammation – There’s a stack of medical studies demonstrating acupuncture’s efficacy in treating pain and inflammation. Headaches, back pain, neck pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia – acupuncture is considered a viable treatment option for all of the above. In fact, the World Health Organization recommends acupuncture for a list of pain conditions, so there is some solid backing behind the research here.
These pain and inflammation-relieving effects extend to abdominal and GI-related discomfort.
Multiple explanations have been put forth regarding acupuncture’s analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects. Currently, researchers believe that acupuncture needles stimulate local and distant nerve pathways into releasing opioid-like compounds, endorphins, and other self-healing and inflammation-regulating chemicals into the blood. The result is reduced pain signaling and reduced inflammatory response.
- Improved peristalsis – Peristalsis is the medical term for intestinal contractions designed to promote digestion in the intestines. When peristalsis functions properly, material moves through the intestines in a wave-like pattern. Some GI conditions, like IBS, are characterized by poorly regulated peristalsis and intestinal motility. This can cause changes in bowel habits and stool formation.
Peristalsis is influenced by neurological and cardiovascular factors. We’ll address the neurological side next, but the cardiovascular component in intestinal motility is often overlooked. Better circulation means better blood flow to the intestines, which improves tissue performance and can protect peristalsis.
One of acupuncture’s many system-level effects is its ability to promote better circulation in the body. Researchers believe this may be due to acupuncture’s ability to stimulate the release of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, meaning it helps blood vessels relax and accommodate higher rates of flow. By relaxing blood vessels in this way, acupuncture can help the body deliver more blood to the intestines and improve peristalsis.
- Improved signaling on the gut-brain axis – GI function is greatly influenced by neurological signaling between the brain and gut. The largest concentration of neurological tissue outside of the nervous system is in the gut, suggesting a tight two-way connection.
Gut-brain axis disruption is something we’re just beginning to understand, but it appears to have a profound effect on GI health. Disorders of gut-brain interaction (DGBIs) are now believed to be behind widespread GI conditions like IBS. Exactly what causes DGBIs is still unknown, but it appears that prior infections (particularly those that cause nausea and vomiting) are a primary risk factor.
Restoring gut-brain communication via the vagal nerve – a major neurological pathway that branches between many organs – is a potential treatment avenue for patients. Acupuncture’s ability to stimulate nerve pathways, including the vagus nerve, makes it a prime candidate for treating DGBIs and their associated GI symptoms.
- Improved hormonal balance – In some women, GI symptoms worsen with menstrual cycles – potentially the result of severe hormonal swings. Among acupuncture’s many noted effects is its ability to restore hormonal balance – a primary reason why it is recommended for women with dysmenorrhea and other menstruation-related problems.
By restoring hormone levels in women with GI disorders, acupuncture can also reduce the impact of menstruation on GI symptoms.
- Reduced stress and anxiety – Stress is a major contributor to GI distress and can cause acute symptoms or worsen a chronic GI condition. Chances are, you’ve been in a high-anxiety situation that disrupted your stomach or intestines. People who are susceptible to GI issues are also susceptible to stress-caused GI discomfort – and this can quickly develop into a panic-inducing feedback loop if not controlled.
Research shows that regular acupuncture treatments can reduce the severity of a patient’s stress response and balance cortisol (the stress hormone) levels. Couple this with acupuncture’s pain-relieving capabilities and it is possible to shut down the pain/stress feedback loop before it snowballs out of control.
At the individual patient level, it may be impossible to pick out which of the above are responsible for improving GI symptoms. It’s likely that, for most patients, a combination of these factors is in play. And with continued acupuncture treatments, patients can more easily maintain gastrointestinal balance and protect themselves from future GI symptoms.
A Licensed Acupuncturist Can Help Those Struggling with GI Issues
GI symptoms can limit quality of life and cause long-term distress if they aren’t effectively addressed. Acupuncture, though, can help with GI issues, whether they’re intermittent or chronic.
However, acupuncture is only as effective and safe as the acupuncturist delivering treatment. The recommendation for patients is to partner with a licensed Houston practitioner for treatment. Licensed Houston acupuncturists have proven their education and training to regulatory authorities, and are committed to delivering safe, clean and comfortable treatment for their patients, including those suffering from GI issues.