Digestive Complaints

Everyone experiences digestive upset at some time and many people experience it regularly. In America, it is easiest to point our finger at a combination of a high-sugar and high-fat diet, stress, and large portion sizes. If we eat this way repeatedly, more serious conditions develop other than just an over-full or indigestion feeling.

Chronic heartburn and acid reflux, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and food allergies have become very common. These digestive symptoms can make us miserable and completely deprive us of the previous enjoyment eating provided It exemplifies the concept that you can have too much of a good thing and reinforces the Taoist proverb, “moderation is the key to longevity.”

While we are overwhelmed with over the counter medications to treat uncomfortable digestive symptoms, there are often more serious underlying mechanisms causing the continued distress. A stomach can consistently produce too much acid, the motility of the digestive tract can become chronically hyper or lazy and pain from unidentifiable sources can be difficult to alleviate. * Certain acupuncture points have been shown to alter acid secretion, stimulate GI muscle contraction, cause GI muscle relaxation and inhibit gastric acid secretion via the somatosympathetic pathway making acupuncture beneficial in treating GERD, functional dyspepsia, IBS and general GI symptoms.

In clinical practice, digestive disorders respond very well to acupuncture and when combined with diet and lifestyle modifications most people can experience a permanent, medication-free relief of their symptoms. Chinese herbal medicine is sometimes used for a short period of time to alleviate certain conditions.


Acid reflux or GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a digestive disorder where the stomach juices and bile regurgitate back up into the esophagus. The stomach has a special lining to protect itself from the harsh acidity of these juices but the esophagus does not. Heartburn is the term for the burning sensation in the esophagus when acid reflux happens. The painful burning is usually felt in the middle of the chest, just behind the breastbone. 

The physical cause for acid reflux is a relaxation of the sphincter muscle that separates the stomach from the esophagus. The most likely cause of this is an overly full stomach. However, acid reflux can be triggered by many things including alcoholic or carbonated beverages, eating too fast or too much, eating fatty or spicy foods, drinking too much caffeine, or eating too much high-fiber foods. Heartburn has also been shown to be worsened by anxiety and depression. 


While the practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine have been using acupuncture to treat digestive disorders for thousands of years, the American Physiological Society has just reported on a study that will appear in the August 2006 issue of Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology. The study indicates that stimulation of certain acupuncture points inhibits the esophageal sphincter relaxation by as much as 40%. Modern science is getting closer to explaining how acupuncture works, but what no one can deny in the present is that it does work and very well. 

An acupuncture treatment is very relaxing and surprisingly enjoyable for people who are apprehensive about needles. The tiny, cat-whisker sized needles are inserted very quickly and easily into different parts of the body. For upper GI complaints, points are likely to be above the belly button, on your lower arms and lower legs and possibly on your back or head as well. Sometimes electrical stimulation is used on certain points to achieve the desired effect. This is a very light stimulation added to the needles, which feels like a comfortable pulsing or tapping sensation. 


When a patient comes in with the chief complaint of heart-burn, the acupuncturist will do a detailed health history and discuss eating habits and diet thoroughly.  Dr. Reidy will also do an allergy test to determine if allergies are contributing to the symptoms.


Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are chronic gastric inflammatory diseases with unknown cause. In colitis the inflammation focuses more on the lower GI and rectal areas. The manifesting symptoms are pain and chronic diarrhea, which contains pus and blood. Because there is no known cause for ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s, western medical treatment focuses on relief of symptoms.

Within the paradigm of Traditional Chinese Medicine we can view inflammatory bowel disease in a different light. The causes can be constitutional deficiencies, an infection or invasion by an outside pathogen, or dietary. An accurate diagnosis relies upon the various symptoms related to digestion as well as the whole body system. The compilation of concerns will show a pattern of disharmony. Treatment is then applied accordingly, usually with great success.


The term constipation can mean infrequent or hard stools, or it can refer to difficulty passing stools. Constipation may involve pain during the passage of a bowel movement, the inability to have a bowel movement after straining for longer than 10 minutes, or no bowel movements at all for more than 3 days. The most common causes of constipation include a low-fiber diet, lack of physical activity, stress, travel, inadequate intake of fluid each day, or delay in going to the bathroom when you have the urge to defecate. Other causes are IBS, pregnancy, thyroid conditions, depression, neurological diseases, or certain medications. Serious causes such as colon cancer are rare but should not be ruled out until examination by your gastroenterologist.

Constipation and diarrhea, while very common, are one of the least talked about physical complaints. An acupuncturist always begins their initial consultation with a whole-body review because stool consistency and frequency is a very important part of general health. The effects of irregular bowel movements are often poor food absorption and fatigue, sallow complexion or frequent break-outs, pain in the lower abdomen, upset in appetite and weight control, and more. When someone is not eliminating their waste at a regular rate and consistency, it is a clue of a deeper imbalance within the body.


Certain acupuncture points have an effect on GI motility. The treatment will either be used to relax a more spastic colon or to stimulate peristalsis. Within the concepts and theories of Chinese medicine, there is a more complete method of interpreting digestive disorders. When someone has very dry and difficult to pass stool, herbs will be given to moisten the intestines and long-term treatment will focus on re-establishing a less dry digestive environment. When someone has chronic, explosive diarrhea that burns and causes pain, acupuncture will help calm the large intestine and herbs will be given to remove toxins such as bacteria or virus and to clear heat from the digestive system. Likewise, when someone experiences chronic watery painless diarrhea, acupuncture will be used to tonify the digestive system and herbs will be given to warm the digestion so that food is transformed into usable energy more efficiently.

All of these treatment scenarios have a side-component of diet and lifestyle modification. Often bowel movements can be improved with different food choices and better eating habits such as chewing thoroughly, taking time to eat, etc. Your acupuncturist will listen to your diet habits and discuss with you changes that will benefit your specific intestinal issues.


IBS is a disorder of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract characterized by recurrent abdominal pain and discomfort accompanied by alterations in bowel function, diarrhea, constipation or a combination of both, typically over months or years. A diagnosis of IBS has been reported by 10 to 20% of adults in the United States with females representing over 70% of those affected. Scientists suspect that hormones may play a role in the cause of IBS as well as changes in the nerves that control the muscles of the GI tract. Because the exact cause of IBS is not certain, western treatment focuses on the relief of symptoms.


Chinese medicine offers a different approach. A complete health history can reveal many seemingly unrelated symptoms that to an acupuncturist clearly delineate one or two predominant patterns of disease. Treatment can then be applied to the underlying diagnosis rather than treating the symptoms hodgepodge without offering complete relief. Most commonly, a Chinese medicine doctor will find an imbalance between the nervous system and the strength of the digestive system. It is not so simple to say that stress causes IBS, but the nervous system exerts powerful control over the motility of the GI tract and often, chronic stress can lead to more permanent conditions such as IBS. Your acupuncturist may call this, Liver attacking the Spleen, because those are the names of the two meridians involved with a stressed nervous system and digestion. Also the practitioner will examine the role of phlegm, lack of or overly vigorous exercise, sleep patterns, and of course diet.

Certain acupuncture points stimulate GI motility and then certain points can relax muscle contractions helping with everything from constipation to gas, bloating, pain and diarrhea. Tools for stress reduction and suggestions for diet modification are also an important part of complete IBS treatment.