Acupuncture, Digestion and the Gastrointestinal System


Over 90 million Americans struggle with some sort of digestive discomfort. Symptoms vary from person to person and may include stomach pain, cramps, nausea, vomiting, bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea and change in appetite. The source of the symptoms ranges from common conditions like heartburn, acid reflux, GERD or indigestion to chronic disorders such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome. Digestion is crucial to our overall health. If our digestion is not working properly, symptoms pop up in other areas of the body. Sleep can become poor, energy can begin to decline significantly and our skin can become affected as well. Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine has been treating a variety of digestive disorders for thousands of years.

Acupuncture for digestive issues works in various ways. Treatment can calm the digestive tract by reducing inflammation of the stomach and pancreas. There are specific acupuncture points that can speed up metabolism, increase muscle contraction and relaxation throughout the gastrointestinal tract, reduce gastric acid secretion, regulate the small and large intestine functioning and restore the stomach acidity to normal levels. When using acupuncture to treat heartburn, treatment works by adjusting the esophageal pressure, lowering gastric acid and balancing the function of the digestive organs. GERD, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation and bloating are some of the many digestive disorders that are successfully resolved through the use of acupuncture and have been proved through studies. In addition to being able to balance the digestive system as a whole, acupuncture is also known to reduce stress and regulate the endocrine and nervous systems when they are hyperactive, which often accompanies digestive disorders. The best part is that acupuncture can be used as a complement to Western medical treatments without interfering negatively.

Both the National Institute of Health and World Health Organization support acupuncture for the treatment of various digestive disorders using evidence from randomized controlled trials, the gold standard in medical research study methods. Studies have shown and proven that cells can change shape when acupuncture needles are inserted and they release certain chemicals within the body as a response. Changes in the blood flow to the brain have been shown in functional MRI scans following acupuncture treatments. See the end of this blog for specific studies that relate to acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating specific GI disorders.

Moxibustion or moxa is a heating therapy that is used in Chinese Medicine for a variety of conditions – one of which is digestive issues. Moxa helps to alleviate cold or stagnated conditions within the body. Moxa comes from the herb Mugwort and can come in many different forms. It is lit and used either directly on the body or hovered over specific acupuncture points on the body. Moxa can reduce bloating, improve digestion and improve nutrient absorption. It can also stop pain, decrease inflammation, warm the area and invigorate and encourage blood movement. Moxa can be used to treat most gastrointestinal conditions and it is also very relaxing. Look for my next blog which will explain the process of moxibustion in more detail and explore the other great benefits of moxa!

Continue reading below to find out some tips to keep your digestive system healthy from a Chinese Medicine perspective as well as how acupuncture can help some of the most common GI disorders that I see in the treatment room.

Tips to Keep Your Digestive System Healthy According to TCM:
Did you know that the stomach functions best when we put warm food or drinks into it? Chinese Medicine finds that the temperature of what we eat or drink to be very important to our digestive functioning. Iced beverages, cold foods and frozen desserts actually put added stress on our stomachs. Foods that are too spicy or unhealthy eating habits can also put stress on and weaken the stomach over time. Some ways to maintain health in your digestive system are:

– Eat warm and nourishing foods especially in the colder weather months. Foods like soups, stews and roasted root vegetables are very nourishing and calming for the digestive system
– Avoid using a lot of ice, if any at all, in your drinks
– Take a probiotic supplement to support healthy intestinal function
– Go easy on dairy and highly acidic foods such as cheese, chocolate and tomatoes
– Try to stick to a regular eating schedule and don’t skip meals or eat more then you need
– Avoid eating when you are stressed out or agitated and instead make meal time calm and relaxing

Ulcerative Colitis:
Ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that affects the large intestine. It causes inflammation and ulcers along the lining of the colon. There is no cure for ulcerative colitis but symptoms can be managed, reduced and can go into remission for periods of time for some patients. Western medical treatment for this condition includes anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids and immunosuppressants. These medications work to stop the inflammatory response within the body. When medication alone isn’t helping to keep symptoms managed or your body in remission, acupuncture can be a helpful tool to add to your toolbox.
Acupuncture has been used traditionally in the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases in China and is increasingly being applied in Western countries. It may be an effective therapy for ulcerative colitis specifically because it decreases the body’s inflammatory response, activates or enhances the body’s natural painkillers, regulates the immune system, conditions the bowels and decreases disease activity. Patients have experienced a reduction in many symptoms including pain, fatigue and diarrhea following acupuncture treatments.

Acid Reflux/GERD/Indigestion:
Acid reflux is very common in today’s world. Statistics show that 60% of the adult population experiences some type of GERD at some point in their lives. Currently, there are 7 million people in the US living with some form of GERD. Acid reflux is the acute form of GERD, but it can become chronic and create much bigger problems as time goes on. Acid reflux can affect anybody, including infants. It occurs when the muscle at the end of the esophagus doesn’t close properly or tightly enough. This allows digestive acids to back up into the esophagus. Western medicine treats acid reflux and GERD with medications like Omeprazole, but long term usage of this medication can lead to kidney failure and other issues. Acupuncture has been shown to help with symptoms of GERD and acid reflux and helps the pain or discomfort that might come along with it.
Acupuncture restores stomach acidity to normal levels and regulates the small and large intestine function. It also has been suggested through studies that acupuncture can allow the relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, which reduces reflux. It can also be used to stimulate one of the cranial nerves that controls the stomach muscle from contracting and creating pressure in the esophagus. Researchers have found that acupuncture is effective in alleviating GERD and patients that were unresponsive to Western medical drug therapies saw significant improvements after receiving acupuncture treatment. Patients have reported less burning sensation, a significant decrease in pain and discomfort and improvement in swallowing after receiving acupuncture treatments.

Crohn’s Disease:
Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory disease of the intestines that affects the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the anus. It is considered to be an autoimmune disorder and there is no biomedical cure. Western medicine focuses on controlling symptoms by suggesting dietary and lifestyle changes plus using medications to suppress symptoms. Research published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology finds that acupuncture combined with moxibustion is effective in the treatment of Crohn’s disease. This has been confirmed through various studies showing subjective and objective findings both in laboratory results and patient physical symptoms – both of which have showed significant improvement.
Studies have shown that acupuncture combined with moxa reduces anemia, increases HGB levels, reduces bowel inflammation which was reflected in significant lowering of both C-Reactive Protein and Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate levels. Acupuncture has also been known to effectively control the inflammatory response throughout the body and therefore eases intestinal inflammation overall. In addition, studies have shown that acupuncture can reverse tissue damage, increase hemoglobin levels, reduce CRP levels and improve the quality of life overall. Patients in the treatment room have reported a decrease in abdominal bloating, decrease in pain, nausea, vomiting and regulation in bowel function as well as an increase in appetite.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS):
Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS is a functional bowel disorder. The small and large intestines do not function appropriately and although there is no structural damage, patients experience symptoms. IBS is fairly common and makes up 20-50% of visits to gastroenterologists. Women are affected three times more then men. Western medicine treatment involves fiber supplements, laxatives, antidiarrheal medications, antispasmodics such as hyoscine, tricyclic antidepressants, SSRI medications and other medications that relax the colon, reduce diarrhea/constipation or decrease bacterial growth in the colon. IBS can cause a great deal of discomfort and distress to the patient. Acupuncture can be very effective in managing symptoms as well as helping a patient to achieve total recovery.
Scientific research supports the value of using Chinese Medicine for GI complaints such as IBS and many sufferers seek and find relief of their symptoms by using acupuncture. Researchers in China determined that acupuncture as a standalone therapy produced a 92.19% total effective rate for the treatment of IBS. Perhaps more important though, acupuncture was proven to produce a 34.9% complete recovery rate. This means that there were specific symptom improvements such as less abdominal discomfort, better bowel functioning and anxiety and sleep improvements but there were also laboratory improvements such as changes in specific peptides in the body. Patients in the treatment room have expressed significant improvement in abdominal discomfort, pain, nausea, bowel functioning and bloating.

To make an acupuncture appointment or find out more information, please call Jess at 443-286-0138 or email at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *