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Treating IBS and other digestive disorders with acupuncture

I commonly treat digestive disorders in my acupuncture practice. The following is a list of symptoms that patients typically suffer:

  • abdominal pains, or discomfort
  • feeling bloated or tired after eating
  • excess “gas”
  • poor appetite
  • poor sense of taste
  • food allergies or intolerances (typically to wheat or dairy)
  • loose stools
  • poor energy, both physical and mental
  • sweet cravings

In Chinese medicine all these symptoms are typical of a syndrome that’s known as “Spleen Deficiency”. You don’t have to suffer all these symptoms to have Spleen Deficiency, but you’d usually suffer a few of them; however, it would not be uncommon for some patients to suffer every one of these symptoms.

What is “Spleen Deficiency”?

This syndrome has been know for thousands of years in Chinese medicine. However, when the Chinese organ names were first translated into modern English organ names, this particular organ name was mistranslated. The Chinese organ name “pi” was translated as “spleen”. Hence, the above digestive syndrome was translated as “Spleen Deficiency”, which name has now stuck, so that all modern Chinese texts refer to this organ as the Spleen, and this particular syndrome as Spleen Deficiency. But when comparing the descriptions of the functions of this organ (in Chinese medicine texts) with the functions of the organs under their modern English organ names, it’s clear that the correct translation of this organ is “pancreas”. So, the syndrome should be more properly known as “Pancreas Deficiency”, which simply means: poor functioning of the pancreas. For the remainder of this article, I’ll refer to the syndrome as “Pancreas Deficiency”, rather than the more usual term of “Spleen Deficiency”.

What causes “Pancreas Deficiency”

With patients who suffer Pancreas Deficiency, a factor that’s almost always present is over thinking. This does not necessarily mean that it was their over thinking that caused the pancreas function to become weak. But once it had become weak, this would certainly result in the person being prone to over thinking, which would then make the condition even worse (in a cyclic fashion), so that the two states are almost always seen together.

When the Chinese medicine notions of the functions of each organ were developed, they focused on analysing function, rather than dissecting the human body and attempting to work out the organ functions from the inside out, as it were. Because of this, they were not limited by their knowledge of how each physical organ produced its functions, and consequently they were able to identify a wider range of functions than is recognised when the “inside-out” approach is used. One of the largest differences is that they were able to identify mental and emotional traits that the main organs were responsible for producing. For instance, the pancreas was linked with “thinking”, or “worry” (it’s said that the pancreas influences our capacity for thinking, studying, concentrating, focusing and memorizing1). From this, it’s possible to realize that our thoughts need to be digested, just as our food does; and, put simply, we use the same bodily resources to digest thoughts that we do to digest food. This means that when a person is constantly thinking, the pancreas becomes depleted. This can be visualized as the body having to constantly digest a banquet of thoughts every day, all day long, and the person’s digestion becomes “tired”, so that they no longer have the resources to digest their food.

This syndrome is common in developed countries, since life, these days, has become so intellectual. With many people, their work involves them having to constantly solve problems mentally; and beyond this, life has become so complex that there is a constant barrage of mental problems to solve in our lives away from work; developed societies have very much become thinking societies, with little emphasis on physical activity.

Thinking and the pancreas (or “Spleen”)

With most people who have Pancreas Deficiency, the connection between thinking and the pancreas can be readily noticed. For instance, the pancreas peaks at 11am each day. Most people will therefore find it easier to think in the mornings, but after about midday, they tend to find it harder and harder to solve mental problems. Also, after a period of heavy thinking, all the symptoms of Pancreas Deficiency would often become amplified: the stools may become loose, or even runny; the abdomen tender; they may tend to feel more bloated and tired after eating, and so on. Whereas, at times when they manage to have several days of little thinking, and more emphasis on physical activity, the symptoms would often begin to clear.

Acupuncture treatment of “Pancreas Deficiency”

Some patients come to see me specifically to tackle their digestive problems, but many other patients come for some other reason and when conducting the initial interview I find they also have Pancreas Deficiency. As I said above, this syndrome is extremely common in a developed society, and the patients I see who have no digestive problems are certainly a noticeable minority. So, with many of my patients, I find myself treating them for Pancreas Deficiency, along with whatever other problems they’ve come to see me for—and also the extra problems I’ve identified, which they often did not think could be treated, or had been told they simply had to put up with.

How many treatments will be needed?

With most patients, I find that the digestive symptoms are usually noticeably improved by about the third or fourth session. And before this stage (as when treating most conditions of a “deficiency” nature), the initial treatments tend to follow a similar pattern. Most patients begin by coming for a session once a week. After the first session, they will usually notice some benefits but these will then fade during the first day or two after the session; then, following their second session, the benefits tend to last a little longer; and after the next session, they last longer again, until the patient is symptom free for a week or more. At that stage we would usually change the treatments to one every two weeks; and when they remain symptom free for two weeks, the interval between treatments can then be increased again, and so on. In this way the average patient soon reaches a point when they feel they no longer have the particular health problem, but that their health starts to decline after a month or two (depending on how stressful a life they lead), so they then return for a single “top up” treatment.

See my testimonials

On my testimonials page you’ll find comments from some of my existing patients, with several commenting on the treatment of digestive symptoms.

Lifestyle advice to alleviate “Pancreas Deficiency”

Placing more emphasis on physical activity, rather than mental activity, particularly activity that tends to enable you to “switch off” will be very beneficial (many people find swimming beneficial).

Restricting your heavy problem solving to before midday, and attempting to avoid such thinking for the remainder of the day will also be helpful. Remember that your body has to digest thoughts, just as it has to digest food; and that your body’s digestive ability peeks at 11am (which is why most people feel a pang of hunger at 11am; this is your body tell you that now you should be eating), which means that by 11pm, your digestive ability is at a minimum.

Remember also that the more thoughts you digest each day, the less remaining digestive stamina your body has to digest food.

Dietary advice to alleviate “Pancreas Deficiency”

To assist in alleviating Pancreas Deficiency, you should aim to eat your largest meal as near to midday as you can; and avoid “Damp producing” foods. Essentially, these are foods that are hard to digest, which, with most people, will include:

  • all heavy dairy produce, such as cheese and cream
  • all dairy in general
  • pork and rich meat
  • roasted peanuts (such as in peanut butter)
  • concentrated juices, especially orange and tomato
  • wheat, bread, yeast
  • bananas
  • sugar and sweeteners, saturated fats

Sweet cravings

People with Pancreas Deficiency often crave sweet food. This is because food that’s naturally sweet has a beneficial effect on your pancreas (that is, such foods tend to counter Pancreas Deficiency). In developed countries, people usually feed this craving by eating “sweets”, such as chocolate and other foods high in refined sugar. These will give you a very short term boost in energy but will ultimately only flood your pancreas and make the deficiency worse. What your body is craving is the naturally sweet foods, such as:

  • sweet root vegetables, such as carrot, parsnip, sweet potato, potato
  • rice, oats, millet
  • cauliflower, pumpkin, squash, string beans
  • avocado, blueberry, cherry, date, fig, grape, strawberry
  • broad beans, lentils, peas
  • salmon, herring, or any white fish
  • chamomile, jasmine

Any of these foods would normally have a beneficial effect.

Footnotes

1 The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, Maciocia, 1989, p91, under the heading [the pancreas] Houses Thought.