By Jingduan Yang, M.D.
The American Gastroenterological Association reported that digestive, liver, and pancreatic diseases result in more than 100 million outpatient visits and 13 million hospitalizations annually at a cost of $136 billion, which is more than for heart disease ($113 billion), trauma ($103 billion), or mental health ($99 billion).
Among digestive diseases, abdominal pain is the symptom most responsible for office visits (22 million) and emergency department visits (6 million), followed by nausea/vomiting (5 million and 2 million, respectively), and diarrhea/gastroenteritis (3 million and 1 million, respectively).
A new report finds that treatment costs, doctor visits, prescription costs, and hospitalizations related to digestive diseases have risen significantly in recent years. There are ways to prevent digestive diseases, as well as insight from ancient Chinese medicine on how to manage digestive health.
The Source of Body’s Vital Energy
Digestion is a critical biological process for the body to obtain nutrients and vital energy through drink and food. Therefore, the digestive system and its function are essential to sustain one’s life and bodily function. The body needs varieties of food and fluid to maintain the integrity of its bones, muscles, membranes of cells and organelles, as well as maintain its biochemical balance with water, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters.
The nutrients that body absorbs goes through a complex biochemical process such as the Krebs cycle, that transforms the nutrients into energy that is vital to human life and function. The vital energy contributes to the regulation of body temperature, movement of body parts, and the function of organ systems. This energy powers the body’s senses, emotions, thoughts, and cognitive and executive functions.
Energetic Imbalance of Digestive System
The digestive system is an open system that takes in food from the mouth, digests and absorbs nutrients from the stomach and small intestines, and eliminates waste and toxins from the large intestines and rectum. Therefore, it is very vulnerable to our choice of food and drink, as well as how these fuels are delivered, i.e. the hygiene of the places they are prepared and how the foods are processed. It is also critical that the digestive system is kept clean and empty most of the time.
There are multiple patterns of imbalance of vital energy with various causes, and professional evaluation by a physician of Chinese medicine is a good way to have these examined. Here we have two examples of common energetic imbalances of the digestive system that are common in the modern age.
One thing that has shocked me about traditional Western dining is that ice-cold water is offered on the dining table. The stomach serves as a stove that cooks and breaks down food for us. It requires “fire” energy provided by blood and energy supplies to the stomach that are increased at the time of digestion.
Ice-cold water works against this, causing the blood vessels and stomach muscles to constrict. From a Chinese medicine perspective, cold energy blocks vital energy flow as well as blood circulation. Chronically affected by the cold, one will suffer from stomach and intestinal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and become susceptible to infection and inflammation (gastroenteritis).
Removing ice-cold water from our dining table, from a Chinese medicine perspective, is a public health effort on par with stopping public smoking.
Besides food that is physically cold, there is also food that is energetically cold. Such food generates cold energy regardless of temperature. For example, kiwifruit creates cold in the stomach, and should not be consumed excessively. The same is true of banana, pear, watermelon, tofu, clam meat, crab, and many raw vegetables.
Rebellious Stomach Energy
The law of gravity supports food’s downward journey to the stomach and intestines. However, acid reflux, hiatal hernia, nausea, and vomiting—which is the second most common symptom for office and emergency visits—move against the law of gravity. Chinese medicine describes these phenomena as rebellious Qi. Qi is a vital energy that moves digestive systems, but rebellious Qi describes the digestive system moving food up instead of down.
According to Chinese medicine, the causes of rebellious stomach energy include infections, cold food and drink, emotional stress, fatty food, and dysfunction of the liver and gallbladder. The energy of the liver and gallbladder regulates the entire movement of the digestive system. Dysfunction in these organs will cause all kinds of digestive disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome, gastroparesis, hiatal hernia, and esophagogastric reflux.
Unfortunately, liver energy is very sensitive to emotional stress, especially anger and resentment, which cause the liver energy to stagnate or move rebelliously. For those with history being abused in the past or present, digestive dysfunction is very hard to treat without taking care of the emotional trauma.
Acupuncture for Digestive Health
Authentic acupuncture therapy is based on the holistic system of Chinese medicine. Acupuncture can very effectively regulate imbalances of the body’s energy. It stimulates the points of the body that regulate internal organ function through the energetic networks called meridians. It can help open blocked energy channels, redirect the energy flow, and warm up the meridians and internal organs. It takes multiple sessions ranging from 12 to 36 treatments. Herbal remedies based on individualized diagnosis will complement acupuncture therapy.
Pilot studies have shown that acupuncture is effective in a wide range of gastrointestinal disorders, including nausea and vomiting, functional disorders (irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, and diarrhea), peptic ulcer disease, Crohn’s disease, postoperative ileus, and even gallstone disease. The most compelling and consistent evidence of the efficacy of acupuncture probably lies in its relieving effects on nausea and vomiting.
A recent review of studies showed that acupuncture is effective in the treatment of functional dyspepsia, describing a group of symptoms affecting the gastrointestinal tract, including stomach pain or discomfort, nausea, bloating and belching.
Chinese Herbal Remedies for Digestive Health
Digestive health is one of the four pillars in managing people’s health because it provides the body with vital energy and connects with other important internal organs. For example, the large intestine affects the lungs, the small intestines affect the heart, and the stomach affects the spleen.
Every one of these organs has an energetic connection with the brain and contributes to specific brain functions. Chinese medicine has multiple herbal formulae made to treat common energetic imbalances of the digestive system.
For example, a traditional formula called Xiang Sha Yang Wei Wan (Stomach Formula with Aucklandia and Amomum) has 10 herbs combined to warm up the stomach energy, eliminate bloating, and relieve stomach pain. However, there is no one formula that fits all. Like acupuncture, it is critical that one receives a comprehensive Chinese medicine evaluation.
Food therapy, eating habits, and stress management are all critical for digestive health.
About the author: Dr. Jingduan Yang is a neurologist, psychiatrist, and an expert in acupuncture, Chinese medicine, and integrative medicine. He contributed this article which was originally published on EET. He founded Yang Institute of Integrative Medicine, Tao Clinic of Acupuncture, and American Institute for Clinical Acupuncture. Dr. Yang co-authored two books: “Facing East: Ancient Health and Beauty Secrets for the Modern Age” and “Clinical Acupuncture and Ancient Chinese Medicine.”