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IBS Support with Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Updated: Dec 6, 2022



What is irritable bowel syndrome?

IBS is twice as likely to affect women and usually takes place in the period from late teens to mid twenties.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a disorder that affects the function of the bowel and the gastrointestinal tract.

IBS impacts the health of approximately 1 in 5 Australians at some stage of their life. The prevalence of IBS in women is twice as high as men and generally the condition occurs earlier in life, typically late teens and early to mid-twenties. Although IBS is not a life-threatening condition it certainly is life altering with many varied and unpleasant symptoms that cause discomfort, distress, and disruption to a sufferer’s day to day life.

IBS can often be mistaken for a range of other bowel conditions such as Crohn’s disease which fall under an umbrella of conditions grouped as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Luckily, unlike some of these other conditions, IBS does not permanently damage the bowel and is not considered a pre-curser to any other more serious conditions.

What are the main symptoms of IBS?

There is a range of abdominal, bowel and gut related symptoms associated with IBS. These symptoms range from inconvenient to quite painful. The emotional impact of managing IBS can also be significant. I have listed some of the more common symptoms below:

  • Changes to bowel movements

  • Chronic Constipation

  • Chronic Diarrhoea

  • Bloating

  • Wind

  • Mucus in stools

  • Abdominal pain

Some other more generalised symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Stress / anxiety / mood changes

Diagnosis of IBS:

It’s safe to say that at some stage of life most people will experience short bouts of gastrointestinal upset. It’s if you find yourself experiencing ongoing discomfort and reoccurring symptoms that you should consider investigating if it is a sign of IBS.

Generally, IBS is diagnosed based on an individual patient’s health history and their reported symptoms. Because there is no specific testing for IBS a diagnosis is sometimes established when testing rules out other conditions that can have similar presentations.

Western Medicine Treatment of IBS:

IBS treatment will be tailored to the individual based on their experience of symptoms and the severity of the condition. Understanding that dietary and lifestyle factors play an important role is key in the management of IBS.


The most important point for an IBS patient to know is that whilst IBS can be a long-term condition the symptoms will fluctuate and the condition itself is not life threatening nor is it linked to any other serious diseases.

Keeping a health journal can be a great way of tracking lifestyle and dietary trigger for IBS.

Food and Lifestyle trackers

Given the strong link between ongoing IBS symptom management and our diet and lifestyle a daily tracker can be an important and empowering tool to use. A tracker can help an IBS sufferer to identify what triggers in their day-to-day life aggravate symptoms or initiate a period of poor health.

Stress management and mental health support

Stress is a big player in the experience of IBS. Management of the condition itself can feel overwhelming at times and it’s important to have support networks in place. There are many wonderful therapies that can make a huge difference in your success in finding balance and eliminating symptoms.

Some frequently suggested by GP’s and Specialists include:

  • Chinese Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture

  • Counseling / Psychological support

  • Dietician

  • Massage Therapy

  • Meditation

  • Tai Chi / Yoga

The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach to IBS:

Traditional Chinese Medicine views IBS as a symptom of sorts. It is our body’s response to another imbalance. There can be many different dietary, lifestyle or internal imbalances that could result in a patient experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms and for this reason we would find that the root cause of IBS would varying immensely from one patient to the next. Because of this there is no cookie cutter approach to IBS treatment with Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Some of the more common considerations when a patient presents with symptoms of IBS are:

  • Mental health issues inclusive of stress, anxiety, or depression

  • Dietary considerations inclusive of irritant foods, overeating, food intolerance's, food poisoning, lactose intolerance

  • Infection or ill health

  • Hormonal imbalances, its not uncommon for women to experience IBS symptoms linked to certain stages in their cycles.

  • Allergic responses

  • Reactions to medications

  • Genetic factors

Traditional Chinese Medicine theory states that to experience optimal health, we need to achieve balance in our lives both internally and externally. Although IBS does not necessarily fall into a particular TCM pattern or category it certainly demonstrates an underlying imbalance.

It's commen for IBS to be worse during times of stress.

This means to experience a long-term resolution of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome it is essential for us to understand the root cause unique to the individual. Frequently IBS is associated with periods of stress and anxiety which have taxed the patient’s system. The evidence of the gut brain connection is well established and the examples of how an imbalance of one causes an imbalance of the other are many. When our digestive system, the primary source of our energy, is in disarray the result can include fatigue and an anxious, irritable, and unsettled mind.

To assist in diagnosis the strength and function of the patient’s various organ systems are considered. Traditional Chinese Medicine see our organs play a somewhat different role from that of western medicine. Whilst we acknowledge the organ’s function, we also see them as part of a much broader network / system within the body. When we diagnose a deficiency in an organ system, we do not mean it is damaged but rather that the broader system it belongs too is weak. Once areas of deficiency (or excess) have been identified Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can be used to return balance whilst we work to also note associated lifestyle and dietary triggers.

When patients present with IBS there are a few patterns that are more common. I will list them below:

Damp Heat in the Lower Jiao:

I’m sure that sounds like a completely different language! This is where things get interesting! TCM recognises all the organs systems that you would be familiar with and then we also have some additional classifications!

One of these additions is the Triple Burner, also known as the ‘San Jiao’. It encompasses the entire area of the torso. The San Jiao is then broken down into three distinct sections Upper Jiao, Middle Jiao, and Lower Jiao. Traditional Chinese Medicine do not distinguish these organs as having any specific name or shape, but they do certainly have functions. The Lower Jiao for example separates the essence from our food into the pure and impure. Once divided it then eliminates what is no longer required.

We would consider a pattern of Damp Heat of the Lower Jiao when a patient experiences the following symptoms:

  • Pain in the lower abdomen

  • Explosive bowel actions

  • Possibly blood in the stool

Liver Overacting on Spleen:

Our Liver energy is intrinsically linked to the emotion of stress. The way many of us conduct our lives, caught up in the pressure, speed and expectations of modern day can have an extremely detrimental effect on the Liver energy. In times where levels of stress are heightened, we see the Liver energy become unsettled. This then overrides the energy of the Spleen and Stomach. This pattern would be associated with a patient that reports an increase of IBS symptoms at times of stress.

Stomach and Spleen Deficiency:

Traditional Chinese Medicine views the digestive system as centred around two organs, the Spleen, and the Stomach. This Yin (Stomach) Yang (Spleen) pairing, as recognised by the Five Element Theory, work closely together to extract Qi from our food sources and then transport it around the body.

The Stomach, or “the sea of food and fluids” as it is also known, takes our food that has been partially broken down and then divides it. It transports the pure part to the Spleen for Qi and Blood generation and then the remaining waste is sent to the Small Intestine for further digestion.

Signs of weakness or imbalance in our Stomach Qi would manifest physically as:

  • Stomach pain

  • Nausea

  • Distention / bloating of the stomach

  • Gas

  • Vomiting

As discussed above the Spleen is an integral organ in a healthy digestive process. You can imagine the flow on effect that any imbalance of the Spleen would have on the transportation of Blood and Qi from our food. When our Spleen Qi is performing at an optimal level the Qi and blood flow will be strong. Unfortunately, our Spleen can become easily overwhelmed. When we eat at odd intervals, make poor nutritional choices, include overly processed foods, and overeat in general this can quickly become very taxing. This impact on the Spleen has a considerable flow on affect.

If a patient is experiencing an imbalance of Spleen Qi, it often goes hand in hand with Qi and Blood Deficiency. Some physical manifestations of this could include:

  • Digestive disturbances

  • Bloating

  • Pain

  • Diarrhea

Although there is no specific pattern that IBS fits into in TCM there are a few that are more common.

Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment:


A comprehensive assessment of symptoms, lifestyle factors and any previous diagnosis of the condition will be undertaken at the initial appointment with the Chinese Medicine practitioner. This is where a treatment plan will be advised to best suit the patient and consideration will be made on working with any other treatments or medications the patient may be undergoing at that time.

You could expect a course of acupuncture treatments that will focus on balancing any emotional aspects of the condition as well as harmonising the digestion and correcting the pattern of disharmony which is the root cause of the complaint.

Chinese herbal medicine and Chinese food therapy (shí liáo) may also be utilised to help with assisting the balance of any disharmony.

Additional Dietary Recommendations

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Five Element Theory acknowledges the influence that the seasonal shifts have on our health and well-being. This means that the dietary advice will vary based on the season we are in and what the most supportive choices for that time of year are. We also consider the individual nature of each patient and their unique underlying pattern. That is because these underlying patterns will dictate the type of foods they will benefit from. For example, where one person may be able to tolerate or even benefit from food that is energetically cool another patient may find that same food quite detrimental.


One important consideration in Traditional Chinese Medicine is the ‘digestive fire’. When we consider the best way to support the process of food being transformed into energy, we want to picture our digestive system as a cauldron on a fire. To keep this fire well stoked and the cauldron bubbling along happily we need to feed it with nourishing and easily digestible foods. When we select highly processed, sugary, cold (energetically and physically) or fatty foods this increases the damp and puts a lot of pressure on our ‘fire’ making it harder for the cauldron to bubble and function correctly.


If you have noticed your digestive health is not operating as well as it could be please do not put up with discomfort! Get in touch with us at Red Bridge Family Acupuncture online or by calling (03)59061494 and we can have a chat about how acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine might be able to help get you back on track.

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