Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Gut health is a focus point for us at Red Bridge. We are pleased to say that in general we are seeing awareness growing about the interaction of digestive dysfunctions with our health. Along with this awareness there has been an increase of investigation into the relationship between our gut health and function and its relationship with our overall experience of physical and mental health, proving the link to be undeniable.
At Red Bridge Family Acupuncture, as part of every intake session and general health overview we will always explore the patients gut health for any signs and symptoms of imbalance. These imbalances often serve to shine a light on the underlying root cause of the health concern that has bought them to clinic, however unrelated it may seem.
Ensuring a strong digestive system is the key to optimal functioning of the body as a whole. In the treatment of patients, especially children, we consistently find favourable results will occur when concentrated effort is placed on the fortifying the digestive system.
Qi (energy) in the body is derived from three sources. The food we eat, the air we breathe and the Kidney Qi that we are born with. The Qi (energy) provided by the Stomach, called Post-Natal Qi is extremely important. A robust Post-Natal Qi paves the way for optimal health throughout our lives and supports our constitution (the Kidney / Pre-Natal Qi). Therefore, we always encourage the parents of our paediatric patients to nurture their children’s digestion and supply a good diet which will help provide them best possible start in life.
In this blog we are going to share with you how Traditional Chinese Medicine observes the functioning of the digestive system. Some common digestive disturbances and their interaction with health and ways you can best support your gut health.
The digestive system and Traditional Chinese Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the digestive system which is used for extracting Qi from our food sources is centered around two organs, the Stomach, and the Spleen.
The Stomach and Spleen work extremely closely together. Known as “the sea of food and fluids” the Stomach takes our food that is broken down and transports the pure and usable parts to the Spleen for manufacture of Qi and Blood. The waste is then sent to the Small Intestine for further digestion and processing.
The Spleen is responsible for transforming the fuel into energy (Qi) then transporting it around the body. If the Spleen Qi is in good health digestion is strong and Qi and Blood flow is optimal. The Spleen can become easily overwhelmed with our western habits of over consumption of food, eating at odd hours and making poor nutritional choices. An overwhelmed Spleen is not going to be performing at its optimal level. A kink in the chain of energy production at this point has a substantial flow on affect throughout the whole body.
When there is an imbalance of Spleen Qi then the patient may experience Qi and Blood Deficiency. Digestion can be impacted with symptoms of bloating, pain, and diarrhea.
Weakness or imbalance in Stomach Qi may manifest as stomach pain, nausea, distended stomach, gas, or vomiting.
In the Five Element Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine each organ system belongs in a Yin and Yang pairing. This pairing of organs is also associated with an element, season, flavour, sense, emotion, colour, and time.
The Stomach and Spleen are the organs associated with our Earth element. The Stomach is Yang and the Spleen is Yin. They are associated with Late Sumer, the emotion of worry, the flavour sweet, the colour yellow and the morning time of 7am – 11am.
Having a well-functioning digestive system or Earth element is essential for the human body to operate at its best and build a strong immune system to ward off disease. An imbalanced gut can have a flow on effect to almost every area of our health including our immune responses, our mental health and our skin health.
Our patients in clinic can present with a range of gut issues. Common minor bowel disturbances like constipation or diarrhea are often discussed as a symptom of other imbalances we may be supporting. Some patients present seeking support for more severe chronic conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gastrointestinal parasites, Crohn's disease, diverticulitis, or leaky gut.
Using acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapy, diet, and lifestyle changes independently or alongside other specialist care can be greatly beneficial in strengthening the patients Earth element and assist in restoring balance.
A snapshot of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the support of two common conditions:
Parasites and their impact on gut health:
What is a parasite:
A parasite is an organism that lives in or on another organism. It depends on its host for survival, and it might cause disease or other types of imbalance
Why are parasites a problem:
Worrying about parasites may seem like a concern that should be far from mind, but they are surprisingly common and if untreated can cause both acute and chronic health concerns. Many going un-diagnosed or ignored due to the generic signs and symptoms that can be easily attributed to something else or trickier still no symptoms at all. When left untreated though parasites contribute to many major health imbalances.
Two of the most common parasites found are Blastocystis hominis and Dientamoeba Fragilis.
· Contraction - commonly contracted by ingesting contaminated food or water.
· Signs and Symptoms - It may be found in healthy people who are asymptomatic so showing no digestive symptoms. Where symptoms are reported they include watery diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, bloating, excessive gas, loss of appetite and fatigue.
Dientamoeba fragilis (D. fragilis)
· Contraction – the nature of how this parasite is spread is unclear. It may be spread through contamination of hands, objects, or food with infected faeces. Alternatively, D. fragilis may be spread by threadworms (pinworms). D. fragilis might be protected by threadworm eggs.
· Signs and Symptoms – Once again people who are infected with D. fragilis may be asymptomatic. When symptoms do occur, the symptoms are very similar to Blastocystis hominis and include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, excess gas, poor appetite, fatigue, nausea, weight loss, vomiting and tiredness.
When we see a patient in clinic who has a positive stool test to either of these parasites, treatment will concentrate on supporting the digestive and immune system through the use of acupuncture.
Acupuncture treatment protocols:
The approach of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine in the support of a patient
with parasites is twofold:
Strengthen the digestive system to improve intestinal motility encouraging the parasite to move. A well-functioning Stomach and Spleen are the best bet for a strong immune system and warding off further parasite infection.
Remove the parasite. We do this by making life as uncomfortable as possible for it. Chinese herbal patent formulas are used to target the parasite, weakening, or killing it and then moving it along the digestive tract.
In many cases the treatment of parasites may also include pharmaceutical medication that whilst effective can be quite taxing on the system. Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can be extremely useful at this point in the rebuilding and strengthening of a battered Qi.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
What is IBS?
IBS is a disorder that affects the function of the bowel and the gastrointestinal tract. IBS results in a range of abdominal, gut and bowel related symptoms that can be not only inconvenient but often painful and the management can be the cause for much emotional upheaval. IBS is often confused with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) which includes conditions like Crohn’s disease but is not the same. Luckily, IBS does not result in any permanent damage to the bowel and is not a pre curser for serious disease. Generally, IBS is diagnosed based on reported symptoms and a thorough medical history. There is no testing for IBS per say but often testing takes place to rule out other conditions rather than diagnose IBS. You can read another blog available on Scott Stephens Acupuncture website which has detailed information about IBS.
TCM in the support of IBS:
TCM theory states that if the body is in balance both internally and externally then good health is experienced. IBS, while not necessarily falling into a particular category or TCM pattern, is itself an expression of an underlying imbalance.
Understanding where the root cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome lies is essential to long term resolve of symptoms.
Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can be used to bring the identified areas of deficiency back into balance whilst we work to also identify lifestyle and dietary triggers. IBS is commonly associated with times of stress and anxiety which can be extremely taxing on the system. The evidence of the gut brain connection is strong and examples of the way one interacts with the other are far reaching. If our digestive system, which is our primary source of energy is not functioning correctly then this can result in our emotional system being unsettled, fatigued, anxious and irritable. Physically this can then be expressed as the IBS symptoms.
The skin as a window to our gut health:
One of the best indicators into our internal condition is the skin. Any imbalance in the digestive system will soon become apparent externally by means of heat, rash, irritation, or discoloration.
The influence of our diet on our skin health in cannot be understated. When we have a patient presenting with any sort of skin disturbance exploring gut health, diet and lifestyle factors is high on the list.
It is not uncommon when we sit with patients and look at the sort of food choices, they are making to find many areas that could do with some improvement. The norm today is quick, processed and convenience foods. A diet rich in inflammatory, spicy, or greasy food, alcohol, or coffee places a huge amount of strain on the spleen and stomach which can in turn result in damp heat triggering skin itching.
A well-planned diet tailored to each patients’ individual needs will nourish the body. It allows optimal absorption of essential nutrients and allows the elimination of toxins in an effective manner. This change can be challenging. The easiest way to get started is to try and eliminate the obvious trigger foods, crowd them out with healthier replacements. At Red Bridge we are happy to offer support and guidance with food swap and recipe ideas.
How you can support your gut health and stoke your digestive fire:
Traditional Chinese Medicine and diet.
The dietary recommendations presented by Traditional Chinese Medicine can be quite different in nature to the Western understanding of nutrition. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Five Element Theory see’s our health and well being as strongly influenced by the seasonal shifts occurring in nature so you will find that dietary advice will too shift based on the season and what choices are most supportive for our digestive system at different times of the year. There is also the consideration of everyone’s intrinsic nature and underlying patterns. For example, some people would tolerate or benefit from cooling foods which could in contrast could be quite detrimental for another.
Traditional Chinese Medicine dietary guidelines sees the transformation of food into energy as it being heated by the digestive fire and as such, we seek to keep our digestive fire tended and well stoked to support this process. We suggest making life easier for the Spleen and Stomach by including foods that are easily digestible and of high nutrient value. Much of our western diet that is highly processed, sugar dense, cold, and fatty. These qualities can create damp, increase stagnation, and put a lot of stress on our Spleen impacting digestive function and overall health.
Bone broth for gut health.
Bone broth is a staple in traditional Chinese culture for building blood, supporting gut health, and nourishing the Qi and a favourite dietary addition of mine, in fact it is something that we recommend to almost every patient.
Incorporating a good quality bone broth into your daily diet is an excellent way of supporting you gut health. There are some great recipes available online for bone broths you can cook yourself at home. If you choose to make your own bone broth it is really important to be sure to use good quality organic and free-range produce, particularly when it comes to the chicken or beef bone base. If you think about the way we make a bone broth by slow cooking bones for a long period of time to extract their goodness it becomes clear that we need to make sure the bones we are using are toxin free.
If you are not likely to cook up your own broth at home do not panic. There are some great products available that are ready made and easy to incorporate as a cup of soup style beverage! One that we love and stock in clinic is Gevity RX Bone Broth Body Glue.
Including Prebiotics and Probiotics into your diet.
Part of making dietary changes for a healthier gut will include learning more about the benefits of prebiotic and probiotic foods and how they can support the development of a healthy microbiome in the gut.
Here is a quick rundown which we hope will be helpful!
Probiotics are probably the more familiar of the two terms. Probiotics are a live ‘good’ bacterium that can be found in fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and tempeh. They reside in your gut and assist in the efficient digestion of food, support your gut health, boost your immune system, and minimize gas and bloating. The gut brain connection is becoming increasingly documented and it has been shown that Probiotics can have an impact on mental health.
A few examples of dietary probiotics that we would encourage you to investigate are: kombucha, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, and kefir.
Prebiotics are a form of dietary fiber and promotes the growth of the good bacteria and keeps it active and well. They are found in fiber rich foods such as fruits and vegetables. Basically, they work hand in hand with the probiotics allowing them to function at their optimal level.
You can purchase probiotic supplements, but you really cannot beat the benefit of consuming the natural sources as part of your balanced diet. Eating probiotics raw is the best way to ensure you receive the full benefit as cooking can kill the good bacteria. Combining your prebiotic with your probiotic when planning your meals also aids in optimal absorption.
A few examples of dietary prebiotics that you can consider are raw garlic, onion, leafy greens, berries, and asparagus.
I hope this blog has sparked your interest in nurturing your digestive fire. If you would like to chat with us about how we can help support you make some of the suggested changes and find balance with Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine please do not hesitate to get in touch with us at Red Bridge by contacting us online or via PH:(03)59061494.