Irritable Bowel Syndrome – What, How and Why? By Scott Stephens

Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

With Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) being such a common condition and myself holding a keen interest in gut health I thought I would put together some information on the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach to supporting gastrointestinal imbalance. There is no better time to do this than April which is International Irritable Bowel Syndrome awareness month.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects around one in every five Australians at some stage of their life. It is twice as common in women as it is in men and is most likely to occur in late teenage years or early to mid-twenties. It causes a wide range of varying unpleasant symptoms and is well known for being extremely disruptive to day to day life.

First things first, lets explore what Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) actually is and the symptoms one may experience.

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.

What are the main symptoms of IBS?

The symptoms of IBS can be wide and varied, as with all human conditions we all experience them differently. Some of the most commonly reported symptoms are:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Wind
  • Changes to bowel movements
  • Chronic Constipation
  • Chronic Diarrhoea
  • Mucus in stools
  • Other associated symptoms can include fatigue, headache, sleep disturbances

Why does IBS occur?

From a TCM perspective IBS is the bodies response to another imbalance. Many lifestyle, dietary and internal imbalances can result in gastrointestinal upset and this means we will see the root cause of IBS varying from patient to patient.

Common considerations in patients presenting with symptoms of IBS include:

  • Stress, anxiety or depression
  • Infection or ill health
  • Food intolerances
  • Food poisoning
  • Overeating
  • Irritant foods such as alcohol and caffeine
  • Hormonal imbalances – often women experience IBS symptoms around their cycles.
  • Allergic responses
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Reactions to medications
  • Genetic factors

Treatment of IBS

Treatment of IBS will often be dependant on the individuals experience and the severity of the condition.

While most people will from time to time experience short bouts of gastrointestinal upset, if you are experiencing reoccurring symptoms or chronic ongoing bouts this can be a sign of IBS.

Education is an important aspect of treatment. Understanding that whilst IBS is a long-term condition and symptoms can fluctuate and flare over time, they are not life threatening and not linked to any more serious disease.

Food and Life trackers can be an excellent tool to understand triggers that may aggravate or initiate symptoms.

Stress management and mental health support is often a key aspect of relieving symptoms.

With stress, lifestyle and dietary factors being big players in the resolution of IBS there are many wonderful complementary and alternative therapies that can make a big difference when it comes to finding balance and eliminating symptoms.

Some of these include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Chinese Herbal Medicine
  • Dietary Therapy
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Yoga / Tai Chi


Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and 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.

When I investigate imbalance in the body, I am looking at the strength and function of the different organ systems. TCM view of organs and their role in the body differs somewhat from western medicine. While we acknowledge the organs function, we also view it as part of a much broader network / system within the body. When we connect symptoms with expression of deficiency in an organ system it does not mean that organ is damaged but rather the broader network / system that it belongs to is weak.

As I have already mentioned no one Chinese Medicine pattern will serve as an explanation for IBS as each patient will experience their own unique set of symptoms and have their own root cause for the imbalance. That said some of the following patterns are common in people presenting with IBS:

Damp Heat in the Lower Jiao:

Along with the individual organs that we know, and their systemic functions Traditional Chinese Medicine also consider the ‘San Jiao’ otherwise known as the Triple Burner which encompasses the entire torso. The San Jiao is separated into three sections Upper, Middle and Lower Jiao. According to TCM these are organs of no specific name or shape. The Lower Jiao separates the essence from our food into the pure and impure and then excretes what is no longer required.

Damp Heat of the Lower Jiao would present with symptoms of pain, explosive bowel actions and possibly blood in the stool.

Liver Overacting on Spleen:

Stress and modern-day living can have a detrimental affect on one Liver energy. Often in time of high stress we may see the Liver energy become unsettled and in turn override the energy of the Spleen and the Stomach.

This pattern may be best associated with IBS that is worse with an increase of stress.

Stomach and Spleen Deficiency:

The Stomach “the sea of food and fluids” takes our food that is broken down and transports the pure part to the Spleen for Qi and Blood and the waste is sent to the Small Intestine for further digestion. The Stomach and Spleen work extremely closely together.

Weakness or imbalance in Stomach Qi would present as stomach pain, nausea, distended stomach, gas or vomiting.

The Spleen is a central organ in the process of digestion. As previously noted, it is responsible for the transportation of Blood and Qi from the food. The Spleen takes the Qi and sends it upwards to the Lung. If the Spleen Qi is in good health digestion is strong and Chi and Blood flow is optimal.

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.

If you would like to make an appointment with me to support IBS symptoms with Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine then I am available at Mornington Chinese Medicine every Thursday.


138 Tanti Avenue, Mornington, VIC

03 5973 6886

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