By Maegan N. Hodge, L.Ac.
One of the coolest things about the acupuncture or Chinese medicine approach to disease is that it recognizes that no two people, or their diseases, are the same. If a patient comes in with a cold for example, Chinese medicine treatment is based not only on a person’s specific symptoms but also on the patient’s constitution, or overall landscape of their body. For example, a young person who has a cough and runny nose whom is otherwise generally in good health is going to be treated very differently than an elderly person with the same symptoms who feels cold all the time (a person who is cold all the time is probably what we call “yang deficient”). This approach applies to any condition, but in this series of posts we will examine how a few gastrointestinal complaints can arise from a number of different root causes, and how Chinese medicine approaches resolving these complaints by treating disease at its foundation. This topic of this post is… acupuncture and BLOATING!!!
We will talk first about abdominal bloating because it is a common condition that many people feel like is normal. I’m all about helping people feel healthy in ways they didn’t even know they could feel healthy! Bloating may be common, but it is definitely not a required condition of living. Chinese medicine recognizes many types of bloating, and has as many forms of treatment.
There are about seven different primary causes of bloating, from our perspective. If you have trouble with abdominal bloating, peruse the list and see if anything fits. Try the tips, or see a Chinese medicine practitioner for help for some of the more stubborn varieties.
Common symptoms include bloating that is relieved by passing gas, as well as belching, flatulence, halitosis, reflux, and/or irregular stools. Can be acute or chronic.
Can be caused by overeating, eating at irregular times, late night eating, too much cold-natured or raw foods, or generally weak digestion.
Is a precursor to many other illnesses, because of the strain it places on the digestion and detox pathways over time. Acute episodes do not require treatment; however, bad habits over the long-term certainly require attention and correction!
Tips: Avoid overeating. Pu-erh or green teas can stimulate digestion, as well as small amounts of herbal digestifs or bitter alcohols. Chinese medicine theory tells us that the bitter flavor has a descending action, and this readily applies here. Bitter makes it all go down! If you’ve had these symptoms for a long time, consider coming in for treatment.
Spleen & Stomach Qi or Yang Deficiency
Note: Yang Deficiency is seen here as being an extreme of Qi deficiency, and typically presents with the patient feeling cold easily.
As far as symptoms go, bloating can be intermittent or unceasing; tends to involve fluid retention, and the patient may retain fluids in other parts of the body; bloating feels better with warmth, and is worse with raw foods or overeating. Other symptoms include poor appetite, pale complexion and/or lips, fatigue, and loose stools.
Can be caused by too much cold natured or raw foods, sedentary lifestyle, antibiotics, prolonged illness, chronic digestive inflammation, or a history of anorexia or malnutrition.
Tips: Eat only cooked foods; chew thoroughly. Enjoy a diet high in complex carbs and veggies, low in meat. Avoid excessive fluid consumption with meals. Sit down and relax while eating. Avoid dairy products, soy products, nuts and seeds, and too many sweets. Chinese herbs over a few months can be wonderful for this type of bloating.
Some common symptoms include pronounced abdominal distention which might be pronounced after waking, general fatigue & lethargy, poor appetite, nausea or even vomiting, belching, reflux, loose stools, and perhaps chronic lung or sinus mucus (especially waking feeling phlegm in your sinuses or throat). Symptoms are often worse in the morning, or when a person has been inactive.
Can be caused by overeating “phlegm or damp-forming foods”, such as dairy products, sweets, fatty foods, and alcohol. Can also be exacerbated in damp climates, like here in Virginia during humid times of the year.
Tips: Eat a diet that is about 50% vegetables, 30-40% carbs, and 10% protein. Include foods in the diet that have bitter, pungent flavors like mustard greens, horseradish, turnips, radishes, etc. Make good use of onions and garlic as well. Drinking green teas with meals can be helpful as well (be careful if you are sensitive to caffeine!). Definitely avoid late-night eating, sugar, dairy and soy products, and beer. This is a condition that can usually benefit hugely from a couple of months of Chinese herbs, depending on severity of symptoms.
Liver Qi Stagnation
Common symptoms/tendencies include stomach aches, or holding stress in the gut, appetite lowered during stress, discomfort under the ribs (especially right side) especially after eating, frequent belching or a belly that gurgles a lot, acid reflux, and/or irregular bowel movements. Symptoms tend to occur periodically, and in tandem with the patient’s emotional state.
Can be caused by overeating, eating too frequently, or repressed emotions like anger or resentment. These types of emotion tend to be the cause of tension in the gut, which can have significant ramifications for digestive motility or bowel regularity.
Tips: REGULAR EXERCISE is extremely important for this time of bloating. Eat slowly, and try to reduce frequency of meals, the amount eaten or both. Eat when you’re hungry – don’t force yourself to eat when you’re not hungry. Eat a high vegetable, low carb, low meat diet. Especially avoid fried foods, alcohol and other intoxicants (i.e. go easy on your liver!). Acupuncture can be hugely transformative for various emotional states and stress, and there are herbal regimens which can help support the liver and digestion in this way.
Lung & Spleen Deficiency
Common symptoms include acute or chronic bloating which is mildly painful and is worse with food; nausea or belching; shortness of breath or possibly asthma; hunched or slouched posture, melancholic tendency; pale complexion; possible tendency towards constipation.
Can be acute or chronic, and can be caused by grief, social issues, changes in routine, or a cold or flu.
Tips: Dealing with unresolved emotional issues is key. Breathing exercises, and aerobic exercise in general can be quite helpful. Chew food thoroughly. Smaller meals, well-cooked foods, and especially avoid consuming lots of fluid with meals. Again, acupuncture and herbs can be very restorative over a few months when this pattern is stubborn or longstanding.
Common symptoms include bloating which is worse in the afternoon or after eating with loss of appetite; dry mouth or thirst with no desire to drink; irritability; greasy skin and/or reddish tone in skin; feeling lethargic; dark yellow or orange urine.
Can be caused by overeating of rich, fatty foods or consumption of alcohol (especially beer), or even certain climates like Virginia in the summertime!
Tips: Eat light foods. Some raw foods okay. Avoid alcohol, dairy products, greasy foods, sugars, highly processed foods, nuts and seeds, coffee.
Stomach Yin Deficiency
Common symptoms include chronic bloating that is worse with eating, or at the end of the day; general feeling of dryness; tendency towards constipation or dry stool; low appetite or hunger with no real desire to eat; mild nausea; facial flushing or night-sweats.
These symptoms typically show up only after a long period of poor-health habits, or sometimes after a febrile illness.
Tips: It is important to consume plenty of non-caffeinated liquids. Lots of soups and stews! Very nourishing foods are important – dairy products, fish, “healthy fats”, fruits and veggies, etc. Avoid too many spicy or pungent foods, like peppers, garlic, or onions, as well as NSAID’s, coffee, alcohol. Again – Chinese herbs – awesome. But healing this pattern will definitely take time.
A word about Chinese medicine diagnostic terms: Chinese medicine has it’s own unique system of diagnosis, the names of which might sound a little funny to the untrained ear. If you’re curious about this system check out a book on Chinese medicine basics like “The Web That Has No Weaver” by Ted Kaptchuk, or, my favorite, “Adventures in Chinese Medicine” by Jennifer Dubowsky.