Diarrhea is characterized by loose, watery stools, bloating, and abdominal cramps or pain, as well as more frequent trips to the toilet. Acute diarrhea is something that nearly everyone has likely experienced at one time or another and usually lasts only a couple of days. Chronic diarrhea, however, typically lasts longer and can be a discomfort and disruption to our lives.
Diarrhea can be caused by foods we eat, medications we take, viruses, bacteria, or parasites, surgery, or digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or ulcerative colitis. Our digestive system takes a lot of stress because in our busy lives we often eat poorly or eat on the go or when we are stressed.
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine (TCM) can help with diarrhea. In Chinese Medicine there are six patterns that can lead to diarrhea. For all of them, the main cause is a disruption in the normal function of the spleen and stomach, which affects our digestion. Acute diarrhea is often brought on by poor diet; external cold, heat, or damp climate or living conditions; or emotional stress. Chronic diarrhea is most often caused by a yang deficiency of both the spleen and kidneys, which in turn impairs the spleen and stomach’s ability to break down food into something useful, and then transport the useful part throughout the body.
The first three types of diarrhea are often acute, causing a sudden onset which will also include other symptoms depending on the cause. A cold-damp pattern of diarrhea will be accompanied by abdominal pain, fever, aversion to cold, stuffy nose, headache, and general aches and pains. Damp-heat pattern diarrhea will be accompanied by abdominal pain, urgency, burning sensation, irritability, and thirst. The third acute pattern is called “retention of food”- this is common when people have eaten poorly or have eaten far too much undigestible food or poor-quality food. This causes diarrhea with abdominal pain, rumbling digestive sounds, fullness in the abdomen, burping, acid reflux, and loss of appetite.
Chronic diarrhea makes up the other three types of patterns. Liver and spleen dysfunction pattern diarrhea will be accompanied by distention and congestion in the chest and rib side, burping, poor appetite, abdominal pain, diarrhea brought on by depressed moods, and frequent irritable or angry moods. Deficiency of the spleen and stomach pattern diarrhea is accompanied by chronic loose stools, frequent bowel movements after eating heavy, oily or greasy foods, loss of appetite, bloating after eating, and fatigue after eating and throughout the day. Kidney and spleen deficiency pattern is due a lack of yang, or warming, energy. The yang energy is what supplies the warmth and the ability to “cook” the food in our stomach as well to transform it into something useful and transport it throughout the body. When this function is impaired due to deficiency, there is early morning diarrhea, a cold sensation in the abdomen with pain and rumbling just before bowel movement, a feeling of always being physically cold, and a sore low-back and knees.
Acupuncture helps to strengthen these weakened organs and resolve imbalances in order to improve the transformation and transportation of food. A real positive of acupuncture is the ability to differentiate the cause of a person’s diarrhea, and so to treat it effectively and fully resolve the problem. With the digestive system functioning properly, diarrhea and other digestive problems are relieved. Also, a strengthened digestive system and healthy functioning means that future digestive upsets are less likely to occur.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.