Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects more than 37 million Americans today. That’s approximately 18 percent of U.S. citizens, most of them in their 20s and 30s. IBS presents either as diarrhea or constipation and there are both mental-emotional components and food components to the syndrome.
The theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) hold that there are several “patterns of imbalance” that can cause IBS. These patterns are differentiated by sets of symptoms and are thus treated with different patent herbal formulas.
In terms of the mental-emotional causes of IBS, TCM distinguishes several syndromes. “Liver qi stagnation” is among the most common cause wherein the stress or emotional upset “stagnates” the liver energy, slowing the release of blood and overheating the spleen and stomach.
This imbalance is made worse with emotions and stress, and its symptoms include alternating diarrhea and constipation, irritability, depression, mood swings, tension and spasm in the neck and upper back, epigastric pain, abdominal pain and/or bloating, hypochondriac pain, cold fingers and toes.
An effective Chinese patent herbal formula for this type of problem is Chai Hu Shu Gan Wan (Bupleurum Soothe Liver Teapills).
Another syndrome is known as “liver qi invading the spleen.” With this syndrome there is a marked emotional component that worsens with stress and emotional upset.
Symptoms include abdominal pain and cramping, irritability, anger, moodiness, depression and recurrent, explosive diarrhea. The diarrhea here is a physiological response of the body to prolonged, repeated or severe emotional and psychological stress. After the diarrhea episode the person usually feels better, if only temporarily.
A strong herbal formula for this is known as Tong Xie Yao Feng Wan (Calm Wind Teapills).
Another form of IBS—predominate diarrhea type—is known as “liver qi stagnation with food or damp stagnation in the intestines.” This syndrome presents with indigestion, flatulence, belching, acid reflux, abdominal distension and pain, tendency to constipation, sluggish bowels or alternating bowel habits.
This type of IBS is typical among office workers who are habitually stressed, overworked and sedentary, leading to a slowing down of peristalsis due to hyper tonicity in the gastrointestinal system. Chinese herbs, such as Mu Xiang Shun Qi Wan (Saussurea Qi Promoting Pills), help this syndrome.
The dietary side of IBS is two-fold, concerning both what you do and do not eat. A diet that is high in sugar, alcohol, caffeine, dairy and fatty foods and low in water, fiber and alkaline foods will cause constipation by drying and food and damp stagnation in the stomach and intestines.
Thirty grams of dietary fiber, 2 quarts of water and plenty of green leafy vegetables every day should re-balance the problem. But you must also slow down on and ideally discontinue the intake of foods and beverages that dehydrate and also cause dampness (phlegm-rheum) in the body.
If you have access to a TCM practitioner or acupuncturist, a proper diagnosis can be made and the proper syndrome-specific herbs can be advised. If not, then consider IBS as a syndrome composed of a set of symptoms and see which from the above you fit best into. Then search herbal formulas on the Internet to read more about their actions and any possible side effects.
Whether you choose the Chinese herbal approach or not, dietary changes are a must. IBS is a concern that is intimately connected to the foods we eat and forget to eat. And a little change can go a long way!
—Dr. Mark Wiley