Treating digestive disorders using Chinese medicine – what’s important?

This will be the first a small series on treating gastrointestinal disorders with Chinese medicine. Sign up for the newsletter to get notification of the latest articles!

The National Institute of Health reports that 60-70 million people are affected by digestive diseases yearly in the United States. In 2010, 36.6 million people went to their doctor’s office and were diagnosed with something that fell under the category of digestive disease.

When people experience digestive signs and symptoms the entire process of diagnosis and treatment is difficult.

Often these diagnoses mean that something more serious has been excluded, i.e. cancer – and this can provide immediate emotional relief. That said, this emotional relief ultimately passes and the treatment options can leave the patient feeling helpless and dependent on prescription medication.

Why? Some say it is because conventional biomedical treatment is not directly treating the disease or the syndrome itself. Standard of care treatment often attempts to bypass the disease process at one of its manifestations, or most often, shuts down the body’s natural response (immune response or inflammatory cascade) thereby decreasing the signs and symptoms of disease.

In an attempt to alleviate the suffering of the patient, medications are given to assist in the amelioration of the discomfort the patient reports while the disease process ensues. Often times these medications have serious and damaging side effects.

One of the teachers at my alma mater (National University of Natural Medicine) often quotes the revered Chinese medical text, the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, Suwen Chapter 5:

“The wise observe similarity, the unwise observe difference.”

It has been my preference to vigorously adopt this theory in all ways possible, especially with regard to the lines often drawn between western medical and ancient Chinese sciences.This comes to the fore here in our discussion of digestive disorders because, in fact, west and east both agree that one’s psychological makeup will indeed affect one’s digestive health. Chinese medicine agrees, this premise is founded directly in the clear correlates between organs and emotions outlined in Chinese medical theory.

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine have held up in controlled studies against the medications prescribed for digestive disorders, as well, shoutout to the evidenced based reader.

“In comparative effectiveness Chinese trials, patients reported greater benefits from acupuncture than from two antispasmodic drugs (pinaverium bromide and trimebutine maleate), both of which have been shown to provide a modest benefit for IBS. (Manheimer, et al.)”

One of the recommended treatments in western medical science for patients with IBS is elaborated, “Patients should be invited to express not only their symptoms but also their understanding of their symptoms and the reasons prompting a visit to the health care practitioner (Merck Manual, Professional Version, 2017).”

Interestingly enough, taken out of context, the above quotes could easily be from a lecture on how to do a Chinese medicine clinical intake!

Our medicine wants to discuss with patients what their experience of their disease is; this is our charge, our goal, and our honor as practitioners. In fact, in the same text referenced above, the Yellow Emperors Inner Classic, it also states, “In order to make all acupuncture thorough, one must first cure the spirit.”

The patient’s relationship to themselves and others is deeply diagnostically significant.

Chinese medical pattern differentiation (our version of differential diagnosis) allows us to direct our treatments to the very specific location in the body where the disease is rooted. Making contact with the specific place becomes critical and an integral part of successful and long-lasting treatment; I will go into more specifics of how this actually works this in the coming series.

This not only applies to a case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but to many other digestive complaints, including Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. These diseases are thought to have an immune or auto-immunity component to them, as in Crohn Disease (Crohn’s Disease) or Ulcerative Colitis respectively.

Here again, Chinese medicine investigates the patient’s relationship to the self as a consistent focus of treatment — throughout any disease but specifically in the context of digestive or gastrointestinal disorders.

I’ll write again shortly digging more deeply into these issues – in the meantime if you’d like to learn more about whether your particular digestive issues could be helped by acupuncture and Chinese medicine – feel free to check out my schedule and come share your story with me.


  1. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Opportunities and Challenges in Digestive Diseases Research: Recommendations of the National Commission on Digestive Diseases. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health; 2009. NIH Publication 08–6514.
  2. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 May 16;(5):CD005111. doi 10.1002/14651858.CD005111.pub3. Acupuncture for treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. Manheimer E, Cheng K, Wieland LS, Min LS, Shen X, Berman BM, Lao L. {}

Written by Melinda Wheeler, LAc

My care is personalized and tailored to each individual. Through my studies and training, I have developed many techniques and tools to treat anyone, no matter their ailment or injury. Whether you have identified symptoms of physical pain, emotional instability, or you aren’t quite able to put your finger on any form of dis-ease, but you want to try acupuncture and/or Chinese medicine, come and see what we can accomplish together for the betterment and evolution of your well being!