Treating IBS with Acupuncture and Herbs

By Dr. Dongfeng Zhou, AP, DAOM

Defining IBS

About 30% of adults in the US suffer from Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a set of symptoms with no known cause or pathogen. Abdominal cramps and pain, bloating and gas, and alternating diarrhea and constipation are typical symptoms of IBS. They are usually worse with eating and better after a bowel movement. Often IBS is accompanied by other issues like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, anxiety, and headaches. Typically, women have a higher IBS diagnosis rate than men.

Causes of IBS

Despite the large number of people who suffer from IBS, doctors still don’t understand the underlying cause. There are factors that show a strong connection to IBS symptoms:

1. Irregular peristalsis. The natural rhythm and movement of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is called peristalsis. The intestines are lined with smooth muscles that push the food along as it gets digested and absorbed. If the muscles contract too quickly, the person may experience diarrhea, or if it’s too slow, they can have constipation.

2. Dysbiosis. Dysbiosis is the medical term for improper bacteria in the small intestines, or “gut”. The body must have healthy bacteria in the gut to aid digestion, fermentation of food, and the immune system. If healthy bacteria levels are low from an improper diet or antibiotic use, the body cannot absorb nutrients correctly. Gas, bloating and abnormal bowel movements are the product of poor gut bacteria and possible levels of bad bacteria or candida.

3. Sugar and carbohydrate sensitivity. Foods that are high in FODMAPS (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) can be a trigger for IBS symptoms. These carbs are normally undigestible, but in some people, they interact with gut bacteria, producing hydrogen gas and drawing fluid into the digestive tract to cause loose stools.

4. Stress. Stress interrupts the normal function of the gut, which has a web of over 100 million nerves that govern digestion. Stress causes serotonin imbalances in the nervous system, affecting digestion. New research into depression and anxiety shows a strong connection with digestive problems, as well.

IBS in Conventional Medicine

Because IBS is a syndrome or collection of symptoms, there is no specific “IBS” test. Therefore, it is a diagnosis of exclusion to rule out other issues. Tests such as an endoscopy, colonoscopy, stool study, lactose and gluten tolerance tests, or CT scans can be used to rule out other problems.

IBS treatments work to alleviate symptoms. Diet and lifestyle changes as well as psychotherapy focus on finding and eliminating symptom triggers. Anti-anxiety, anti-diarrheal, or constipation relief medications may be prescribed. Often, IBS patients are sensitive to any medication and react poorly to these interventions.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and IBS

The root cause of IBS in Chinese Medicine is a disharmony between the liver and spleen. Influenced by stress levels, Liver Qi stagnation overacts on the digestive system, especially the spleen and stomach. Because the TCM “Liver” corresponds to the autonomous nervous system in Western medicine, peristalsis, bowel movements, and digestive rhythms are affected by the “Liver”. In TCM, the spleen is in charge of transformation and transportation of digestion. If the liver is not functioning to help peristalsis, the spleen’s ability to transform and digest the foods will be affected, giving rise to IBS symptoms.

TCM Treatments for IBS

Because IBS is a complex set of symptoms, a multi-faceted approach is effective to treat it. Some of the therapies include acupuncture, herbs and supplements, and diet changes.


Acupuncture is very effective in treating IBS and other GI problems for almost two thousand years. It can help regulate digestion and improve gastric organ functions by improving the neurotransmitter pathways. A recent study in IBS patients and acupuncture showed that acupuncture alone was almost 77% effective in relieving IBS symptoms.

Herbs and Supplements

Herbal formulas and supplements are helpful to treat IBS because herbs can help the body function better and restore the balance of the GI system. Studies show that herbs and acupuncture together are more effective than conventional medications. The herbs help regulate the smooth muscles of the GI tract as well as serotonin, and relieve inflammation in the intestines. The most famous formula for IBS diarrhea symptoms is Tong Xie Yao Fang (Essential Formula for Painful Diarrhea), composed of four herbs that work together to alleviate symptoms. If constipation is more of an issue, the formula Ma Zi Ren Wan is added for that symptom. Other formulas and single herbs can be added as needed to tailor the herbs to treat the underlying problem.

In addition to TCM formulas, probiotic supplements can make a big difference in IBS patients. Adding the correct probiotic supplement can aid digestion and absorption of foods and cut down on bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

Diet and Lifestyle Changes

Diet and lifestyle changes can make a big difference in IBS symptoms:

● Avoid certain foods that are difficult to digest. For example, avoid some of the FODMAP foods such as sugars and certain carbohydrates. Also, avoid cold or raw foods and cook or sauté foods prior to consuming them. Greasy and spicy foods overtax digestion as well.

● Avoid “intolerance” foods with dairy and gluten. Even if a person does not have celiac disease or an allergy, IBS may improve while avoiding these foods.

● Reduce stress. Get plenty of rest and do light to moderate exercise daily. These are so important to reduce digestive problems and stress.


Although IBS is difficult to treat from a conventional medicine approach, TCM therapies such as acupuncture, herbs, and diet and lifestyle changes can make a huge difference in symptoms. In addition, TCM treats the underlying dysfunction in the body, regulates digestion, and reduces stress to help improve overall health and wellness.

Dr. Zhou of Zhou Wellness is an expert at treating digestive dysfunctions such as IBS as well as other issues like anxiety and fibromyalgia that may accompany it. She effectively uses acupuncture and herbs to help the body heal from the inside out, and she makes diet and lifestyle recommendations to improve one’s health and wellness. Call today to set up your free consult or first appointment and find out how acupuncture and herbs can help you.