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Managing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome

Managing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a health problem involving the digestive system.

There may be various symptoms and the cause is unknown. Up to 20% of people may experience IBS symptoms in their lifetime, but for some people the symptoms can become chronic.


Symptoms of IBS

Symptoms of IBS may include:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping, that may be relieved by passing wind or bowel motions
  • Diarrhoea, constipation or these symptoms alternating
  • A feeling of incomplete passing of bowel motions
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Mucous in the stools
  • Nausea


Types of IBS

Currently IBS is divided into types according to appearance of symptoms. Types include:

  • Constipation-predominant – usually alternating constipation with normal stools. Pain and cramping may be triggered by eating.
  • Diarrhoea-predominant – diarrhoea often first thing in the morning or after eating, often urgent need to go to the toilet.
  • Alternating constipation and diarrhoea.


Causes of IBS

The cause is not currently known. Episode triggers may involve changes in routine, stress, infection, medication side effects or diet factors (such as lactose, gluten or fructose).

IBS may involve the immune system, the gut bacteria, changes in the gut lining, inflammation, certain neurotransmitters, nerve pathways and possible genetic factors.

Up to 25% of IBS might be triggered by a gastrointestinal infection, with symptoms persisting long after the virus or bacteria has been eliminated from the body.


Medical assessment for IBS

It is important to always have your symptoms assessed by your doctor, because they can overlap with more serious health issues or with disorders that have specific treatments available.


Treatments for IBS

There is no known “cure” for IBS. Symptoms may be managed by a range of therapies such as:

  • Diet (for example, FODMAPS diet, lactose-free, high-fibre for constipation-type)
  • Probiotics
  • Medications for pain, diarrhoea, constipation or nausea
  • Mind-body interventions and/or stress reduction
  • Exercise programs or yoga


The Chinese medicine view of IBS

Chinese medicine strives to view the person in a wholistic way, where all signs and symptoms, strengths and weaknesses are operating in an interconnected web of cause and effect, connecting parts of the body within the person, and connecting the person to their natural and social environment.

There are different frameworks in Chinese medicine that may be referred to when assessing someone with IBS symptoms. Following are two examples of how different presentations of IBS may be assessed with Chinese medicine.


Chinese medicine and stress-related IBS

People with IBS symptoms that are affected by stress might be viewed according to the TCM pattern “Liver overacting on Spleen-Pancreas”. This is a short-hand label that refers to complex inter-relationships that occur when stress impacts the digestive system.

“Liver” refers to the way that the body calculates and harmonises many thousands of changes every second, coordinating the fluid and dynamic way that the body forms itself, moment by moment, in response to a person’s internal and external environment. Mental or emotional stress can impact the way that these calculations can be made and acted upon in real time. A useful image is like traffic congestion – it is hard for information to flow smoothly and in a timely fashion when there is congestion.

“Spleen-Pancreas” refers to bringing resources into the body (especially food and water), transforming these resources into nutrition for the living form, distributing this nutrition everywhere it is needed and assimilating this nutrition completely, so that it now becomes part of your living form.

People with this type may also be prone to stress-related conditions such as migraine or tension headache.

In more classical Chinese medicine approaches, this pattern may be referred to as “Wood overacting on Earth”.


Chinese medicine and infection-triggered IBS

For people with infection-triggered IBS, it may be useful to apply a “Lingering Pathogens” approach.

This is a subset of Chinese medicine for infectious diseases, referring to ways that the body is retaining responses to an illness that has long since passed.

It is sometimes called an “echo” illness because the symptoms are an echo of the original problem, similar in nature but chronic and usually with less intensity compared to the original episode. Some people with Lingering Pathogen type might have sudden drops in energy, and this is especially likely in children.


How Chinese medicine and acupuncture may help IBS symptoms

When you have a chronic condition, especially involving unknown causes, it can become a rollercoaster of seeking out therapies or products that promise to relieve all your symptoms, raising your hopes and then potentially feeling disappointed when you don’t improve as expected.

We prefer to take a cautious, realistic approach. Because IBS is unlikely to be a single disease entity, for example with some people having more physical issues and others being more impacted by stress, it is helpful to take an individualised approach to managing your symptoms and wellbeing.

We really listen to you, taking into account all your signs and symptoms – not just digestion-related ones. These pieces of information are often interconnected, according to the Chinese medicine view.

We then help you to set goals and create a treatment plan that is targeted towards achievable positive steps forward that are tailored to you.

Chinese medicine treatment may help you manage the symptoms of IBS, for example using acupuncture for nausea, pain, stress reduction or headaches.


Further information or seeking treatment

If you would like to know more, you can:




This post is brought to you by Lois Nethery, acupuncturist and Chinese medicine herbalist at Ocean Acupuncture in Curl Curl on Sydney's Northern Beaches.

Disclaimer - Ocean Acupuncture is a natural medicine centre of independent health practitioners. The views expressed in this blog are the author's only and do not necessarily reflect the views of all Ocean Acupuncture practitioners. The information presented in this blog, and on the Ocean Acupuncture website, is for interest and educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for health or medical information or advice. For health or medical advice, please consult your health professional.

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