Integrative Medicine Blog

Traditional Chinese Medicine and IBS

Rebecca Rice L.Ac., MSAOM Sunday, April 08, 2018
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Traditional Chinese Medicine can help improve IBS.

Evidence-based medicine has demonstrated that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can benefit from multiple treatment options to address this often complex disorder. One of these options is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), including acupuncture, herbal formulas and dietary therapy. In a 2015 systematic review of randomized controlled trials of Chinese herbal formulas and IBS, patients taking traditional Chinese herbs alone or in conjunction with usual care improved at a higher percentage than those using only conventional medicine (Xiao et al., 2015). Additionally, there were no adverse events reported in the trials among patients taking the Chinese herbal formulas. The authors noted that physiological responses of Chinese herbal formulas responsible for their healing effects include the modulation of smooth muscle of the gastrointestinal tract, regulation of neurotransmitters, reduction of intestinal inflammation and restoration of intestinal flora.

When unified in a formula, herbs share the responsibility of the intended treatment goal. One of the formulas that is used to treat IBS includes a base of four herbs: bai shao (white peony), bai zhu (white atractylodes), chen pi (citrus peel) and fang feng (siler). TCM pathology uses terminology that sounds unfamiliar to western medical concepts, however it is simply a different way of explaining the same action of the compound. The purpose of each herb in the formula is defined by it’s own individual actions and plays a part in the general purpose of the formula. For example, white peony is an herb that ‘soothes the liver,’ in other words it relieves stress. To take one herb alone for IBS would be inadequate so there is the addition of the others. White atractylodes has the action of ‘tonifying the spleen,’ in other words it helps nutrients to absorb in the small intestine. Citrus peel supports the digestive function by ‘transforming dampness,’ in other words it reduces abdominal bloating. And lastly, siler has the function of ‘expelling wind,’ in other words, it relieves diarrhea.

IBS can be triggered by stress and anxiety. The syndrome can also perpetuate these psychosomatic discomforts. Acupuncture provides time-tested relief to stress and anxiety thereby treating this aspect of IBS. According to TCM theory, the digestion is our central axis. It is the prime source of energy from the breakdown of food. If this system is dysfunctional we may feel irritable, fearful, anxious, or unsettled. On a physical level this may result in IBS, constipation, urgent loose stools, pain and bloating. One of my paramount focuses as a practitioner of Chinese medicine is to treat the imbalances of the gastrointestinal tract and support it’s functions of assimilating nutrients from food, promoting motility, normalizing bowel function and decreasing inflammation. Similar to properly recommended Chinese herbs, acupuncture provides safe, cost effective and health promoting care for IBS.


Li CY1, Ain Mohd Tahir N, Li SC. A systematic review of integrated traditional Chinese and Western medicine for managing irritable bowel syndrome. Am J Chin Med. 2015;43(3):385-406. doi: 10.1142/S0192415X15500251. Epub 2015 Apr 27.