Abnormal bloating and distention seem to be affecting more and more people lately, and it's not just a matter of vanity: it's a problem that can create intense discomfort, pain, and a slew of other symptoms.
While the root of each individual's bloating problem may differ, there's a treatment that can fix it in many cases: acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). We spoke with Dr. Magnolia Ng from Advance Health SF to get further insight into what's going on in our gut, how to treat it, and how it all works.
"There are many possible causes of indigestion, also known as dyspepsia," Dr. Ng said. "Many times, when western medicine tests for bacteria, parasites, and celiac disease, results come back negative and patients do not respond to the pharmaceutical drugs prescribed, so they have to look for alternative forms of treatment." We sought Dr. Ng's treatment after going through a similar experience, and it has been working! So naturally (pun intended), we wanted to know more.
Bloating symptoms are totally on a spectrum, and because no two people are exactly alike, no two bloating cases are identical, either. This is what makes acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine so special for these cases. "In Traditional Chinese Medicine, looking at the body holistically, we take into consideration different patterns of disharmony that cause indigestion," Dr. Ng said. "We take into account the very different ways in which people experience the symptoms of indigestion, as well as the nature of the pain or discomfort — is it dull or severe, stabbing, burning, and is it accompanied by a feeling of fullness? When does the pain occur: in the morning, afternoon, or at night?"
Your TCM doctor and acupuncturist will also look at "what relieves or exacerbates the pain? Is it better or worse after eating, with or without pressure, with heat or cold, with rest or exercise? Is there belching, nausea, vomiting, or regurgitation? Is there a feeling of bloating, and if so, where and how does it feel?" Dr. Ng said. "These questions help an acupuncturist to determine what aspect of digestion is not functioning properly and what imbalances need to be corrected in the system."
This practice of TCM and acupuncture is rooted in the concept of keeping a free-flowing qi, your body's natural energy. "In our clinic, the treatments protocol is a combination of tonifying the digestive system through the stomach, spleen, and liver meridians, as well as relaxing the mind and body with calming points and herbs," Dr. Ng said.
In acupuncture specifically, the needles are used to alleviate and release blockages of this energy (qi), which can cause medical problems and even weight gain. An acupuncturist looks at "meridians" throughout the body to improve the circulation of qi — those meridians are like a map of where the energy flows.
Here's how Dr. Ng explained it: "We insert needles into seemingly unrelated parts of your body because there are local points — areas from where the pain radiates — and distal points, which correspond to remote areas of your body, such as your extremities, that have many nerve endings that trigger a strong response through the stomach, spleen, and liver meridian to help move the energy flow in your abdomen."
The needles are placed accordingly to help unblock what is essentially a clog, or traffic jam. Dr. Tony Y. Chong and Dr. Mark C. Lee of the Mayo Clinic explain this as "cutaneous areas of high electrical conductivity" and the impact on "adjacent tissue."
Acupuncture isn't a Band-Aid approach or just a symptom-treater. Dr. Ng directed us to a study that showed the efficacy of acupuncture for indigestion and bloating, stating that "Acupuncture is effective in the treatment of functional dyspepsia." And a 2007 study showed that acupuncture is more effective than antacids. This is because the treatment doesn't just target the symptom of bloating or digestive dysfunction itself, but it hones in on whatever the root cause is (which in some cases is stress).
Additionally, the acupuncture isn't used as a standalone treatment. Your doctor will also use different kinds of herbal medicines to treat your problem. "There are a few excellent Chinese herbal patent formulas that can help treat poor digestion and relieve symptoms," she said. Herbal blends like "Mu Xiang Sheng Qi Wan, Bao He Wan, Xiang Sha Yang Wei Wan, and Curing Pills all work a little differently depending on your condition, but overall work to improve energy flow in your intestines, clearing out dampness and wastes from your digestive system — allowing your body to be more balanced."
The combination of unblocking the clogged energy, reducing stress, regulating digestion, and using herbs to contribute to the free flowing of your body's energy all contributes to your bloating relief. The doctor will focus on your diet as well and exactly how you're eating (and when). We suggest finding a TCM doctor and acupuncturist near you and developing a personalized plan that works for your body. As Dr. Ng put it, "A TCM practitioner can work with you to devise a diet specifically geared to your individual body's needs, as well as prescribe and create herbal formulas, or offer an acupuncture treatment, each devised specifically for your ailment." Also of note: while some acupuncturists do take insurance, if you end up paying out of pocket, you can expect to pay between $50 and $100, depending on the length of your visit, location, and that practice's pricing.
Regardless of what your particular approach might be, she summed it up quite well: "Body awareness and education of common symptoms is the first step to good health."