Understanding Constipation In Chinese Medicine
There’s a great saying about the causes of constipation in Chinese medicine:
It’s either “not enough water to float the boat, or not enough wind to fill the sails“!
This means that we can broadly break down the causes of constipation into dryness or weakness.
With the dry type constipation there’s ‘not enough water to float the boat’ – A lack of lubrication means it’s hard to have a bowel movement, which may lead to straining and small, dry stools. This will normally be accompanied by other systemic dryness – maybe a dry mouth or dry skin for example.
Dryness can also be caused by heat, in which case the heat dries up the body fluids. In this case there will general feelings of heat in the body, maybe also irritation, short temper, and trouble sleeping.
On the other hand, constipation can be caused by weakness – ‘not enough wind to fill the sails’ – in which case it is simply a lack of strength to move the bowels. This is most common in the frail, the elderly, or in people who are suffering from or recovering from a serious illness, but anyone can experience this type of constipation when run down and exhausted.
I’d also like to add a third possibly – no boat metaphor for this one I’m afraid – which is due to Qi Stagnation. This is where things get blocked, and the Qi doesn’t move in the intestines. It’s often stress related, and may come with pain, bloating and other digestive disturbances. IBS sufferers often have this type of constipation.
Conventional Treatment Of Constipation
The problem with using conventional laxative treatments is that they have some unpleasant side-effects, and can lead to dependence, as the body loses its own ability to regulate the bowels.
The NHS website lists the common side-effects of laxatives as follows
- passing wind (flatulence)
- painful tummy (abdominal) cramps
- feeling sick
- dehydration – which can make you feel lightheaded, have headaches and pass urine that’s darker than normal
- Excessive or prolonged use of laxatives can also cause diarrhoea, intestinal obstruction (where the bowel becomes blocked by large, dry stools) and unbalanced levels of salts and minerals in your body.
Higher or more frequent doses can result in serious or life-threatening complications, including severe dehydration, internal organ damage and an increased risk of colon cancer.
Chinese Medicine Treatment Of Constipation
Luckily, acupuncture and Chinese herbs can treat both acute and chronic constipation.
Acupuncture for Constipation: Acupuncture is great for moving the Qi, and works very well when the digestive system is ‘stuck’ – for instance I treat a lot of people with IBS in my Bristol clinic, and I find that they respond very well to acupuncture treatment.
Acupuncture also helps to reduce stress, and relax over-tight muscles, both of which can help with constipation.
Chinese Herbs For Constipation: The second approach is a course of Chinese herbal medicine. As always, this should be prescribed for you on an individual basis.
It’s great for counteracting dryness, and strengthening the whole system in cases of weakness and deficiency.
Acupuncture and herbs can also be used together, and some people benefit from some tui na massage. In my clinic I often teach simple abdominal self-massage routines which you can practice at home, and needless to say there can be dietary alterations that can help too.
In my experience the holistic, person-centred approach of Chinese medicine can really have a very good effect on constipation, so if you know anyone who’s suffering it’s definitely worth a try!
Click for more info on my Bristol and S.Wales Chinese Medicine practice