How acupuncture treatments help Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Ulcerative Colitis, and Crohn’s Disease

Many people ask me the question:

How does acupuncture help conditions like IBS, Ulcerative Colitis,and Crohn’s Disease?

For many with these digestive problems it is difficult to imagine how thin acupuncture needles can improve a condition that in many instances controls their lives. The answer lies in the physiology of the body and the gentle manipulation of our nervous systems by using carefully selected acupuncture locations.

Understanding the parts of our nervous system

The first thing you need to learn is how our nervous system is designed. Our nervous system is made up of two sections: Voluntary and Involuntary. The Voluntary part of our nervous system is pretty straight forward – this includes actions like running, or raising your hand, or speaking to someone or anything that we consciously decide to do.

Our Involuntary Nervous System is also called the Autonomic Nervous System. This is because all of the functions of this part of the nervous system happen Automatically such as our heartbeat, breathing, sweating, digestion, and sleeping. So far I hope everyone is able to follow along.

Within the Autonomic Nervous System there are two parts which we will call: Fight or Flight and Rest and Digest. Lets describe both:

Fight or Flight (also called the Sympathetic Nervous System)

This part of the nervous system kicks in when we are nervous, scared, or STRESSED. When the Fight or Flight is working our palms get sweaty, our heartrate increases, it gets harder to breathe, all the blood vessels constrict and send blood to our skin/muscles (angry, embarrassed, blushing, running away from attacker), we are not hungry, and we cannot sleep.

Rest and Digest (also called the Parasympathetic Nervous System)

When Rest and Digest is working, we are hungry and our digestive system is able to absorb nutrients and digest food, our heartrate is at rest, and our digestive system is able to produce the necessary chemicals (serotonin) required to help balance our mood and our sleep cycles.

The important thing to understand that the Fight/Flight and Rest/Digest systems are always working opposite to eachother. For example, if someone was chasing you with a knife; your heart would be racing, palms sweating, and running as fast as you can. You WOULDN’T say to yourself: “Hey why don’t I stop for a hamburger?” or “Maybe, I will take a nap beside this tree”…. This is because when one is working the other becomes its opposite.

In conditions like IBS, Ulcerative Colitis, and Crohn’s Disease the Fight/Flight or Sympathetic Nervous System is always overactive. Things like stress and anxiety fuel the Sympathetic Nervous System which robs the body of sleep and nutrition. People who experience high levels of stress or anxiety are working their Fight/Flight systems 24/7. This sets up our digestive organs for failure.

How does acupuncture help?

Most people are unaware, but acupuncture actually shuts off the Fight/Flight or Sympathetic Nervous System. It does this by engaging the release of endorphins which relax and open blood vessels which triggers the Rest/Digest or Parasympathetic Nervous System. The goal of the acupuncture treatment is to ‘shift’ the Involuntary Nervous System from anxious (fight or flight) to relaxed (rest and digest). This is done by placing the acupuncture points on top of the head, on the ear and on the tops of the hands or feet or along areas of the back. Treatments last about 20 minutes and are usually repeated once per week for 6 weeks.

But I’m not stressed and I have Crohn’s, IBS, or UC….

Here is the thing, because the part of the nervous system that is affected by these conditions is an INVOLUNTARY system… You have no way of knowing whether or not that system is stressed. You may think you are free of stress but your body tells a different story. If you are not sleeping and if you are not eating well – it’s impossible for your Fight/Flight system to be silent. Its impossible.

If your interested in getting some help I suggest you try acupuncture it really works.


#DrLombardi is a Senior Instructor of Medical Acupuncture at McMaster University and has been since 2004.

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