In this post, I will explain a recent study that shows acupuncture not only helped improve constipation but also had an impact on the gut microbiome. I will also offer case studies and discuss central role digestion plays in our health.
Functional constipation is a common gastrointestinal disorder that is characterized by infrequent bowel movements, hard stools, straining during defecation, and a sense of incomplete evacuation. This common and distressing condition, has left many individuals searching for effective remedies. Acupuncture has roots that stretch back thousands of years and has long been used to improve digestive problems including constipation.
Acupuncture for Function Constipation:
Acupuncture works by stimulating the body to heal itself. It is based in the idea that imbalances in the body lead to illness. By removing the imbalances the body is able to heal itself.
The imbalances that cause constipation are usually related to the Qi. Qi is the body’s energy. When there is too little Qi, called Qi deficiency, or the Qi slows down and does not circulate well, illnesses can occur. An acupuncture treatment is devised to stimulate specific points in order to correct the underlying imbalance. Once we’re able to do this, the imbalance is corrected and you feel better.
Physiologically, acupuncture works in many ways to relieve constipation. It has been shown to stimulate gut motility, increasing the rhythmic contractions of the intestines helping to keeping your digestive track moving.(1) Additionally, acupuncture is believed to influence the autonomic nervous system, affecting gut secretions and the stress hormones that can disrupt digestion. By modulating these neurochemical responses, acupuncture can potentially alleviate constipation symptoms. (2) As you will see, there is evidence now that acupuncture helps improve the gut microbiota to help constipation. This may be one of the keys to acupuncture’s holistic effects.
Research Shows Acupuncture Relieves Constipation
A recent study illuminated acupuncture’s power to treat constipation (3)This study found that patients in the acupuncture group showed notable improvements in bowel movement frequency and reduced straining. This supports the thousands of years of clinical practice as well as numerous large scale clinical trials. (4)
But the authors of the new study also did a very interesting examination, they looked into the changes in the gut microbiota of the patients connecting some clinical improvements to changes in the gut microbiome. Not only did the acupuncture group also experienced significant positive shifts in their gut microbiota composition, aligning more closely with healthy controls.
A Deeper Dive into the Research
The participants were divided into an acupuncture group and acupuncture placebo group. They underwent 16 treatment sessions over the 4 weeks.
The acupuncture group had acupuncture bilateral at ST25, SP14, and ST37. The sham-acupuncture group used the Park Sham Device at three non-acupuncture points. The selection of acupuncture points matches other large scale trials of acupuncture for functional constipation (4).
The acupuncture group showed a significantly higher proportion of patients with complete spontaneous bowel movements (CSBMs) per week at 75%, in contrast to just 7.50% in the sham-acupuncture group.
Additionally, the acupuncture group gut microbial communities improved from their pre-treatment state, becoming more similar to healthy controls. The sham-acupuncture group did not show such significant shifts.
The acupuncture group exhibited increased abundance in certain beneficial bacterial species and a decrease in potentially harmful ones. Interestingly, the sham-acupuncture group showed a decline in some beneficial bacteria.
Acupuncture treatments seemed to rebalance the gut flora. Beneficial bacterial species saw a surge in their numbers post-treatment, whereas certain harmful ones diminished.
Digestion as the Center of Wellbeing
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), digestion is central to overall wellbeing. It is the sources of our “postnatal” source of Qi (vital energy) that is extracted from food we eat. The Spleen and Stomach organs are responsible for transforming this food into Qi and blood, which are essential for nourishing the body and supporting various physiological functions.
This philosophical approach to health was centruies ahead of it’s time. We now know that gut dybiosis, that is a disharmony of the gut microbiome, can cause a wide range of diseases. Chinese medicine recognized that digestion is central to health and has far reaching ability for causing illness and maintaining health including our moods, immune system, our skin, and nervous system.
I have long thought that acupuncture and Chinese medicine positively affect the gut microbiome to bring about long term holistic changes in the body.
A Case Study of Constipation & Eczema
PJ has had a history of constipation on and off since her teenage years. As a result she had a constant feeling of bloating, discomfort, and slugishness. She has been relying on prescriptions and over the counter laxatives for all of her adult life. Despie eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water her constipation persisted.
About a year before coming to see me for acupuncture she developed small red dry itchy bumps, skin swelling, and red spots on her face. It was unclear what the skin condition was because different dermatologists had many different diagnosis, for which they put her on many different creams to no avail. In the end they diagnosed her with eczema. She chose to use acupuncture rather than any other medications.
My acupuncture treatment was focused on boosting and moving the Qi to stimulate the digestive system.
ST25 (Tianshu): To directly influence the large intestine and alleviate constipation.
ST36 (Zusanli): General wellbeing, boost immunity, and to boost digestive function.
LIV 13 (Zhangmen): Helps digestive issues particular if they arise from stress
SP6 (Sanyinjiao): To harmonize and strengthen the spleen which in TCM aids digestion and controls blood flow, which can influence skin health.
LI11 (Quchi): Known to clear heat and inflammation, this point was chosen for its potential
LI 10 (Shousanli): This point boost immunity and strengthens the qi tonifying affects of ST 36.
LIV 13 (Zhangmen): This point helps to move the liver Qi and relieve stress
Additionally I used local ashi points on her face over the swelling areas.
PJ came in once a week for acupuncture. Additionally I advised her to include hemp seeds and hemp seed oil in her diet to benefit both the skin and the constipation.
Almost immediately PJ noticed improvements in feelings of discomfort and improvement in frequency of bowel movements. After the first month, PJ reported an increase in bowel movement frequency to almost every day. She also had a noticeable reduction in bloating. The redness, swelling, and dryness of her facial lesions also reduced.
She continued with acupuncture treatment for 4 months, coming weekly. Her skin was clear entirely and digestion was regular without any pain or bloating.
At the end of the treatment she had a 4 month break. After a vacation she noticed her digestion was not as regular as before and had some minor skin flare ups, at which time PJ returned to the clinic. I advised her to come for monthly maintenance sessions in order to make sure she stays healthy and the issues do not return. I am happy to report that PJ digestion and skin is well maintained with the once a month acupuncture.
This case highlights the close connection between digestive health and skin conditions. Acupuncture was able to address the digestion effectively, which I believe was the root cause of the skin issues. This provided relief to both constipation and the associated skin condition. It reinforces the belief in the interconnectedness of body systems and the need for a comprehensive approach to healthcare.
Get Acupuncture, Feel Better
Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat digestion issues. Clinical experience and large clinical trials have shown it’s effectivness. The recent research not only affirms the role of acupuncture in addressing functional constipation but also reveals another way it can improve your constipation and health overall– by positively modulating the gut microbiome.
My patient’s experience also illuminates how acupuncture can treat many issues at the same time. By correcting the root cause of the disease, the digestion, it can have a ripple affect to improve other conditions, like the skin health. This shows that our health concerns are often intertwined, and addressing the root cause can lead to relief in multiple areas of concern.
Whether you’re considering acupuncture for digestive issues, skin concerns, or overall well-being, it’s worth exploring how this ancient practice can contribute to a healthier, balanced life.
- Xu, M. M., Guo, Y., Chen, Y., Zhang, W., Wang, L., & Li, Y. (2023). Electro-acupuncture promotes gut motility and alleviates functional constipation by regulating gut microbiota and increasing butyric acid generation in mice. J Integr Med, 21(4), 397-406. doi:10.1016/j.joim.2023.05.003
- Li, H., He, T., Xu, Q., Li, Z., Liu, Y., Li, F., . . . Liu, C. Z. (2015). Acupuncture and regulation of gastrointestinal function. World J Gastroenterol, 21(27), 8304-8313. doi:10.3748/wjg.v21.i27.8304
- Yan, X. Y., Yao, J. P., Li, Y. Q., Xiao, X. J., Yang, W. Q., Chen, S. J., . . . Li, Y. (2023). Effects of acupuncture on gut microbiota and short-chain fatty acids in patients with functional constipation: a randomized placebo-controlled trial. Front Pharmacol, 14, 1223742. doi:10.3389/fphar.2023.1223742
- Liu, Z., Yan, S., Wu, J., He, L., Li, N., Dong, G., . . . Liu, B. (2016). Acupuncture for Chronic Severe Functional Constipation: A Randomized Trial. Ann Intern Med, 165(11), 761-769. doi:10.7326/M15-3118