Bloating is such a common occurrence in the Sustain Health clinic. I regularly see clients who present with “fullness, discomfort, blockage or obstruction” and are unable to get relief. There can often be no visible distension though some tummies I have been privy to treat are visibly swollen, hard, round and uncomfortable. The feeling of discomfort is not always specific and its location could be anywhere around the abdomen. The majority of women I see express displeasure in the lower abdomen below the belly button. It is not necessarily painful though it’s not to dismiss that abdominal distension can’t be troublesome, it’s just most likely irritating.
The general state of a woman’s abdomen is of essential importance in the diagnostics of Chinese medicine. Considered a reflection of the health of the kidneys and the reproductive system, the abdomen, upon palpation, should “feel elastic, neither too tight or too soft”. Maciocia goes on to indicate that it would be more commonplace for a mum to experience a very soft outer stomach after bearing a number of children. I can definitely attest to that! Where the hand/fingers may sink easily into the flesh whether from multiple pregnancies, overeating or lack of exercise, a pathology of some degree exists. On the other hand, an overly firm/tense abdomen may be more attributable to the lack of Blood flow (or just awesome muscle) and if there was distension, then we would consider the flow of Qi to be effected.
Abdominal distension can have pain associated with it and if there is an uncomfortable sensation when pressure is applied e.g. a hand, from massage or tight jeans, I would regard this as stagnation of energy. To give you an analogy, there is a kink in the garden hose and the water cannot flow through. Conversely, if palpation provides relief, a deficiency of the abdominal energetics is more apparent. Being confined to a specific area, enables a more distinct treatment.
Clinically I find the temperature of the skin significant. It’s amazing how many cold stomachs I feel on a daily basis. Clients are very unaware of the alternating temperature of their abdomens. If the skin is cold to the touch in the lower abdomen, it tells me there is cold pervading the reproductive area. This will affirm the mechanisms of period pain, infertility, urgent/frequent urination, loose bowels and of course, belly bloating.
Western medicine to date indicates bloating is not understood within allopathic health care. It is characterised with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) mostly and can include other functional gastric disorders, for example, chronic gastritis, peptic ulcers and colitis. Other biomedical causes include hepatic cirrhosis, pancreatitis, gall stones, PMT, oral contraceptive pill, hormone replacement therapy, carcinoma, anxiety or depression. In order to treat this condition, medicinals such as “prokinetics, rifaximin, lubiprostone and linaclotide” (drugs used to affect the Intestines) are utilised with a recommendation in dietary changes.
Thankfully, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is able to define the mechanisms that produce bloating and utilise key diagnostic skills to provide a solution. We can identify bloating as a response to either:
- how a person nourishes their body
- the circulation of Qi (particularly in the abdomen)
- constipation, and/or
- the retention of fluid
More often we discover the flow of Qi becomes distorted and quite easily so when dealing with gastrointestinal issues. Suffice to say, the dietary habits of those that suffer bloating are where we often first look to find the problem.
Our society has a concept “bigger is better” and upsizing is normal particularly with nutrient-poor food. Overeating floods the digestive system impacting on the levels of stomach acids leading to symptoms of indigestion, bloating, flatulence and burping amongst other niceties. Inadequate eating habits such as too many raw or cold natured foods (also attributable to medicines and herbs), excessive and refined sugars, generous quantities of grains and junk type foods can produce dampness and phlegm. All of these substances, weaken digestion as the Qi becomes obstructed and bloating occurs.
The lack of hydrochloride acid (HCl) in the stomach leads to malnourishment and poor digestive process as valuable nutrients are just not absorbed. Conversely, pharmaceutical companies are constantly advising the public that you have too much acid if you have symptoms such as bloating, burping or burning. What is really happening is that there is not enough HCl and the antacids are neutralising what little acid in the stomach there is. Acid and enzymes are needed to break down foods. It’s what nature intended, so why are we dissolving it away? The signs and symptoms expressed by these consumers are simply the result of lifestyles that involve “stress, junk food, antibiotics, smoking (second hand smoke included), ingestion of grains, vegetarianism, age and alkalising diets” all deplete the levels of acid in the stomach. Not to mention that taking an antacid regularly damages bones by leaching calcium and promotes environmental hypersensitivity with superfluous aluminium. In turn, the stomach becomes weak slowing down the metabolisation of fluids where eventually they accumulate resulting in obstruction and distension.
Constipation can also contribute to bloating and a baseline of the client’s ‘normal’ bowel habits needs to be established first before treatment commences. It’s important to determine the type of pathology you could be dealing with so perhaps a Qi regulating treatment is required rather than a laxative or purgative approach. Either way, we can see that the Qi is not strong enough to move the bowels or it banks up with the lack of movement.
What should dominate in treatment is recognising what specific function is faulty. An altered diet will be of utmost importance as the digestion of any food is affected by the flow of Qi whether Qi is the problem or food is the problem. Chinese medicine food therapy utilises energetics relating to temperature and sees whole nutrient-dense food as essential for enabling the body to flow! It’s a fascinating take on how to use food as medicine and should be an area for any person experiencing bloating to look into.
Of significance is the fact that we are dealing with the movement of Qi and the best way to engage the Qi is to simply move yourself. As Maclean states, exercise moves Qi and strengthens the Spleen … I would also advocate abdominal breathing as we tend to hold our breath in certain situations and not make use of our entire lung capacity essentially shallow breathing into the upper part of the lungs.
If bloating is a condition you have been putting up with, consider supplementing with a simple home remedy in the form of a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a glass of water, 30 minutes before you eat. Ginger contains an enzyme effective in improving gut function. A cup of ginger tea, once or twice a day is a simple digestive aid. Other options include fermented foods. Containing good bacteria, it stimulates the gut to improve digestive function, giving it the ability to break down foods appropriately. Also, it seems we tend to rush chewing our food. By swallowing before masticating mouthfuls of nutrients it’s important to allow salivary enzymes to build up to do their job. You will certainly get relief though in order to get long lasting comfort, follow it up with some acupuncture and herbal remedies.
If you’re suffering from abdominal issues or even digestive concerns, why not get in touch with our team of qualified and experienced traditional Chinese practitioners. Our team are able and willing to approach your maladies with a holistic view that treats the person as a whole. See how the team at Sustain Health and TCM can help you today