Traditional Chinese Medicine for Acid Reflux (GERD, Heart Burn)

Acid reflux, commonly called heartburn, is a condition in which the liquid contents of the stomach flow upward into the esophagus, the muscular canal that connects the throat to the stomach. This causes a burning sensation that can damage the inner lining of the esophagus. The proper medical term for acid reflux is Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a common disorder affecting millions of Americans. It can often be treated effectively with changes in lifestyle and/or over-the-counter medications. A variety of treatments used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), such as acupuncture and herbal medicine, offer effective and natural treatment of acid reflux.

How Is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Used to Treat Acid Reflux?

Two of the most common methods for treating disorders in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.

Acupuncture for Acid Reflex
In acupuncture, the practitioner inserts long, thin needles into various parts of the body to modify the flow of forces, such as yin and yang, and to restore organs, such as the spleen, liver, heart, stomach and kidneys, to their normal function. The locations where the acupuncture needles are inserted are related to the specific cause of acid reflux in your body. TCM teaches that a variety of disruptions in the normal flow of forces and energy in the body, as well as improper organ function, can cause different types of acid reflux. A practitioner must first determine from the patient’s symptoms the pattern of improper functioning responsible for those symptoms and then design an acupuncture treatment plan to resolve those problems.

Typical acupuncture points used in the treatment of acid reflex and GERD include:

  • Ren 12: located on the front midline of the body along the Conception Vessel meridian in the middle of the abdomen, this point is abdominal point can harmonize the stomach and relieve excess stagnation in the digestive system.
  • Pc 6: located on the inner side of the forearm, three finger widths from the crease of the wrist, on the Pericardium meridian, this point can relieve discomfort in the chest and nausea.
  • St 36: located on the front of the lower leg, four finger widths below the kneecap along the tibialis anterior muscle, this point can harmonize the stomach and lower the rising Stomach Qi that causes reflux.

A 2005 study from Taiwan on the effects of acupuncture on acid reflux discovered that mild stimulation of Pc 6, Nei Guan, decreased transient lower esophageal sphincter relaxations (TLESRs) by 40%. TLESRs are considered to be responsible for the symptoms of acid reflux. The researches used a barely perceptible electro-stimulation of the acupuncture point during the study.

Chinese Herbal Medicine for Acid Reflex
The same approach determines the type of herbal treatment appropriate for Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), aka acid reflux. For example, acid reflux may be caused by a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) condition known as stomach fire, in which excessive heat flows into the stomach.

Herbs that can be used to treat this condition include the following:

  • Huang lian, obtained from the rhizome (root structure) of the Chinese goldthread plant, Coptis chinensis. Huang lian is thought to relieve inflammation of the intestines, reduce heat in the blood, and generally cool the stomach.
  • Lu gen, obtained from the rhizome of the Phragmites communis (reed) plant, that draws heat from the stomach.
  • Shi gao, a form of gypsum (calcium sulfate), that clears heat and fire from the stomach;
  • Zhi mu, rhizomes of the Anemarrhena asphodeloides plant, that provide a cooling effect on the stomach.
  • Zhu ru, shavings from the Arundinaria japonica (bamboo) plant, that clears heat from the stomach.

A second cause for acid reflux is said to be an imbalance in the liver. One function of the liver, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is to ensure a proper flow of qi (body energy) throughout all parts of the body. Qi flows through specific pathways, known as meridians, to ensure that all organs of the body are functioning properly. If the liver does not function as it is supposed to, medical problems can develop anywhere in the body. Acid reflux is such a problem.

Again, a variety of herbs can be used to treat acid reflux caused by a liver imbalance, including:

  • Bai shao, root of the white peony (Paeonia lactiflora), chosen for its ability to calm the liver;
  • Chai hu, root of the Chinese thorowax (Bupleurum chinensis), to stimulate movement of qi in the liver;
  • Fang feng, root of the Ledebouriellae divaricatae plant, which expels wind from the body and produces a balance between liver and spleen;
  • Mu xiang, costus root (Aucklanida costus), to promote movement of qi and strengthen the spleen;
  • Xiang fu, rhizome of the Chinese nutgrass (Cyperus rotundus), which regulates qi in the liver and promotes the circulation of qi.

In addition to acupuncture and herbal medicine, various types of massage called Tui Na are used for the treatment of acid reflux. The purpose of massage, as with all forms of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is to stimulate body tissues to promote the flow of qi and to ensure a balance among the various organs of the body and the forces they control.

What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

For more than 2,000 years, healers in China and other parts of Asia have been using a group of techniques collectively known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to treat a variety of physical and mental disorders. These techniques are based on the belief that different kinds of forces and energy are produced and controlled by organs, such as the liver, heart, stomach, spleen, and kidneys. These forces and energy flow through channels in the body known as meridians. When the flow of forces and energy is disrupted by any one of a number of problems, the appropriate medical response is to determine the type of problem that has developed by interviewing the patient and looking for signs and symptoms of imbalances in the body. Then the Chinese medicine practitioner will devise a treatment that will restore the proper flow of forces and energy and the proper function of the organs.

What Causes Acid Reflux?

A number of factors may contribute to the appearance of acid reflux. Obesity, smoking, pregnancy and the consumption of certain types of foods (such as spicy foods) may all be involved. Genetic factors may also predispose a person to getting acid reflux. The condition develops when the passage of food from the throat, through the esophagus and into the stomach is disrupted. One cause of this disruption may be a hiatal hernia, a condition in which the upper part of the stomach projects upward into the esophagus. Another possible cause of acid reflux is a malfunctioning esophageal sphincter, the valve between the esophagus and stomach that controls the flow of food from the mouth into the digestive system.

Further Resources
Garran, Thomas Avery.Western Herbs according to Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Practitioner's Guide. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2008.

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