Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for Constipation

Constipation is a condition characterized by infrequent bowel movements, difficulty in moving one’s bowels, and abnormally hard stools. Constipation is a very nonstandard condition because the frequency and character of bowel movements differ significantly from person to person. In most cases, constipation is not indicative of a medical problem. However, one should seek medical advice if constipation continues for an extended period of time, is accompanied by unusual pain or blood in the stool, or does not respond to home remedies. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offers a variety of natural treatments to help regulate your bowel movement and relieve constipation.

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

A fundamental principle of TCM is that good health depends on the proper amount and distribution of Qi (pronounced “chee”) in the body. Qi has been variously described as vital energy, life force, vital breath, essential air, or life vapor. Qi travels through channels in the body known as meridians; blockage or constriction of meridians can result in an improper flow of qi through the body, resulting in a variety of medical problems.

Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recognize three forms of constipation, caused by (1) reduction in the flow of Qi, (2) an excess of cold in the body, and (3) an excess of warmth. Each type of constipation requires a different type of treatment. In all cases, acupuncture may be helpful in stimulating the meridians through which Qi flows, causing a softening of stools. The procedure tends to be more effective with Qi stagnation and heat constipation; however, than with cold constipation, for which the use of herbal mixtures may be more effective.

Acupuncture Treatments for Constipation
A variety of acupuncture points may be used for the treatment of constipation. The most commonly used treatment is called the Four Doors. This group of acupuncture points is comprised of Ren 12, Ren 6, and bilateral Stomach 25. These points are all located on the abdomen, surrounding the navel, and strongly move the Qi in the abdomen. Another effective point is Triple Burner 6, which is located on the forearm; this point also helps circulate the Qi in the intestines. For heat conditions of constipation, the acupuncture point Stomach 44 can effectively clear heat in the intestines. Cold conditions respond well to moxibustion, which is the burning of the herb Ai Ye. Sticks of the herb are formed into a cigar-shape, and waved over the abdomen to apply an indirect heat. Depending on the exact constitution of the individual, additional points may be use to help balance the body.

Chinese Herbal Medicine for Constipation
One commercially available formula for constipation is San Kuai Ding, composed of Da Huang (rhubard) and Lu Hui (aloe). San Kuai Ding can be used for minor cases of constipation. Another formula is Ji Chuan Jian, a mixture of six herbs including the roots of the Angelicae sinensis and Achyranthis bidentatae, the rhizome of Alismatis orientalis and fruit of the Citrus seu poncirus (bitter orange) plant. Ji Chuan Jian is better for deficient cold conditions since it warms the Kidney, moistens the intestines, and unblocks the bowel.

The classical Chinese herbal formula for constipation is called Da Cheng Qi Tang, Major Order the Qi decoction, containing Da Huang (Radix and Rhizoma Rhei), Mang Xiao (Mirabilitum), Zhi Shi (Fructus Immaturus Citri Aurantii), and Hou Po (Cortex Magnoliae Officinalis). This major formula strongly purges heat accumulation, relieves focal distension and abdomen fullness, and moistens dry stools. Da Cheng Qi Tang is commonly modified to reduce its strength for more minor conditions into formulas called Xiao Cheng Qi Tang (Minor Order the Qi Decoction) and Tiao Wei Cheng Qi Tang (Regulate Stomach and Order the Qi Decoction). These modified formulas add or subtract herbs from Da Cheng Qi Tang to decrease it purgative effects.

Visiting a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner will allow an herbal formula to be designed specifically to fit your condition and constitution. This will provide the most effective form of therapy, as each individual case is unique.

What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a way of understanding the composition and functions of the human body so as to make possible treatments for a variety of diseases and disorders. The general principles behind TCM were developed more than 3,000 years ago and have remained largely unchanged to the modern day. Today, large numbers of people around the world make use of TCM because they understand and accept the general principles on which it was based, because it is part of their tradition, or they are uncomfortable with the methods of conventional modern (allopathic) medicine.

The amount and balance of qi is also influenced by two life forces, known as yin and yang. Yin and yang are interdependent and contradictory forces characterized as heaven and earth, warmth and coolness, moisture and dryness, activity and passivity, and other characteristics. Yin and yang are produced within organs, such as the liver, kidneys, heart, and intestines. Disruptions in the production and/or distribution of yin and yang can affect the flow of qi and, hence, one’s overall health. The goal of TCM is to discover the specific imbalance present in the body causing an illness and to devise means to correct that imbalance. Acupuncture, massage, and the use of traditional herbs are the primary means for achieving this objective.

How Effective Is TCM in the Treatment of Constipation?
In a number of research studies, practitioners of TCM have found the use of acupuncture and herbal remedies to be highly effective in the treatment of constipation. Reports of such studies often appear in journals such as The Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

What Is Constipation?

The waste products of the digestion of food are normally eliminated from the body through the intestines and the rectum. Under normal circumstances, the consistency of these wastes is maintained at a proper level by sufficient quantities of water and minerals mixed with the waste materials. This combination—known as stool—tends to move easily through the excretory system by means of muscular contractions in tissues surrounding the intestines. If insufficient water is present in stool, it becomes hard, and the intestines have more difficulty in excreting wastes. In some cases, the muscular contractions that move the stool themselves become uncoordinated, and a person finds it necessary to strain to move his or her bowels properly.

A number of factors are associated with constipation, including:

  • lack of physical activity
  • a diet low in fiber
  • insufficient fluid intake
  • pregnancy
  • illness
  • age

Although constipation is usually not a serious medical problem, it can be indicative of other disorders. You should see a physician if the condition persists or becomes worse. Under normal conditions, however, constipation can be treated rather easily with laxatives or stool softeners. An even better approach is to make the adjustments necessary in your life to reduce the likelihood that constipation will occur. For example, you can increase the level of your physical activity or begin taking dietary supplements that contain high levels of fiber.

Additional Resources

Tsang, Patricia. Optimal Healing: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Medicine. San Francisco: Balance for Health Publishing, 2008.

Xingrong, Yan, et al., eds. Encyclopedic Reference of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Berlin and New York: Springer, 2003.

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