Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a medical condition characterized by loose, watery stools. A person with diarrhea typically has at least three bowel movements a day. In cases of acute diarrhea, the condition seldom lasts more than a few days and is not indicative of any serious medical problems. Cases of chronic diarrhea last for extended periods of time and are often symptomatic of serious medical problems. The most serious consequence of diarrhea is dehydration, or excessive loss of water from the body, a condition that may be fatal. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has devised methods for treating this condition that include acupuncture and herbal treatments specific to the type of diarrhea.

How Can Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Be Used to Treat Diarrhea?

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) often recommend acupuncture and herbal remedies for the treatment of diarrhea. A TCM practitioner will interview and examine a patient to determine the probable cause of the disease before prescribing an appropriate treatment. Diagnosis includes several forms of TCM examination, including pulse palpation, tongue observation, and may also include palpation of the body’s meridians (energy pathways). These diagnostic tools will help the practitioner develop a sense of the patient’s pattern of disharmony, according to Oriental Medicine theory.

Several patterns of disharmony often resulting in diarrhea, including:

  • Cold-dampness diarrhea is characterized by loss of appetite, abdominal pain, a slow pulse, a pale tongue with a white coating and watery stools.
  • Heat-dampness diarrhea is characterized by abdominal pain, thirst, dark yellow urine, a rapid pulse, and a red tongue with a greasy yellow coating.
  • Spleen and Stomach deficiency diarrhea is characterized by poor appetite, fatigue, a feeling of fullness in the stomach, a weak-slow pulse and a pale tongue with a greasy coating.

Chinese Herbal Medicine for Diarrhea
Chinese herbal medicine is one of the primary forms of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treatment. Each pattern of diarrhea, described above, can be treated either with a specific herb or, more commonly, a combination of herbs, each of which contributes to a cure for the disorder.

Several herbs are recommended for the treatment of diarrhea:

  • Huang Lian - Golden thread rhizome (Coptis chinensis rhizome) is recommended because it has a tendency to rehydrate and restore proper heat balance in the lower part of the body. Additionally, it clears damp-heat and has a anti-bacterial and anti-viral effect.
  • Tu Su Zi - Chinese dodder (Cuscuta chinensis) strengthens yin, improves the action of the kidneys, and reduces the production of urine.
  • Bu Gu Zhi (Psoralea corylifolia) strengthens and improves the function of the kidneys and spleen and cools the lower back.
  • Yi Zhi Ren - Black cardamon (Amomum subulatum) warms the kidneys and spleen and contributes toward the retention of urine.

Combinations of herbs useful for the treatment of diarrhea are often commercially available. As with individual herbs, each combination is recommended for the treatment of a specific pattern of diarrhea.

As an example, a decoction used to treat diarrhea resulting from a deficiency of yang in the spleen and kidneys consists of nine herbs, including:

  • bu gu zhi (Psoralea corylifolia)
  • bai wu wei zi (magnolia vine [Schisandra] fruit)
  • fu zi (radix aconiti lateralis praeparata; Typhonium giganteum)
  • wu zhu yu (Fructus evodiae)
  • rou dou kou (semen myristicae; nutmeg; Myristica fragrans)
  • dang shen (radix codonopsis pilosulae; Pilose asiabell [Codonopsis pilosulae] root)
  • bai zhu (Atractylodis macrocephalae root)
  • gan jiang (ginger root; rhizoma zingiberis praeparata)
  • gan cao (radix glycyrrhizae; licorice root)

This combination of herbs is recommended because its components have astringent properties, causing tissues to contract and retain water, thus reducing diarrhea. It also tends to warm the kidneys and improve the function of the spleen.

Visiting a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) will allow a customized formula to be designed for your specific symptoms. Many of the classical and modern herbal formulas are modified to meet the needs of each individual patient, helping to balance their health and alleviate the diarrhea.

Acupuncture for Diarrhea
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners may also use acupuncture for the treatment of diarrhea. Acupuncture involves the insertion of long, thin needles into various parts of the body to relieve the symptoms of a medical disorder. The precise location at which needles are inserted for the treatment of diarrhea depends on the type of diarrhea diagnosed. By adjusting the flow of qi, yin and yang along various meridians, organs that may be responsible for the patient’s symptoms are brought into balance and made to function normally.

Typical acupuncture points used in the treatment diarrhea include:

  • Zu San Li – Stomach 36 (St-36) – this point strengthens digestion and help the generation of Qi (vital energy) and Blood in the body. It is used to harmonize the stomach and is the command point of the abdomen, alleviating any disharmony in this area.
  • Tian Shu – Stomach 25 (St-25) – this point is primarily used to treat disorders of the intestines and to regulate the flow of energy through the lower abdomen. It is often used in the treatment of diarrhea due to its influence of the Large Intestine. The point is frequently used in cases of diarrhea caused by bacillary dysentery.
  • Zhong Wan – Ren 12 (Rn-12) – this point is commonly used to regulate the stomach and intestines, especially in cases of diarrhea with undigested food or diarrhea with blood and pus. Due to the regulating effect of this point, it can also be used in cases of stagnation within the intestines, leading to constipation.

A variety of point combinations may be selected by the acupuncturist when treating diarrhea based upon the patient’s specific presentation of signs and symptoms. In acute cases of diarrhea, it is common to use both acupuncture and herbal medicine together to quickly resolve the condition.

Massage and acupressure can also be used to treat diarrhea. By manipulating various parts of the body, a practitioner may be able to stimulate and adjust the flow of body forces to remove the causes for diarrhea. These treatments are generally used in addition to acupuncture and herbal medicine to control cases of diarrhea.

What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a 5,000-year-old system of medicine used for treating disorders of both the mind and body. While the physiology and pathology of TCM differs considerably from that of conventional (allopathic) medicine, the practice has shown to be effective for many disorders in clinical trials and is considered a safe form of treatment. In TCM, the body is seen as a microcosm of the whole universe, and health and disease occur as the result of the flow of various forces, such as yin and yang, and of a vital spirit known as qi throughout the body. Illness results from an imbalance in these forces or problems in the function of various organs. The treatment of illness, then, involves the use of herbs, acupuncture, massage or other techniques to restore the proper balance of forces and energy and to restore the proper function of organs.

What Causes Diarrhea?

Acute diarrhea is most commonly caused by bacterial, viral or parasitic infection, by intolerance to foods or by a reaction to certain medicines. Allopathic practitioners tend to use antibiotics to treat the cause of some forms of acute diarrhea and to recommend a variety of products to treat its symptoms. Chronic diarrhea tends to be associated with more serious diseases of the digestive system, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, colitis and celiac disease. These disorders often require more aggressive treatments, such as surgery, and the diarrhea with which they are associated can only be treated symptomatically. Alternative medicines, such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), may be helpful in the treatment of these chronic diseases that cause diarrhea.

Additional Resources

Alternative Medicine Foundation. “Traditional Chinese Medicine.”

Holmes, Peter, with Jing Wang. The Traditional Chinese Medicine Materia Medica Clinical Reference and Study Guide. Boulder, CO: Snow Lotus Press, 2002.

Lu, Yubin, and Liu Chengcai. Concepts and Theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Beijing: Science Press; Amsterdam: IOS Press, 1998.

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