by Marianne Pierce, our writer collaborator 

One of the most revolutionary notions that’s entered into public consciousness in recent years is the idea that the gut and the brain are intimately connected. We’ve begun to understand, as a society, the importance of what we eat, how our gut feels, and how it relates to our mental health and stress levels. In truth, ideas about the gut’s link to the brain have existed in popular culture for ages – consider a “gut feeling” or “going with your gut”. This is an important change. Many people live with gastrointestinal (GI) disorders; among the most common is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which affects about 10-15% of the global population. IBS and many other GI disorders are what we call functional disorders. These disorders are symptomatic; there can be little to no external appearance of abnormalities when a patient is tested. In other words, blood, urine, and other testing will often fail to detect functional disorders. This makes many GI disorders challenging to treat; without an obvious cause, attempts are often made to reduce stress and alleviate symptoms.


Functional GI disorders may be best treated holistically. Holistic treatment involves the body and mind and might involve a combination of Western medicine, alternative medicine, and lifestyle changes. Living a balanced life can help reduce stress; GI issues and stress are intimately linked. There are a few ways in which acupuncture can help relieve functional GI problems. You should know that it’s important to consult with your doctor and learn about various treatment options before electing to get acupuncture for your GI issues. Some GI issues aren’t functional and require medication or other medical intervention. Some functional GI issues respond well to medication. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution in the world of medicine, so be sure to consult with your whole medical team before pursuing any type of treatment.


One of the most important concepts to understand when learning about GI disorders is motility. Motility is related to mobility, in that it involves something moving. The difference is that mobility refers to an object’s ability to be moved, while motility describes an organism’s ability to move itself. Anytime muscles aren’t working properly in your GI tract, it can be said to be an issue in motility. Problems with motility and sensitivity are, then, two of the most common causes of functional GI disorders. One of the most common symptoms of motility issues in the GI tract is Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), often called acid reflux


There have been a number of studies on gastric (stomach) motility and acupuncture (as well as electroacupuncture). A metastudy found that acupuncture is able to improve gastric motility in some cases. Other studies included in the metastudy analyzed the effects of acupuncture on the motility of the rest of the GI tract; results were inconclusive. The metastudy concludes by confirming that acupuncture and electroacupuncture seem to improve functional GI motility disorders, but that more studies were needed.


A study conducted in 2014 evaluated some of the most common supposed causes of functional GI disorders, and how acupuncture and moxibustion, another traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), could help regulate the causes of the disorder. The study looked at the brain-gut axis, motility, hypersensitivity, and other potential causes of functional GI disorders. The goal of the study was to evaluate why acupuncture seemed effective at treating functional GI disorders, and by doing so, attempted to elucidate what causes functional GI problems and why. The study further attempted to identify problems with mechanism research (in other words, why it’s difficult to find the reasons acupuncture are effective), and remedy those problems.


The study (a review of other studies) concluded that acupuncture did seem effective at treating functional GI disorders. That said, many of the studies contained within the review contained data or research methods that have been deemed flawed by subsequent studies. This is a problem inherent in most acupuncture research. For a variety of technical reasons, it’s extremely difficult to devise an appropriate placebo for acupuncture. That means it’s difficult to identify why acupuncture works, even though it’s relatively easy to demonstrate that it works (just ask any number of patients that have been helped by acupuncture). 


Acupuncture does seem to alleviate the symptoms of many GI disorders. A metastudy conducted in 2006 concluded there is ample evidence that acupuncture helps reduce nausea and vomiting, especially for what are known as postoperative GI disorders. Once again, there’s a lot of theorizing about how exactly acupuncture does this, but the answer is not yet clear.


One thing that’s absolutely worth considering is who should try acupuncture for their GI issues. According to the evidence that has been reviewed in this article, many patients could benefit from acupuncture for functional issues, and some may even benefit from acupuncture from non-functional issues. There are a few reasons for this, even when considering the problems inherent in acupuncture research. The first is that there is strong evidence that acupuncture reduces the symptoms of vomiting and nausea. The second is that, even though evidence is lacking, acupuncture seems to help with motility and hypersensitivity. 


Normally, seems to is insufficient in the world of science, but when it comes to treating functional issues, things that seem to help can be part of a holistic solution. Here, it’s important to emphasize once again that any patient with GI issues should talk to a number of medical professionals: doctors, dieticians, mental health professionals, and other members of the patient’s medical team should be used as advisers. When GI issues seem treatment-resistant, acupuncture can be an excellent option. There’s a low rate of complications with acupuncture when it’s conducted by a professional acupuncturist. That’s what makes it such a good option; when you’ve tried everything else, you might as well try something that’s low risk with potentially high rewards, even if the reason those rewards exist isn’t well studied.