Abdominal bloating, pain, and acid reflux are some of the most common concerns that bring patients to a Naturopath’s office. The most common question I receive from patients experiencing regular digestive discomfort, is: “What food am I allergic to?” Well… What if it’s not about the food?
Food is medicine. And knowing which foods nourish your body and your microbiome (the trillions of bugs inside and on you that outnumber your human cells 10 to 1!), is paramount. Our Holistic Nutritionist is a whiz at making healthy, whole-food eating, easy for busy families. This approach alone often gives the body enough of a leg-up that healing ensues and pain resolves. In these cases, this approach resolves the pain not necessarily because you’ve eliminated a food allergy, but because you’re supporting the body’s healing mechanisms so that normal body function can be restored.
Some foods, (the ones that aren’t really food, and dairy and gluten for some people), must go. There’s no work-around for that. But, beyond this, it’s often not about the food. We need to instead focus on the dozens of systems in the body that contribute to digestive upset when they’re imbalanced and struggling. Balanced levels of estrogen, serotonin (95% of your body’s serotonin is made in your gut), and dopamine, are essential for optimal gut health. Eating on the run or when overstimulated tells your body that you’re in too much danger to break down and assimilate this food well. And quite a few pharmaceuticals and environmental contaminants harm the healthy bacteria in our bodies that would otherwise keep the gut healthy. So, the next most common question from patients is: “How do we know what the cause of my digestive symptoms is then?”
After a full interview, where we run through all your symptoms and medical history, sometimes the answer is pretty clear to me. But sometimes, even this doesn’t matter. Some of the best healing interventions come from older medical approaches that view the whole picture, a “pattern diagnosis” some people call it, that reflects all imbalances simultaneously experienced in one person at any given time. I’d like to touch on just 2 tried-and-tested modalities that address this whole picture: Acupuncture, and Homeopathy.
Acupuncture, when applied within the context of Traditional Chinese Medicine (i.e. developed over 3000 years or more), is all about balance. A Registered Acupuncturist or perhaps a Naturopathic Doctor, reads your “pulses”, looks at your tongue and skin as a reflection of what’s going on inside your body, and chooses acupuncture points based on the apparent imbalances. Dozens of research studies indicate that acupuncture for digestive concerns works![i] A meta-analysis, (in which a number of high-quality studies are reviewed together for their outcomes), published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, determined that well chosen acupuncture points that match a person’s IBS symptoms, offer significant benefit at least 75% of the time. There were no serious adverse effects reported in these studies. The authors suggest that though more research is needed, acupuncture is particularly suited to the treatment of IBS because the underlying cause of the condition is not well understood by Western medicine.
Homeopathy was developed in Germany in the 1800s and remains arguably a far more common practice in many parts of Europe and South East Asia, relative to North America. Registered Homeopaths who practice “constitutional prescribing”, are extremely fastidious in their process of understanding your “pattern” and applying the most closely matching homeopathic remedy (of which there are thousands), to help your body shift back into balance. The patients who seek this kind of gentle approach are often hypersensitive to pharmaceuticals and chemicals, and are perhaps more aware than some of the subtle shifts that take place in their bodies depending on what’s happening in their environment.
Neither of these holistic healthcare approaches are well understood by North American standards. We continue to search for “proof” despite some thorough international research and the obvious results seen in healthcare facilities such as ours. This common experience is a reflection of our culture far more than of scientific principle, and requires that we just hang tight until our cultural obsession with the very young and developing pharmaceutical sciences, comes back into balance[ii]. For myself and many of my patients, traditional and gentle healthcare approaches that achieve big results by addressing the big picture, with so few side-effects, are an easier pill to swallow.
[i] On digging into some studies that find acupuncture doesn’t work for digestive pain, their actual results often suggest that real acupuncture and “fake” (sham) acupuncture, both offer significant symptom improvement compared to no acupuncture. Science calls this “ineffective”, but for any patient with chronic pain, the application of interventions that offer relief with little to no side-effect, is worthwhile.
[ii] In 1956, a Philosopher and Physicist named Thomas Kuhn wrote a book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, that applied a historical lens to science and changed how we perceive the scientific process. It helped us understand that science isn’t a step-by-step forward accumulation of understanding about our natural world. It’s a plateau with an established “normal” against which all anomalies are compared to. And “scientific progress” isn’t the accumulation of contrary evidence that eventually overthrows this prevailing theory – it’s a successful challenge by Revolutionaries, where Revolutionaries are often young people or outsiders with a different or less culturally-entrenched belief system. In other words, what we consider to be “normal” today, doesn’t reflect pure rational science so much as it does our culture despite legitimate scientific discoveries.