May 22, 2023
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I’m more regular, my bloating is gone, and I get 40 minutes of relaxing “me time” each week.
About a month and a half ago, I was experiencing severe bloating. My stomach felt rock hard, trapped with gas, and it simply would not go away. I was overdue for an Inflectra infusion for my Crohn’s disease (a form of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD), and I was convinced that once I received the medication, my discomfort would ease.
Spoiler: I was wrong.
My bowel movements remained irregular, and I was constantly distended — and embarrassed. I didn’t feel comfortable in my clothes, and I felt icky going out with my friends. My shame only multiplied by approximately 5,000% when a man on the street stopped to ask me if I was expecting a baby. (Pro tip: DO NOT DO THIS. EVER.)
My doctor offered me suggestions, but it didn’t seem that anything was working. I tried prebiotic sodas and greens powders to no avail. I avoided eating vegetables and hard-to-digest foods but had no improvement. I pretzeled myself into yoga poses that didn’t seem to help much.
Staying hydrated and massaging my stomach were the only things that helped ease some — though not nearly all — of the discomfort. It was ultimately my roommate who suggested I try acupuncture for IBD. I used it last summer for my mental health and was surprised by its additional physical benefits.
Last summer, my therapist encouraged me to try acupuncture to aid my depression. I went ahead with it, hoping it would improve my mental health. What I found was that it helped much more than that.
In August, I had, by luck, scheduled an acupuncture session following a minor medical procedure. Earlier that day, my gynecologist had inserted an intrauterine device, and I was experiencing the very normal side effect of horrendous cramping.
That afternoon, when I shared with my acupuncturist that my cramping was causing a ton of discomfort, she placed the needles in some sort of design above my uterus. To my surprise (and immense delight), the cramping pain disappeared during and after the session. Though my gynecologist had warned me to expect cramps well into the following week, they never came back. After the acupuncture appointment, they seemingly vanished.
Five weeks ago, I returned to my acupuncturist specifically for help in managing my IBD symptoms. I was incredibly eager to get started. I’d held on to my memory from last summer of my disappearing cramps and hoped I’d see a similar outcome for my bloating.
During the first session, I explained my symptoms to my acupuncturist. I told her about my consistent bloating and my irregular bowel movements. We talked about stress and my sleep schedule. Ultimately, she had me lie down on the treatment table, face up, and she placed the needles — with a poke so light that I barely felt anything — on my body from head to toe, including about five or six on my abdomen. Others were placed on the insides of my wrist, my shins, my feet, my head, and the space on my forehead between my eyes.
It’s an interesting sensation — it doesn’t hurt and feels more like light pressure. There are some that I don’t even feel. Other placements, like on my wrist, make it feel as though my limb is heavier than usual.
My acupuncturist left the room, and I lay there with needles in my body for close to 40 minutes. After a few minutes, I felt my body fully relax and noticed that my mind cleared. I was awake and aware of my surroundings, but my body felt relaxed, as though it were asleep. I did feel some movement in my stomach and was able to pass gas. Ultimately, I left the session feeling relief.
Later that evening, I went out with a friend, and I actually felt good about myself and comfortable in my body and my clothes. However, the bloating returned the next day, much to my dismay, even though my acupuncturist told me to expect this. It usually takes 6–8 sessions for the acupuncture to be totally effective.
For those who are unfamiliar with acupuncture, it is an ancient Chinese medicine practice. The idea is that specific parts of the body — acupoints — are stimulated, usually with very small, thin needles, which can help naturally regulate the functions of the body. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that your body has meridians, or energy pathways, that connect different organs and body systems along the acupuncture points. Stimulating these acupoints can restore the balance of the body’s “qi”— its vital life force.
Studies show that acupuncture may be an effective supplemental treatment for IBD. A small 2022 study concluded that “acupuncture was effective in inducing and maintaining remission in patients with active [Crohn’s disease].” Likewise, a 2018 research review found that acupuncture “improves disease activity and inflammation in IBD” by altering the immune response. The authors further noted that acupuncture also has “nonimmune effects that could positively modulate the gut microbiota and improve [gastrointestinal] barrier function in IBD.” What’s more, it may have potential uses for depression, anxiety, and pain, which are commonly present with IBD.
For my needle-phobes out there, know that there are nonpoke alternatives. Acupressure is a type of needle-less acupuncture. The idea is the same — it uses energizing acupoints, which may reestablish the natural flow of energy — but instead of using needles, practitioners apply pressure to activate the acupoints.
I’ve been returning to my acupuncturist weekly, and I’ve found that my bowel movements are more regular and that my bloating has all but disappeared. I can’t be certain if it’s been solely the acupuncture that’s helped my bloating, as I’m sure my exercise routine and water intake have also had some effects. But I am confident that the acupuncture is a contributing factor.
Forty minutes spent lying on a table in a dimly lit room affords me time to myself and allows my body’s energy to restore itself. Added benefits include enjoying a deep relaxation while my stressors seemingly evaporate for an allotted time.
Ultimately, acupuncture has been incredibly beneficial for both my IBD and my mental health. It might not be for everyone. But personally, I’ve found that it’s a jab well done.
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