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Integrative Health
|personal story

I Tried Traditional Chinese Medicine For Chronic Bloat. Here's What Happened

January 30, 2017

I lay flat on a sheet of crinkled paper. The fan mounted on the wall behind me creaked as it oscillated. Outside of the window, a cricket chirped, as if to ask if anyone was there. The infrared light hovering above me ticked occasionally as it warmed up. A soft warmth—not quite the quality of sunshine—melted on my skin. I felt the gentle pulse of energy flowing through my arms and legs and neck.

Opening my eyes, I looked down at the landscape of my body—there were approximately 16 needles poking out of various parts of my ankles, calves, belly, wrists, and scalp, but I felt nothing but complete and utter relaxation. It was my first experience with acupuncture and I'll admit that it took a lot of mental fortitude to lie there, willingly, as my Chinese naturopath prepared to stab me with needles, swabbing the areas with a cool pad drenched in rubbing alcohol.

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It was not painful or even uncomfortable—the most I felt was a tiny, tiny prick. If anything, it was enjoyable. Mandatory relaxation for a solid half an hour was a weird blessing, and I'd never felt so connected to my flow of energy. Though the experience was relaxing, I did not arrive at the door of an acupuncturist because I thought it would be. I ended up on this medical bed in this nest of crinkly paper because of my digestive system and its decision to go on strike about two years ago.

How my bloating began

Rewind to 2014. I'd been experiencing bouts of massive bloating, so much so that a friend thought a picture of my stomach was that of a pregnant woman. My abdominal bloating was severe and uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. It would happen, without fail, after every meal and would usually be accompanied by horrible flatulence. My pants stopped fitting properly—at the end of the day, my middle would be raw from the pressure of the waistband. I tried cutting foods out, using gas medicine, a digestive supplement, drinking shots of ACV before meals. Nothing seemed to help. A naturopathic gastrointestinal doctor was not covered by my insurance back home in the states. I had no idea where to turn.

Food became the enemy—a necessary but dreaded component of my daily life, because I knew it would inevitably cause such discomfort and embarrassment.

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I spent nearly two years fearing meals, waking up to a distended, bloated body and wracking my mind about why this was happening.

Fast-forward to four months ago. I had just accepted an English teaching position in Thailand—Chiang Mai, specifically, which is a mecca for vegans, yogis, and the wellness obsessed. After I touched down and got settled, I used Facebook and joined a bunch of Chiang Mai community groups that would help orient me. In one, a women's-only group, I noticed someone ask about a naturopathic doctor. My ears pricked up. Almost all answers directed the original poster to one Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic on the east side of the Old City.

My first visit with a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor

Intrigued, I booked an appointment. I remember our first meeting—we sat in her book-lined office that resembled a library, amid models of the gastrointestinal tract. She reached across her desk and checked my pulse with her cool, papery hands and asked me gently what was the matter.

After I explained my symptoms: abdominal bloating, flatulence, occasional constipation, she looked at me with a mix of humor and gravity. "You are not the first person to come in here with these symptoms. Not the second either. Probably the 400th." She asked about my mental and emotional health.

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She explained that the gut has its own neurological system and that many gut problems are psychosomatic—negatively aggravated by a state of stress or conflict.

It was like no other doctor's visit I'd ever experienced, and it was the first time I felt truly heard and honestly hopeful.

What this TCM doctor prescribed for chronic bloat

After a long conversation, she prescribed three rounds of infrared light acupuncture and an herbal remedy, which she would work on. She also suggested I eat smaller, more frequent meals, paying close attention to eating at a similar time each day. She instructed that I eat slowly, taking the time to thoroughly chew and digest my food. "No cold water!" she cautioned, and my heart sank in the 90-degree Thai heat. She warned against an abundance of fruit ("too yin!") and drinking water with meals, as it dilutes the stomach acid. Armed with this intelligence, I left the office and eagerly awaited my first acupuncture appointment. So, this is how I found myself, soaking under the light, my skin bristling with tiny needles like a human-porcupine hybrid. I'd never really taken stock in TCM prior to this—I had little exposure to it and had been inundated by more conventional forms of medicine during my upbringing.

My quest to find help in Chiang Mai was only centered around the desire for a natural fix—one that wouldn't deplete my gut flora and serve as a "quick fix." After three sessions of the acupuncture, my kind doctor gave me a proprietary blend of 15 TCM herbs that were compressed into tiny capsules that tasted, frankly, like dirt. I was to take 10 after my morning meal and 10 after my evening meal. Family and friends seemed shocked when I told them about my experience and the herbs that I was taking. Twenty pills a day?! Most were sort of horrified. Some thought I'd been scammed.

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It took two weeks of herbs and a lifestyle change, but my bloating is gone.

For a short span of time, it seemed that things were headed from bad to worse. For two or three days, the bloating was aggravated. Going to the bathroom was a rare occurrence. I started to worry. Then I remembered that the gut is negatively affected by internal stress. So, even though I tried not to, I worried some more. I worried about worrying.

And then, on or around the fourth day, I woke up with a nonbloated stomach. This hadn't happened for nearly two years, and I cried when I saw it.

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It's been a month and a half—I still heed the doctor's instructions. I eat smaller meals, I chew thoroughly, I never drink ice water, I even try to meditate every day. I took the pellets twice a day, every day, for two weeks and have a backup supply, in case my issues ever flare up. But they haven't. Part of me thinks it's because I've been following these instructions. Part of me believes that the herbs helped my system get back on track. Part of me knows that the healing in my gut is from the internal peace of finally knowing that I can be healed.