Acupuncture can be a great method of treatment for the symptoms of celiac disease by addressing the inflammation in the intestines. Many individuals who have celiac disease do not know that they have it, and 83% of Americans with celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. While there is no cure currently for celiac disease other than a gluten-free diet, acupuncture and oriental medicine can fill in the gaps for those with celiac disease that haven’t had success with traditional medicine or diet alone.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease that damages the villi of the small intestine. The damage then interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. It can affect men and women of all ages & races, and the condition prevents proper digestion of gluten, a protein found in barley, rye, and wheat. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten there is damage to stomach lining, which over time can prevent the body from absorbing nutrients. If gluten continues to be consumed by someone with celiac disease, it can lead to malnutrition, infertility, anemia, and other health conditions.
Types of Celiac Disease:
- Classical Celiac Disease – the patient has signs & symptoms of malabsorption, including fatty stools, diarrhea, and weight loss (or lack of growth in children).
- Non-Classical Celiac Disease – the patient has mild gastrointestinal symptoms without definitive signs of malabsorption or seemingly unrelated symptoms. They could suffer from any variety of symptoms such as abdominal distension & pain, chronic fatigue, deficiency anemia, peripheral neuropathy, elevated liver enzymes, difficulty losing weight, unexplained infertility, depression, or late/early menopause.
- Silent Celiac Disease – also known as asymptomatic celiac disease. The patient does not complain of symptoms but still experience villi damage in their small intestine. Although these patients do not complain of symptoms, usually if they go on a gluten free diet, they report better health & a reduction in acid reflux, flatulence, and abdominal bloating.
- Refractory Celiac Disease – the patient has persistent or recurrent malabsorptive symptoms & villous atrophy despite adhering to a strict gluten-free diet for at least 6-12 months. If left untreated, this type of celiac disease can lead to type 1 diabetes, heart disease, malignancies, and it can potentially be fatal.
Signs & Symptoms of Celiac Disease:
- Symptoms in Children – abdominal bloating, chronic diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, pale foul-smelling or fatty stool, irritability/behavioral issues, dental enamel defects of the permanent teeth, delayed growth & puberty, short stature, failure to thrive, ADHD, iron deficiency anemia, weight loss, fatigue.
- Symptoms in Adults – unexplained iron-deficiency anemia, fatigue, bone or joint pain, arthritis, osteoporosis, liver & biliary tract disorders, depression/anxiety, peripheral neuropathy, seizures or migraines, missed periods, infertility or recurrent miscarriages, canker sores inside the mouth, itchy skin rash.
If your patient is diagnosed with celiac disease make sure they have done both a blood test and a biopsy. The blood test is only the first step do diagnosis, and will need a biopsy of the small intestine to determine a definite diagnosis.
Celiac disease is often confused with wheat allergies and gluten sensitivities as they seem to have a lot of the same issues, however they are all completely different. Celiac is an inherited autoimmune disorder, and a wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to foods containing wheat (including anaphylactic). Those who do not have celiac or a wheat allergy but have symptoms when eating gluten are placed in the gluten sensitivity group.
Acupuncture, TCM, & Celiac Disease
Acupuncture can help treat the symptoms of celiac disease. An important component of treatment to discuss with your patient will involve diet, and how to avoid gluten while still consuming enough calories to achieve optimal health. Traditional Chinese Medicine style nutrition plans and diets may be the preferred route for some patients.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the main organs for digestion are the Stomach and Spleen. In TCM, the Spleen is said to “govern transformation and transportation.” This describes the transformation of food into nutrients, and the transportation of them to the tissues and organ systems where they are needed.
When the Spleen is healthy it keeps the digestive process running smoothly, providing nourishment and energy to all of the other organs. However, the Spleen can be easily damaged and depends on a healthy amount of qi to keep it running. When there isn’t enough qi, it causes symptoms similar to that of celiac disease making Spleen-qi deficiency the most common TCM diagnosis for this condition.
Spleen-Qi Deficiency Symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Pale complexion
- Abdominal bloating after eating
- Weakness of the muscles/limbs
Taking care of the Spleen is infinitely important with or without a celiac disease diagnosis. Unfortunately, for the typical western diet that is high in fat, sugar, and processed foods, a Spleen-qi deficiency diagnosis is very common.
Acupuncture for Celiac Disease
How Does it Work?
Acupuncture works for celiac disease by freeing up the circulation of qi & blood, reducing inflammation, and relieving symptoms as they occur with regular treatment. If a patient has symptoms of pain, specific acupuncture points will influence the nervous system & trigger the release of endorphins.
Acupuncture Points for Celiac Disease:
- ST36 – Leg Three Li – Zusanli – located 3 cun below ST35 one finger lateral from the anterior border of the tibia. This point boosts the immune system and strengthens one’s overall energy. It also strengthens weak digestion, and helps improve digestive disorders ranging from constipation to diarrhea, gas, vomiting, bloating, and nausea.
- CV12 – Central Venter – Zhong Wan – located midway between CV8 and CV16, 4 cun above CV8. It is the receptacle of yin fluids, and where the stomach collects transforming water & grain into more assimilable nutrients. It relieves stomach upsets related to emotions, fullness from celiac disease symptoms like bloating, gas, & acid regurgitation, and essentially all digestive issues.
- ST25 – Celestial Point – Tianshu – located 2 cun lateral to the AML level with CV8. This point is where all the energy from the large intestine gathers together and concentrates, and where the upper& lower gastrointestinal tract comes together and relates. This point aids in all intestinal issues.
- ST12 – Empty Basin – Quepen – located in the midpoint of the supraclavicular fossa 4 cun lateral to the anterior midline. The internal branch of the ST meridian connects here directly from the stomach, spleen, and diaphragm – tonify middle warmer.
- ST37 – Upper Great Hollow – Shangjuxu – located 6 cun below ST35 one finger width lateral from the anterior border of the tibia. This point is generally for excess & acute disorders of the intestines & digestive system involving dampness and/or heat. It is a Sea of Blood point & aids with diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, etc.
Depending on the treatment plan and patient, Huatuojiaji points are also often used for celiac disease such as T2, T3, T9, T10, and T11.
If the treatment protocol for the patient involves both acupuncture and herbs, it is important to check all herbs that are going to be used. Commonly used herbs in TCM to improve digestion contain gluten including medicated leaven, germinated barley, and maltose. Such herbs would need to be excluded.
Acupuncture Research for Celiac Disease
Although research on acupuncture specifically for celiac disease is in its infancy, there are still a good amount of studies out that show positive effects, and many more in regards to the symptoms typical of celiac disease.
Acupuncture, Gluten-Free Diet, & Atypical Celiac Disease Case Report:
- The goal of this case report was to describe the use of acupuncture & gluten-free diet for urticaria & severe eczema in a patient with atypical celiac disease
- The case report was on a 48-year-old woman receiving 3 acupuncture treatments a week for 12 weeks. After the 12 weeks, during which she was using topical & oral steroids as well, found urticaria & constipation to be resolved completely, and temporarily relief from heartburn. At the end of the second set of 12 treatments, the heartburn, headache, and eczema also resolved. By the end of the third set of 12 treatments, all her symptoms remained resolved.
- It is important to note that steroid treatment was discontinued after the first 12 treatments, and although she had used the steroids during the first 12 treatments, prior to acupuncture treatment when they were used alone there was no improvement in her symptoms.
- The case study concludes acupuncture and diet changes may provide relief from symptoms of celiac disease than with a gluten-free diet alone or steroids alone.
Since this case report involves only one patient, further research with larger sample sizes are warranted to truly understand the effect of acupuncture treatment on celiac disease symptoms. However, the results from this case are thought-provoking nonetheless.
Acupuncture for Celiac Disease
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, celiac disease affects 1 in 100 people worldwide with the number of affected people doubling every 15 years, and if an immediate family member has it then the risk is 1 in 10 that the patient will have it too. At least 3 million people in the United states are living with celiac disease, and 97% of them are undiagnosed.
Acupuncture and TCM provides a different healing lens through which we can understand and treat celiac disease. This type of disease just helps remind us as providers to always be aware of what is out there, and always have our minds open to possibilities & opportunities to help our patients with health issues they may not be aware of.
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