Small and Large Intestine Syndromes

Small and large intestine syndromes are not isolated to digestion. Although the small intestine's functions are to separate food and fluids into essential and waste components, it is considered a yang organ. As such, its patterns of disharmony are usually related to a dysfunction in a yin organ such as the heart or spleen.

Ginger root is used in traditional Chinese medicine
Various forms of ginger are effective at treating
small and large intestine syndromes.

The large intestine has the same functions in traditional Chinese medicine as it does in Western physiology: receiving food from the small intestine, separating the fluids, and passing on the remainder as waste. Dysfunctions of the large intestine typically involve a disruption in one of these activities, often due to poor dietary habits.

Small Intestine Deficient and Cold: This pattern can arise in a deficiency of spleen yang. Symptoms include pain around the navel that is relieved with pressure and heat, watery diarrhea or loose stools, frequent clear urination, and a gurgling sound in the abdomen. The tongue is pale with a white coat, and the pulse is deep, empty, and slow. Some corresponding Western conditions are infections with the Candida organism, food allergies, enteritis, chronic dysentery, or stress-related digestive disorders. Treatment involves tonifying spleen yang with moxibustion and warm, strengthening herbs such as ginseng (ren shen) and ginger (gan jiang).

Small Intestine Excess Heat: Excess heat in the heart can be transferred to the small intestine, since the two organs are paired in a yin/yang relationship. When this occurs, the symptoms include frequent dark burning urine, thirst, a red tip on the tongue, mental restlessness, and a rapid, full pulse. Although the cause is often emotional hyperactivity, the excess heat shows up in the urine in a typical Western diagnosis of urinary tract infection. The treatment principle is to clear heat from the heart and small intestine with acupuncture and herbs such as Lophatherum (dan zhu ye) and lotus sprout (lian zi xin).

Small Intestine Qi Pain: Often associated with stagnant liver qi, this pattern exhibits distention and pain in the lower abdomen that feels worse when pressure is applied, distention and pain in the groin, gurgling sounds in the abdominal area, pain relief after passing gas, a pale tongue with a thin, white coat, and a deep, wiry pulse. Corresponding Western conditions might be hernia of the small intestine, colitis, food allergies, and enteritis. Since it is a disorder of stagnant qi, acupuncture and stress reduction are particularly helpful to treat it. Herbal therapy includes herbs to regulate qi, such as Bupleurum (chai hu), white peony root (bai shao), and Cyperus (xiang fu).

Large Intestine Excess Heat: This excess syndrome is characterized by constipation, a bloated, painful abdomen, fever, explosive burning diarrhea with a bad smell, concentrated urine, thirst, a red tongue with a thick yellow coat, and a full, rapid pulse. It is associated with acute bacterial dysentery or any serious infection. Treatment involves clearing excess heat from the large intestine with cooling purgative herbs such as rhubarb (da huang) and Mirabilite (mang xiao).

Large Intestine Damp Heat: This pattern is similar to the excess heat syndrome described above, with the addition of the influence of dampness, which makes recovery slower than with simple excess heat. The dampness also creates the additional symptoms of fatigue, a sensation of not being finished when defecating, blood or pus in the stools, intermittent fever, a slippery pulse, and a greasy yellow tongue coating. This pattern corresponds to acute amoebic dysentery or hemorrhoids and is treated with herbs that clear dampness and heat from the large intestine, such as Coptis (huang lian) and Pulsatilla (bai tou weng).

Large Intestine Closed and Knotted: This excess pattern has symptoms of abdominal bloating with pain that gets worse when pressure is applied, constipation, nausea, vomiting, deep, full pulse, and a greasy, thick white coat on the tongue. It is seen in intestinal blockages due to a hernia or scar tissue and is often seen in children. Typically, surgery is required. If the blockage is only partial, acupuncture and strong purgative herbs such as Croton (ba dou) can alleviate the symptoms.

Heat Stagnation in the Large Intestine: This excess pattern, which combines excess heat with qi and blood stagnation, causes sharp, fixed abdominal pain that worsens when pressure is applied, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, vomiting, fever, a deep-red tongue with a thick yellow dry coat, and a full, wiry, rapid pulse. Possible Western diagnoses are appendicitis, diverticulitis, and some dysentery. This is a serious condition, and proper medical intervention is essential. An acupuncture point on the leg known as Lanwei is specific for appendicitis. Since this condition can be caused by hardened feces blocking the appendix, stimulating this point could dislodge the blockage, explaining this point's effectiveness in treating early-stage appendicitis. Treatment includes cooling, purgative herbs such as rhubarb root (da huang) and herbs such as tree peony root (mu dan pi) to move stagnant qi and blood.

Large Intestine Fluid Deficiency: The fluid deficiency in this syndrome can arise from old age, dehydration after an illness, delivery of a baby, or chronic infections. The symptoms are chronic constipation, dry mouth, dry stools, small and rapid pulse, and a dry, red, and cracked tongue. The treatment principle for this syndrome is to clear heat and moisten the intestines with herbs such as Cannabis seeds (huo ma ren) and Rehmannia root (sheng di huang).

Large Intestine Deficient and Cold: Usually a result of spleen yang deficiency, this pattern has symptoms of watery diarrhea without a strong smell, abdominal pain relieved by pressure and warmth, gurgling abdominal sounds, a worsening of symptoms after eating cold food, deep weak pulse, and a pale, swollen tongue with teeth marks. Treatment includes herbs that tonify spleen yang, such as dried ginger (gan jiang), as well as moxibustion to points on the abdomen.

On the next page, learn more about another organ of the digestive tract -- the stomach. Chinese medicine can be quite effective in treating stomach syndromes.

For more about traditional Chinese medicine, treatments, cures, beliefs, and other interesting topics, see:

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