Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder that causes gas, bloating, abdominal pain and cramping, and changes in bowel movement frequency.

Since IBS is a chronic condition, most treatments focus on managing symptoms over time. Some recommended treatments include medication, diet and lifestyle changes, and complementary and alternative therapies.

Chinese herbal medicine is an alternative therapy for IBS management. This article takes a closer look at Chinese herbs for IBS, the pros, cons, and safety.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a centuries-old medical system that prioritizes holistic health and well-being.

One common practice within this system is the use of traditional remedies to maintain or re-establish balance in the body. This is sometimes referred to as Chinese herbalism.

In China, herbal preparations have been used to successfully treat gastrointestinal issues such as IBS for thousands of years. Today, they are often used in combination with conventional medicine.

Some Chinese herbal formulas for IBS include:

With growing evidence from clinical research, these preparations are gaining acceptance in western medicine.

For example, a 2015 review reported that Chinese herbs may alleviate a number of symptoms linked to IBS, including abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.

Another 2015 review evaluated 14 randomized controlled trials of TCM preparations for IBS, including Tongxie Yaofang and Shenling Baizhu. According to the authors, 12 of the 14 trials concluded that TCM preparations improved overall symptoms compared to a placebo or conventional medicine.

Along the same lines, a 2021 meta-analysis of 10 randomized controlled trials found that Chinese herbal medicine was more likely than a placebo to provide adequate relief of symptoms.

On the other hand, the same study reported that Chinese herbal preparations were also more likely to cause side effects than a placebo. According to the authors, most side effects were mild and did not require additional treatment.

Although these reviews show promise, a 2022 review reported that a number of systematic reviews of Chinese herbal medicine were biased or of poor quality. The authors argued that additional research is needed to confirm whether traditional therapies are safer and more effective than other interventions.

Chinese medicine may be able to help relieve IBS symptoms while causing fewer or less significant side effects. With that said, there is still a risk of side effects.

More research needs to be done to clarify the risks and benefits of Chinese herbal remedies, including how they compare to Western medical interventions for IBS.

According to one of the 2015 reviews cited in the previous section, an integrated approach is likely to be more effective than using either approach alone.

As with any substance, Chinese herbs can pose safety risks. In some cases, they can be toxic. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your doctor before you try alternative therapies like traditional Chinese medicine.

If your doctor says it’s safe for you to try Chinese herbs for IBS, the next step is to find a trained and certified Chinese herbal medicine practitioner.

The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) offers board certification for practitioners of Eastern medicine. You can use their practitioner directory to find a board certified practitioner.

Your practitioner should be open to working with your doctor to incorporate Chinese herbs into your treatment plan.

As with any other prescription, you should follow your herbalist’s instructions carefully when purchasing and taking Chinese herbs. Both your doctor and your herbalist should monitor you for side effects.

Safety information for Chinese herbal medicine

Chinese herbs are not the same as herbal supplements. Many are formulas or customized preparations with one or more ingredients. They may come in the form of granules or capsules, teas, tinctures, or dissolvable powders.

Here’s what to keep in mind when considering the use of Chinese herbs:

  • Never take Chinese herbs without first seeking out the advice of both a doctor and a trained practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine.
  • Before taking Chinese herbs, provide both your doctor and your herbalist with a list of other medications, herbs, and supplements you’re currently taking.
  • Herbal preparations are not as rigorously regulated as over-the-counter and prescription drugs, so keep in mind that it can be more difficult to ensure you are getting a high-quality product.
  • Due to the lack of regulation of herbal preparations, there’s a risk of other ingredients being included in the product, including toxic compounds such as heavy metals.
  • You should only purchase high-quality Chinese herbs from a trained practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine.
  • You should never use Chinese herbs as a replacement or to delay seeking medical care.
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There are many treatments available to help manage IBS. Your doctor will recommend treatments based on your unique triggers and symptoms.

Diet and lifestyle changes are often the first step in treating IBS. These can include:

Your doctor might also suggest medication and/or supplements, such as:

In addition, there is a wide range of alternative and complementary therapies available for IBS, such as:

Some emerging therapies currently under review include fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) and serotonin antagonists.

Are Chinese herbs the same as dietary supplements?

Dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and other extracts that provide missing nutrients.

Chinese herbs include formulas and preparations that have been used in China since ancient times to treat various medical conditions and ailments.

It’s important to note that some traditional preparations include additional ingredients such as minerals or animal components. You should ask a healthcare professional about ingredients.

Which Chinese herb works best?

IBS symptoms can vary greatly from one person to the next. Certain Chinese herbal formulas are designed to help with specific symptoms; for instance, diarrhea versus constipation.

It’s important to talk to a qualified practitioner of Chinese medicine to learn more about which herbs might work for your symptoms.

How can I get my doctor on board with Chinese herbs?

Your doctor should listen to what you have to say with an open mind, address your concerns and questions, and respectfully explain potential risks and benefits based on the scientific evidence available.

They also need to consider your specific IBS symptoms as well as any other health issues or conditions you may have.

It’s important for your doctor to consider the benefits of other treatment options, but it’s equally important for you to listen to your doctor’s concerns about any risks or safety issues associated with specific types of Chinese herbal medicines.

Where do I get Chinese herbs?

A trained practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine can provide you with a list of reputable brands and sellers. Many practitioners sell the products they prescribe themselves.

In China, herbs and herbal formulas have been used to effectively treat IBS for thousands of years.

Recent research suggests that these treatments may be effective and safe for specific types of IBS symptoms. When used in combination with conventional medicine, they may be more likely to alleviate some types of symptoms.

As with any other form of medicine, Chinese herbs can have side effects. Also, due to their current lack of regulation, there’s a risk of other ingredients being included and even a risk of contamination by toxic compounds including heavy metals.

Talk with your doctor to find out if this alternative therapy is right for you and your IBS symptoms.