Last month, we discussed an unpleasant and uncomfortable side effect of both cancer treatments and the opioids prescribed to help with them: constipation. Perhaps counterintuitively, those same cancer treatments can also cause diarrhea. Since the gastrointestinal tract is such a complex bodily system, aggressive cancer-fighting treatments like chemotherapy and radiation can easily throw it out of whack. These negative side-effects, especially those that are bowel-related, can severely affect your quality of life post-treatment, and even undermine your recovery process.
Like it’s been observed to do with other negative side effects of cancer treatment, acupuncture has proven effective in treating post-operative patients who suffer with diarrhea. Often, the condition it referred to as chemotherapy-induced diarrhea, or CID.
In addition to Western medicine’s focus on tracing acupuncture’s efficacy to “the activation of neurohormonal pathways and immunomodulation,” acupuncture was developed based on the principle of restoring balance by removing harmful, illness-inducing blockages in the energy, or “qi” that is meant to flow through the body along meridians. Since the gastrointestinal system depends on so many fine balancing acts to function properly–speed of digestion, absorption or secretion of fluids and nutrients–acupuncture is inherently suited to helping with your CID.
Why does CID happen?
The cells that line the digestive tract divide rapidly, controlling fluid balance, in part, by absorbing fluid from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Since cancer cells also divide rapidly, and chemotherapy is designed to damage these swiftly dividing cells, chemotherapy can do a lot of damage to the digestive tract lining. This results in watery bowel movements because fluids are not being absorbed into the body like they otherwise would be.
CID creates additional health risks for patients undergoing or recovering from cancer treatment because it can cause the following related problems:
- electrolyte imbalance,
- low immune system function,
- malnutrition (when nutrients are not being absorbed properly), and
- inflammation, pain and bleeding as a result of high-frequency bowel movements.
Prolonged CID can even put patients at risk of seizure, coma or abnormal heart function if levels of electrolytes like sodium or potassium become too low. There is also the possibility that CID can cause dosing delays or reductions in treatment–preventing the chemotherapy from being maximally effective.
How can acupuncture help?
Since CID is predominantly an issue of damage to the balance between absorption and secretion in the small bowel (since chemotherapy targets the intestinal mucus similarly to the way it targets cancer cells), acupuncture can help by stimulating the regional and systemic autonomic nervous system (ANS). This part of the nervous system controls body functions we don’t consciously direct, so it works towards maintaining regular movement and absorption in the bowels.
In addition, studies have shown how targeted acupoint stimulation causes changes in gastric acid secretion, GI motility and hormone and neuropeptide metabolism, not to mention increased electrical activity in the gut. These effects tend to have a self-regulating or homeostatic tendency–in other words, they attempt to bring the body’s conditions back to normal.
More and more, the importance and efficacy of incorporating “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) like acupuncture into post-operative oncology plans is being championed and confirmed. Don’t live with the negative side effects of your cancer treatment without exploring your other options. Get in touch with us today and let us help you begin to feel better.