News & Perspectives

Chinese Herbs Soothe Irritable Bowel Syndrome
What the Study Showed
The findings of this 1998 Australian study published in the Journal of the American Medication Association suggest that an alternative medicine therapy, Chinese herbal medicine, may help treat symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This condition, which affects as many as one in five Americans, tends to respond poorly to conventional medical care.

How It Was Done
In this placebo-controlled study, 116 people with recurrent IBS symptoms were randomly given one of three treatments: a standard Chinese herbal pill formula (containing licorice and ginger among 20 other herbs); a similar formula individually tailored to the patients' symptoms; or a placebo. All participants were directed to take 5 capsules of dried powdered herb or a placebo three times daily.

After four months, 76% of those taking the standard formula and 64% of those on tailored formulas said their symptoms had improved, compared with just 33% of those taking a placebo. Many of those taking the herbs said that during the treatment BS caused less interference in their lives and activities. Upon medical evaluation, traditional Chinese herbalists and gastroenterologists, who like the patients did not know who was getting which treatment, confirmed this assessment. They, too, found that at least half of the patients taking the herbal treatments showed improvement, compared with less than a third of those taking placebos.

In some cases of people on individualized herbal formulas, the improvement lasted up to 14 weeks after stopping the herbs. Side effects, including liver problems, were virtually nonexistent.

Why It's Important
IBS tends to be very difficult to treat. This important study lends scientific support for using Chinese herbs for relieving such symptoms as pain, alternating bouts of constipation or diarrhea, and bloating. The study authors called for further investigation of this centuries-old strategy for treating bowel disorders in China as an option for Americans with this ailment.

Date Published: 02/14/2000
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