Regular screening for colorectal cancer, beginning at the age of 45 is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, colorectal cancer prevails as the third most common type of cancer in the United States. Hu Naiwen, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) physician teaches how to protect the intestinal tract and prevent colorectal cancer by paying attention to an often overlooked potential cause of the disease—prolonged constipation.
In recent years, the incidence of colorectal cancer among people under 50 has been on the rise. In our busy society, people often eat out, eating oily and spicy foods full of additives and preservatives and often contaminated by toxic pesticides.
Improper diet coupled with a busy lifestyle makes keeping a self-care routine a challenge, often creating irregular stool times, which can result in constipation. These poor health habits may eventually lead to colorectal cancer.
The American Cancer Society estimates 106,970 new cases of colon cancer and 46,050 new cases of rectal cancer will arise, with 52,550 deaths from the disease in 2023. The World Health Organization states that worldwide, colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death, with nearly 1 million deaths each year.
Prolonged Constipation–A Cause of Bowel Cancer
The large intestine, from beginning to end, consists of the cecum, ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon, and rectum.
The rectum and the sigmoid are the most prone to cancer in comparison to other parts of the colon. During prolonged constipation, toxins in stool stored close to the anus can be reabsorbed by the intestines and affect blood circulation. Without being excreted regularly, the stool becomes hard and dry and difficult to pass.
So, how does TCM resolve constipation?
Resolving Constipation, the TCM Way
Ancient Chinese literature notes that the longer bowel movements are stalled the more difficult excretion becomes. Because the rectum is tubular it becomes more narrow when it is tightened making stool more difficult to pass.
The following are the two methods from the perspectives of either tonification or laxative when dealing with constipation.
● Zeng Ye (moisture enrichment) decoction
The purpose of this decoction is to increase the water content in the intestines and stomach and moisten the dry stool so that it can be discharged easier.
Angelica is a medicinal herb with humidifying properties that provide moisture to aid the movement of stool. I once had a patient with constipation to whom I suggested eating 10 maces (1.3 ounces) of angelica daily. Very soon, her smooth bowel movement was restored. This particular patient had also spent many years unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child and soon after became pregnant as angelica also aids in the treatment of gynecological complications.
● Cannabis fructus, Perillae fructus
If an elderly patient or child lacks the strength to defecate, it is most likely due to a deficiency. Cannabis fructus or Perillae fructus are popular Chinese medicines employed to lubricate the intestines to help with defecation.
“Treatise on Cold Damage” records the three most important laxative prescriptions as Da Cheng Qi Tang (Major Purgative Decoction), Xiao Cheng Qi Tang (Minor Purgative Decoction), and Tiao Wei Cheng Qi Tang (Rhubarb and Mirabilitum Combination Decoction).
Notice they all have the words “Cheng Qi (enhance the qi),” because the poor circulation of qi (vital energy) is considered the main reason stool doesn’t move smoothly.
Though rhubarb is an ingredient in all three prescriptions it is prepared differently in each case as follows:
In the Xiao Cheng Qi Decoction “raw” rhubarb is used to treat constipation accumulated in the anus because according to TCM, it can move all the way to the “bottom of the body.”
The Tiao Wei Cheng Qi Decoction is to reconcile stomach qi and aid in defecation, and uses “wine-soaked” rhubarb said to be able to go to the “highest place on the body.”
In the case of Da Cheng Qi Decoction, the rhubarb is “washed in wine,” to adjust the stomach as a whole.
Therefore, these three prescriptions together can treat constipation from the lower and higher parts of the body, and the whole stomach respectively.
Incidentally, we can see that many terms used in Chinese medicine contain expressions indicating the principles of their respective treatment.
A Habit to Prevent Colorectal Cancer
An important habit to cultivate for the prevention of colorectal cancer is exercise. Daily exercise can help promote gastrointestinal motility.
Hua Tuo (a legendary TCM physician in ancient China) made this analogy: “Frequent turning door hinge suffers no worm decay, running water always stays clean.” Here he was referring to our joints and muscles of which there are many at play inside the stomach. So, when intestinal peristalsis is good, bowel movements will be much easier.
Pearl Barley Porridge for Dietary Therapy
Pearl barley has the effect of “draining dampness.” For patients with constipation or colorectal cancer with a “damp-heat constitution,” pearl barley can help resolve the condition and restore intestinal health.
Pearl barley porridge with a little rock sugar or salt according to your own taste preference, can be eaten to aid intestinal health. In the case of constipation, however, because pearl barley is diuretic in nature, Zeng Ye (water enrichment) decoction (unprocessed Rehmannia root, Scrophulariae radix, and Ophiopogon japonicus) should be added to the porridge to increase intestinal moisture content. Cooking the porridge with the decoction will help to reverse the diuretic effect of the pearl barley and moisturize the intestines.
*Some herbs mentioned in this article may be unfamiliar but are generally available in Asian supermarkets.
Note: Because different people have different constitutions, it is recommended to consult your doctor or a TCM expert.
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