Mindfulness as a Treatment for IBS?

Yesterday I attended a Gut-Mind Connection seminar hosted by Nourish Melbourne and presented by Naturopath and Nutritionist Sarah Stevens, founder of Luxton Clinic.

As the name suggests, Sarah outlined the link between the mind and gut health, with particular reference to bacterial imbalance, food intolerances/allergies and gut healing. A particularly interesting topic (for me at least) was the link between psychological health and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

For those that don’t know, IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder that affects the large intestine (colon), causing symptoms including cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation.  Although the cause of IBS remains unknown, research is continuing to shed more light on the relationship between stress, anxiety and IBS.

We now know that IBS has a high prevalence of co-existing psychological illness, with a staggering 50% – 90% of IBS sufferers presenting with co-existing psychological conditions, in particular anxiety and depression, which is associated with more severe and persistent IBS symptoms. The brain and gut have close neural connections, so learning to manage stress and anxiety may also calm an inflamed gut. Interestingly, the opposite relationship is also true, with perceived stress and anxiety higher as a direct result of the onset of IBS symptoms.

There is some interesting research emerging linking mindfulness with improved IBS symptoms. Research from the American Journal of Gastroenterology demonstrated that mindfulness, that is, a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, has shown promise in treating symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The clinical trial randomly assigned 75 female IBS sufferers to either weekly mindfulness training or a support group for IBS sufferers (which served as the control group). Those in the mindfulness group participated in weekly meditation lessons and practiced gentle yoga postures.

Participants self-reported measures of quality of life, psychological distress and anxiety before and after treatment and at a 3-month follow-up. While the study found no significant difference between the two groups at the 8 week point, by 3 months, the differences were significant. The women in the mindfulness group reported a reduction in their IBS severity by 24%, compared to just a 6% reduction in women in the control group. This improvement in symptoms persisted up to 3 months after the study ended.

The researchers concluded that mindfulness training has a marked therapeutic effect on bowel symptom severity and reduces distress.

So what can we do with this information?

These findings support a holistic approach to the treatment of IBS symptoms. While the identification and treatment of any food intolerances and allergies remain important, so too is the assessment and management of anxiety levels. Learning to live more mindfully and calming a running mind by bringing it back into the present may offer marked relief for IBS sufferers.

On a personal note, I am going to test these findings on my own symptoms by challenging myself to practice meditation every day for thirty days (eek). I will of course, blog about my findings. Now, I must sign off to kick off my mindfulness journey!!

Holly x