Mindfulness Helps Irritable Bowel Syndrome

A recent randomized controlled trial published by the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that an 8-week, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course significantly reduced Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms. MBSR is a composite program which incorporates meditation, body scanning, and gentle yoga united under the common theme of mindfulness training.

IBS, characterized by abdominal pain, cramping and changes in bowel movements, is experienced by nearly 1 in 6 Americans and is more common among women. The etiology of IBS is unclear for many patients, although it may develop following intestinal infections or other triggers; stress and other lifestyle factors have also been associated with worsening of symptoms.

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The recently-published study by Gaylord et al. randomly assigned 75 women to the MBSR group or an IBS support group once a week for the 8-week intervention duration. Three months following completion of the program, researchers collected data which revealed that participants in the MBSR group had an average decrease in symptoms of more than 100 points as assessed by a standard 500-point IBS symptom questionnaire; “a 50-point drop is considered a clinically significant improvement.” Control participants in the IBS support group, by contrast, averaged a 30-point decline.

This trial has the considerable strength of incorporating an “active” control group (the IBS support group). A criticism often leveled at research lacking this is that any improvement witnessed following the intervention is merely related to participant expectancies and the proven benefits of social support, which increase in such settings, rather than due to the intervention material (i.e., yoga and mindfulness training) itself.


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Gaylord et al. found that those in the support group were as equally likely to expect improvement in symptoms as those in the MBSR group, suggesting, as Dr. Delia Chiaramonte explains, that “it’s not just the contact with another human being, or not just that they expected to get better” which caused symptom improvement.

MBSR was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s and loosely based on Buddhist principles but designed for broad appeal and impact, which largely scrubbed clear explicit connotations of eastern spirituality. Thematically MBSR shares much with yoga in its emphasis on mindfulness. Many forms of yoga incorporate mindfulness, to say nothing of the ancient yogic practices of meditation and yoga nidra (a relaxation practice which shares some parallels with body scanning).

Have you or anyone you know found yoga or MBSR to help with IBS symptoms?

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