Can Mindfulness Meditation Ease Your IBS Symptoms?

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As you may well know, relief from IBS symptoms can be hard to come by. Frustrated by the lack of effective medications, many people who have IBS have turned to alternative forms of treatment. One alternative treatment that some people have turned to is the use of a regular meditation practice.

Researchers have actually conducted studies to see if a treatment protocol based on meditation can be of help to people who have IBS.

The primary protocols that have received attention from researchers are those that are classified as mindfulness-based treatments, which include a meditative component. Mindfulness-based treatments have been shown to be effective in easing the symptoms of a wide variety of physical and emotional disorders. In this overview, we will take a look at these treatment protocols, see what information research studies have to offer as to their effectiveness, and discuss what to expect if you were to give such a treatment a try. This will help you to make an informed decision as to whether or not a mindfulness-based meditation treatment would be right for you.

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Our brains tend to continually be focused on anticipating what is coming or ruminating on what is in the past, rather than being focused on the present. Mindfulness is the practice of attempting to bring your attention to all of your experiences in the present moment.

The practice encourages you to become aware of, and accept without judgment, all of your experiences, thoughts, and emotions without reacting to them.

Mindfulness-based therapies are treatment programs that help you to develop improved mindfulness skills. Essentially, they teach you new ways to respond to stress.

Why Might Mindfulness-Based Therapies Help IBS?

Mindfulness-based therapies are thought to improve your ability to concentrate, enhance your ability to feel relaxed, improve your self-esteem, and bring about a reduction in pain sensations. They have been shown to be effective in relieving anxiety, depression, stress, pain, and the symptoms of other chronic health conditions, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Research has indicated that mindfulness and meditation stimulate changes within the brain, changes that affect the way we process sensations, our thoughts, and our emotional responses. It has been hypothesized that these changes may result in a reduction of IBS symptoms.

For a person who has IBS, mindfulness-based therapies are thought to help to reduce anxiety related to digestive symptoms. Due to our body's natural stress response, such anxiety can actually exacerbate the very digestive symptoms that a person with IBS is most concerned about. The theory behind mindfulness-based therapies for IBS is that when you experience less reactivity to physical sensations related to your digestive system, you will thus experience less unwanted symptoms.

Types of Mindfulness-Based Therapies

Mindfulness-based therapies include mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). MBSR is a group program that was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. MBCT adds the principals of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to practices in mindfulness and meditation. Although primarily used as a treatment for depression, MBCT has been studied as a treatment for IBS. 

What Does Research Say?

Several studies have been conducted on the use of mindfulness-based therapies for IBS. Unfortunately, there has not been a lot of consistency in terms of study designs and populations. However, two meta-analyses have been conducted that have attempted to pull together existing research so as to come up with some initial conclusions.

The two meta-analyses came to similar conclusions regarding the research done to date on the use of mindfulness-based therapies for IBS. Such treatments seem to both reduce the severity of IBS symptoms, including pain, and to improve quality of life for study participants. There was even more good news: The improvements experienced by study participants continued even after the initial intervention was completed. One report noted that the structured protocols of MBSR and MCBT were more effective than any more eclectic approaches.

It is theorized that the mindfulness-based therapies, by decreasing a person's reactivity to their "thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations" leads to a decrease in the visceral hypersensitivity that is a hallmark symptom of IBS. A reduction in this visceral hypersensitivity thus is thought to lead to both decreased physical symptoms and an improvement in a person's quality of life.

What to Expect From an MBSR Program

MBSR requires an eight-week commitment on your part. The program is hosted by a teacher who has been trained in the treatment protocol. The program is delivered in the form of group classes. Each session will last approximately two to three hours. You will be taught several different practices:

  • mindfulness techniques
  • sitting meditation
  • guided body scan
  • gentle yoga

You will be expected to do approximately 45 to 60 minutes of homework each day, in which you practice the techniques you have been taught during the group session. After the fifth or sixth week, you will be expected to attend an all-day workshop. The goal of MBSR is to enhance one's ability to stay mindful of the present moment, which helps to reduce anxiety, reduce reactivity to stressors, and to enhance one's ability to cope with whatever challenges life may bring.

What to Expect From an MBCT Program

The MBCT program is set up in a very similar format to that of MBSR. The program takes place over a period of eight weeks, with weekly group classes and daily homework. Similar to MBSR, you can expect an all-day retreat on or about your fifth or sixth week. As with MBSR, you will be taught mindfulness techniques, sitting meditation, the body scan, and some simple yoga postures. The primary aim is to develop a non-judgmental awareness to all of your experiences, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.

Where MBCT differs from MBSR is in terms of a specific focus on negative thoughts that can contribute to unwanted mood states. As stated above, MBCT incorporates the use of cognitive behavioral techniques for challenging and replacing habitual negative thoughts that can lead to depression or anxiety. The primary goal of MBCT is to teach you how to accept and observe your autonomatic thoughts rather than becoming attached to them or reacting to them.

MBSR or MBCT?

The research on mindfulness-based therapies for IBS has not identified that one or the other program is superior in terms of helping to ease IBS symptoms. Therefore, the decision as to which program to participate in is up to you. As MBCT was developed for the treatment of depression, that might be the better choice for you if you deal with depression on a regular basis. Otherwise, the MBSR program may suit your needs very well.

The only downside of either program is the time commitment. But, knowing that you will be developing skills that will serve you long after you complete the program may help you to stay motivated.

Where to Get Help

The University of Massachusetts Medical Center has been training practitioners in MBSR for years. You can access their website or you can do a simple web search looking for practitioners in your area. Just be sure to pick a practitioner who was trained in the UMass MBSR treatment protocol.

MBCT practitioners may be a little bit more difficult to find. Gain some more information as to finding a practitioner in your area.

Sources:

Aucoin M, Lalonde-Parsi M-J, Cooley K. Mindfulness-Based Therapies in the Treatment of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: A Meta-AnalysisEvidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine:eCAM, 2014, 140724.

Kabat-Zinn J. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York, N.Y. Bantam 2013.

Lakhan SE, Schofield KL. Mindfulness-Based Therapies in the Treatment of Somatization Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-AnalysisPLoS ONE. 2013;8(8):e71834.

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