To borrow a phrase from a former President, there is an axis of evil that must be defeated. But you won’t find it on a map. There are no nuclear weapons involved, and no multi-lateral diplomacy is required. And though it won’t kill you, it can make life very unpleasant.
We’re talking about the mind-gut axis. Put another way, the brain and its influence on irritable bowel syndrome.
IBS has major implications, to quality of life and rising medical costs. Estimates suggest that irritable bowel syndrome costs the U.S. economy up to $30 billion each year. Add 34% in lost productivity by workers with IBS and it works out to almost 14 worker hours lost per patient each week.
Clearly, there’s a need for an affordable and effective treatment for IBS. Considering that anxiety can trigger IBS symptoms, an IBS treatment might want to explore this mind-gut axis that wreaks so much grief.
Recently, researchers at the University of North Carolina explored this connection and discovered something that might improve treatment for IBS in the future: mindful meditation may reduce IBS symptoms. Address the mind, and it might help the gut.
In the study, researchers divided 75 women with IBS symptoms, between 19 and 71, into two groups and placed the former in a mindful meditation group and the latter in a peer support network.
Both groups took an eight week course, of weekly sessions and a half-day retreat. At the end of the study, overall symptoms improved in the meditation group by 26.4%, compared to just 6.2% in the peer network.
Researchers followed up with the groups after three months and found that of the women who meditated, 38.2% reported an improvement in IBS symptoms, compared to 11.8% of the women in the peer group.
The meditating women specifically enjoyed a reduction in anxiety related to their IBS symptoms, and less psychological distress, upon the follow-up.
The findings highlight an increasing trend among IBS treatments that incorporate the mind and its influence on the gastro-intestinal system. While the causes of irritable bowel syndrome remain uncertain, patients with IBS report increased levels of anxiety and depression. Previous trauma and past abuse can increase risk of IBS, and suggest that the brain may hold the key to its treatment.
Mindful meditation is a modern application of an ancient practice. You’re probably familiar with meditation as a relaxation technique, to clear one’s thoughts and focus. Mindful meditation is a modern application of this practice, to reduce stress and as a form of therapy.
The researchers noted that mindful mediation is a practical and affordable way to address IBS and its symptoms. Mindful meditation can be learned in educational classes and does not require clinical therapy. Meditation treatment for IBS may work best as a long-term approach. Learn it, and practice for life.
The study does not suggest that meditation alone will cure IBS. Any plan to alleviate irritable bowel syndrome should be a broad, comprehensive strategy, with a journal of IBS triggers and an ongoing communication with one’s doctor.
But it does illustrate the brain’s role in irritable bowel syndrome and suggests that an effective treatment for IBS should address the brain and harness its power.