How Mindfulness Meditation Eases IBS Symptoms

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 such treatment that has shown promise is meditation.

Woman meditating under bridge outside
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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. 

The American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) recommends mindfulness-based practices, even though the quality of evidence doesn't meet their usual standard of proof. The ACG states that gut-directed psychotherapies (GDPs), such as mindfulness, can help people with IBS of all types, while being low-risk and having long-term benefits on stress and quality of life that last even after the therapy is discontinued.

Here, we will take a look at these therapies, see what research studies say about their effectiveness, and discuss what to expect if you were to try such a treatment. This will help you make an informed decision as to whether or not a mindfulness-based meditation treatment is right for you.

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Our brains tend to continually be focused on anticipating what is coming in the future or ruminating on what has happened 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.

Mindfulness encourages you to become aware of, and accept without judgment, all of your experiences, thoughts, and emotions. 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 Do Mindfulness-Based Therapies Help IBS?

Mindfulness-based therapies are thought to improve concentration, enhance relaxation, improve self-esteem, and help reduce 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 and fear related to digestive symptoms. Because the body's natural stress response is closely connected to gut function, 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 emotional reactivity to physical sensations related to your digestive system, you will experience fewer 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 principles 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 the 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 attempted to pull together existing research to come up with some initial conclusions.

One 2018 study from Iran showed a significant improvement in both IBS symptoms and overall quality of life after MSBR group therapy. Another review of 13 studies suggested that MSBR could be helpful, but concluded that more rigorous study designs are needed.

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

What to Expect From an MBSR Program

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

  • 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 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 around 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 of 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 some of the methods of CBT 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 automatic thoughts rather than becoming attached to them or reacting to them.

MBSR or MBCT?

The research on mindfulness-based therapies for IBS has not determined that either program is superior in terms of helping to ease IBS symptoms. Therefore, the decision as to which program to participate in depends on your preferences and availability.

Because 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 the 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, but you can find some more information on finding a practitioner in your area here.

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5 Sources
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