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An irritable bowel could be mind over matter

A behaviour change program focussed on learning to stay present in the moment and to let thoughts and feelings go has shown promise in treating symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder with symptoms ranging from abdominal bloating, pain, flatulence, diarrhoea and altered bowel habits. The cause of IBS is unknown, but environmental factors such as changes in routine, emotional stress, infection and diet are all known to trigger an attack.

Effective treatments for IBS are lacking. Dietary changes such as increasing the amount of fibre eaten, eliminating potential ‘problem foods’ such as gas-producing beans or cabbage, or removing dairy foods from the diet can work for some people. A range of medications are sometimes prescribed to manage IBS, while stress management techniques can also help some people.

Mindfulness as a treatment
One novel psychological therapy that has been recently evaluated for the management of IBS is mindfulness. Mindfulness training can be described as learning to pay attention to the present moment experience and to let thoughts and feelings come and go without providing judgement. The brain and gut have close neural connections, so learning to manage stress and emotions may help to also calm an overactive gut.

Putting mindfulness to the test in a clinical trial, 75 adult women with IBS took part in an 8-week study with the results published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. Each woman was randomly assigned to either weekly mindfulness training sessions or a support group for IBS sufferers (which served as the control group).

The mindfulness training included lessons on meditation, gentle yoga postures, and ‘body scanning’ in which people focus their attention on a specific body area to detect muscle tension and other sensations.

By the end of the study, women in the mindfulness group showed marked reductions in reported IBS severity by 24% compared to just 6% reduction in women in the support group. This improvement persisted up to 3 months after the study ended.

Measures of quality of life, psychological distress and anxiety were not significantly different between the groups at the end of the 8-week study, but by 3 months, the differences were significant and in favour of the mindfulness treatment group.

What it all means
Rather than let the mind run riot, learning to stay present in the moment and allow thoughts and emotions to come and go may offer some much-needed relief to sufferers of IBS.


Confused about the mixed soup of nutrition messages being stirred through the media? Tim maintains an active nutrition blog at where you’ll find the latest nutrition research and controversies discussed in straight forward language, distilling out what you need to know for your better health.

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