Spiritual Wellness as a Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
“Don’t be so sensitive,” my elders often said to me growing up. Really? I thought. Is it that easy? My entire life, I’ve been sensitive to noise, language, light, scents, emotions, weather—you name it. Simply choosing to not be sensitive never felt like an option. Years later, I’ve learned that there’s actually a term for people like me: A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). 
Being an HSP1 can work for and against my wellbeing. For example, it’s allowed me to easily and deeply understand and be empathetic to people, relationships and my environment. On the contrary, it’s given me a sensitive body—in particular, a sensitive digestive system. After years of a queasy nervous stomach, insomnia, and hormonal mood swings, a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) seemed to be the only way medical practitioners could label my sensitive system.
I wasn’t alone with this diagnosis, IBS is the most common functional GI disorder in the world: in the Western population, about 25% of people suffer from IBS. [10,12,14,15] IBS is often defined as abdominal pain or discomfort that’s accompanied by a change in bowel habits, usually lasting for at least three months. Almost all people who suffer from IBS also cope with emotional disturbances in their health, such as anxiety or depression. This connection between emotions and digestion has been confirmed by researchers and is known as the gut-brain axis theory.  Basically, our central nervous system and gut have a two-way path of communication. What we feel and even think can directly affect our digestion—and conversely, the state of our digestion can affect our overall health. 
Conventional medicine has primarily focused on using medication, traditional psychotherapy and minor diet modifications for treating IBS. If you have IBS, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about: prescriptions of Rafraxmin or Imodium, advice to eat saltines and drink ginger ale, and the hours of suggested talk therapy. But more and more doctors today are embracing a whole-body approach to care, and are even looking to holistic health philosophy—specifically spiritual, mindfulness-based practices—as a minimally invasive, even cost-effective treatment option. Spiritual practices like meditation and yoga therapy allow the mind and brain a space to be present, relax and heal. Meditation in particular offers a stress- reduction solution to the hyperactive mind-body constitution of many people who suffer with IBS.
One meditation practice being researched as a treatment option for IBS is Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response Meditation (RRM).11 Founded in 1975, it includes four basic elements: quiet surroundings, being in a comfortable position, focusing on the word “one” and holding a passive mindset. In one study , 13 adults with IBS were treated with RRM guided by a trained RRM therapist. The group was asked to practice twice a day for 15 minutes each, for six weeks. They were also asked to keep a journal reflecting on their IBS symptoms. An astonishing 67% of the participants reported improvement in their symptoms such as gas and belching. No changes were reported in more debilitating IBS symptoms like diarrhea and constipation. However, in a three-month follow-up, participants who continued their RRM practice experienced significant reduction in diarrhea and constipation. Participants also shared improvements beyond their GI stress: headaches, insomnia, backaches, depression and hyperactivity also saw a decrease among participants, contributing to their overall wellbeing. The authors of this study remained curious, and one year later they followed up with ten of the original 13 participants. All reported continued reduction of IBS symptoms, concluding that RRM is a helpful immediate treatment for IBS, and even more effective the longer a person practices it. 
Another meditation practice being researched as a treatment for IBS is Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  MBSR is a much more dynamic practice than RRM, rooted in a combination of mindful meditation, body awareness and yoga. One study15 was conducted with 90 patients who have IBS, half practicing MBSR for eight weeks and the other half acting as the control. You might not be shocked by now to learn that the MBSR group reported a 30.7% reduction in symptoms. Similar to the RRM group, the MBSR group also reported an overall improvement in quality of life, such as lower stress and controlled moods. The authors of this study did acknowledge the depth of this practice (for example, the need for learning hatha yoga technique) and questioned if such a technical meditation technique was needed to treat IBS. Nonetheless, the study supports meditation as a cost effective, non- invasive treatment option for IBS.
There is an enormous amount of literature about using yoga, another spiritual practice as a treatment for stress, thus a potential therapy for people with IBS. Yoga is an ancient Indian theology rooted in a “mind-body-breath” approach to healing the whole person.  A spiritual yoga practice can potentially relax a person’s nervous system and relieve anxiety, depression and stress.8 A study  of 51 patients with IBS practicing Iyengar yoga for six weeks, twice a week, all reported better sleep, less fatigue and reduced mental stress and IBS symptoms.
An even deeper exploration of Indian literature helps define the therapeutic value of yoga meditation for IBS. The Taittiriya Upanishad, an Indian Sanskrit text, explains Pancha Kosha, translated as “five sheaths,” which identifies the five layers of human existence: the physical body (annamaya kosha), vital life force (pranamaya kosha), our mind/thoughts (manomaya kosha), our intellect/wisdom (vijnamaya kosha) and bliss/harmony/expanded awareness (anadamaya kosha). The first four layers are constantly interacting interdependently, in such ways as nurturing nutrition, energy, emotions and self-fulfillment. Once harmony is achieved, peace emerges and transcendence to the fifth layer of bliss occurs, resulting in perfect health. Not attending to any of these layers creates imbalance in the body. Disruption in the vital life force layer, caused by mental conflicts, disturbs the nervous system, resulting in IBS symptoms. Exploration into the Pancha Kosha yoga belief system provides insight into a mind, body and spiritual practice of healing functional GI disorders, such as IBS.
After years of exploring more holistic options to treat my IBS, I’ve realized that so many of the tools I’m looking for are already within me, within my own mind-body-spirit connection. Being a Highly Sensitive Person may come with its more taxing days, but it’s also provided me with exactly the insight I needed to help address IBS. Furthermore, my IBS symptoms nudged me towards nurturing my spiritual being. So, to all those elders who, for years, told me to, “Stop being so sensitive!” I say: “Never.” I simply wouldn’t be have been able to honor my intuitive self, and wouldn’t have embarked on this journey of a deeper spiritual awakening.
- Aron, N. E., (1996). The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
- Brandt, L. J., Chey, W. D., Foxx-Orenstein A. E. et al. (2009). An evidence–based position statement on the management of irritable bowel syndrome. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 104, S1–S35. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/
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