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Bristol and Bath - Hypnotherapy

for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Hypnotherapy practitioners have known for years that hypnotherapy helps with irritable bowel syndrome. With most research programmes hypnotherapy is often overlooked but thankfully (at last!) the medical community has taken an interest in hypnotherapy as a treatment for IBS and the results have confirmed what we always knew. Channel 4's Health website lists hypnotherapy as the most effective complementary therapy available for IBS. You can view that here.

Science Daily tells us (Feb 2007) that "Overly anxious and driven people are prone to irritable bowel syndrome". A study of 620 people followed across a six month period found that : Those with IBS were significantly more likely to have reported high levels of stress and anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms than those who did not develop the condition. They go on to tell us "Gastroenteritis may trigger the symptoms, but cognitions, behaviour and emotions may help to prolong and maintain them over time," BMJ (British Medical Journal) Specialty Journals (2007, February 26). That article is available here

Professor Peter Whorwell, Professor of Medicine and Gastroenterology at Manchester University has been researching the use of gut-directed hypnotherapy for over 20 years. He says (of hypnotherapy as a treatment for IBS) "We've found it to help all the symptoms, whereas some of the drugs available reduce only a few." His research concluded a "success-rate" of approximately 70% using hypnotherapy. 

So, let's have a look at the why and how of hypnotherapy as a treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. First of all...what is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is another one of those catch all titles applied to an “undiagnosed” digestive difficulty. Basically when you rule out "known" medical problems, then often the clinical diagnosis given will be one of IBS. It is an extremely common problem affecting as many as one in ten people in the UK and America. It is a digestive system disorder often involving constipation or loose stools, or even just stomach cramping and bloatedness. The need to continually visit the toilet can become a source of great anxiety and inconvenience, in some cases even forming an obsessional pattern of behaviour (not being able to go out without being near a toilet for instance)..

Symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal pain, which is often experienced in one of the four 'corners' of the abdomen. Pain may be triggered by eating and relieved by opening the bowels.

  • Diarrhoea and constipation (often alternating)

  • Bloating

  • Indigestion, rumbling wind and flatulence (gas)

  • Early satiety (feeling full within a short time of starting to eat)

  • Stools may be ribbon or pellet like and sometimes contain mucus

  • Although opening your bowels may temporarily alleviate pain you may feel as if they are never emptied properly.

Research has shown that the bowel of an IBS sufferer looks normal to all intents and purposes. There is in fact nothing physically wrong with an IBS sufferers bowels. There can still however can be a great deal of discomfort.  It is well recognised that although the "cause" of IBS is medically unknown, the condition will often begin or worsen during periods of stress or anxiety. It follows therefore that this condition responds very favourably to hypnotherapy as an intervention because hypnotherapy, at one level, is all about reducing stress and anxiety. Providing that the condition has not been caused by something physical such as a bug, an allergy, parasites, poisoning, a food intolerance, or an illness, then we can understand why the illness occurs by looking at what happens in the body when we become anxious.

Essentially, when we are faced with danger, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol which are stress hormones which prime us for fight or flight. It is well known that people placed in a situation of extreme fear can involuntarily urinate, defecate, or vomit. This is actually a part of the fight or flight mechanism. This response would theoretically have offered our earlier ancestors some adaptive advantage. When faced with an extreme danger, the logic is that emptying the bladder, bowel, and stomach, may have been the difference between life and death. Even being just 1 or 2 lbs lighter would enable a human being to run just that bit faster thus conferring an evolutionary advantage when escaping from predators or aggressors. More importantly though, digestion uses a great deal of bodily energy. When we eat, we feel nicely sleepy for about half an hour at least afterwards. This is because energy and oxygen is diverted away from the brain and the muscles and sent to the gut instead to process the food. Now, we know that too much stress or anxiety in our lives is “read” by the subconscious mind as being danger, so if we are constantly stressed or anxious then the body and mind remains constantly primed in fight or flight mode to some degree.  The message that this state sends to the body is that it should be on high alert at any given moment to flee or do battle, and what this means physically is that the digestion of food itself, although energizing in the long term, is actually viewed as a drain on immediate resources (energy) which might be otherwise needed for short term survival. In other words, the anxious body seeks to get food in, and out, as quickly as possible, and to allocate as little energy as possible to this function, which of course means essentially that the digestion and bowel function does not work nearly as well as it can when it is receiving the correct allocation of functional energy. We can also see that there is a perceived survival advantage in keeping the stools “loose” in order to ensure a quick evacuation of the bowels in a crisis.

We also know that the gut is unique as an organ because it actually has its own "brain". The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) directly controls the gastrointestinal system (the gut) and can operate independently of the autonomic nervous system. The Enteric Nervous System is often referred to as the second brain because it can operate independently of the central nervous system, and contains as many as a billion neurons (brain cells). Interestingly we know that the enteric nervous system also makes use of the same neurotransmitters as the Central Nervous System such as, dopamine, and serotonin. Dopamine and serotonin makes us feel good. When these transmitters are present in balanced levels (they are regulated by mood incidentally), then we feel good! The brain and the gut work together too. When the brain is stressed, so too is the gut. The images we deliver at the mental level are also "heard" by the gut "brain". So what does all this mean in plain English? Well, it means that in the same way that your brain can respond to hypnotherapy positively by relaxing and going into a solution focused mode, so too can your gut! This is not just hearsay...the research findings back this up.

So treatment works in a number of ways. Firstly by reducing anxiety generally it is possible to bring the body out of “fight or flight” mode, thus restoring the proper allocation of bodily resources to the bowel and digestive functions. Secondly, we know that stress increases our perception of pain. When we stop worrying about a symptom, our subjective experience of that symptom becomes much less stressful (and painful), thus we overcome the self perpetuating cycle of stress leading to more pain leading to more stress etc. Then we can stop "worrying" about the IBS and give it time to settle down. We work directly on fortifying the gut with hypnotic techniques, including "suggestion", positive visualisation, and creating "triggers" for calming the gut in moments of stress. We also will look at the CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) style approach of ensuring that you are mindful of the way in which your thoughts can affect your sense of alarm. Treatment will be likely to take between three and ten sessions depending on your lifestyle circumstances. If you'd like to explore hypnotherapy, I would invite you to meet me for a consultation to make a fuller assessment of your needs. Even though IBS may be the symptom, you'd probably benefit in many other ways from treatment because we would be reducing your anxiety both generally and in "trigger" situations. It's not unusual for a symptom to be the deciding factor in seeking help, but then we improve lots of other things along the way. So it's often worth the commitment, because these aren't just quick fixes. This treatment will teach you how to ensure that you retain control both now and for the rest of your life....

Here are some further links: -

Hypnotherapy works for bowel pain

Imagine your gut as a river....

Hypnosis can ease bowel illness