June 30, 2011 / 3:06 AM / in 8 years

"Mindfulness" may ease irritable bowel symptoms

NEW YORK, June 30 (Reuters Life!) - A therapy that combines mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga may help soothe symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, according to a U.S. study.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that, of the 75 women with the digestive disorder involved in the study, those assigned to “mindfulness training” — a type of meditation — saw a bigger improvement in their symptoms over three months than women who were assigned to a support group.

The study, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, suggests that the mindfulness technique should be an option for treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), researchers said.

“This randomized, controlled trial demonstrated that mindfulness training has a substantial therapeutic effect on bowel symptom severity, improves health-related quality of life, and reduces distress,” wrote lead researcher Susan Gaylord.

People with IBS have repeated bouts of abdominal cramps, bloating, constipation and diarrhea. Typical treatment included diet changes, as well as anti-diarrheal medication and, for constipation, laxatives or fiber supplements.

The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but anxiety and less-than-ideal coping strategies, such as avoiding going out because of symptoms, are thought to make IBS worse for many people.

As a result, psychological counseling is sometimes used, with the best-studied form being cognitive-behavioral therapy, which tries to change the unhealthy thinking patterns and behaviors that contribute to people’s health problems.

In the study, 75 women with IBS were randomly assigned to either undergo the mindfulness training or attend an IBS support group once a week for eight weeks.

The training included lessons on meditation, gentle yoga postures and “body scanning,” in which people focus their attention on one body area at a time to detect muscle tension and other sensations.

Gaylord’s team found that three months after the therapy ended, women who’d undergone mindfulness training were fairing better than the support group.

On average, their scores on a standard 500-point IBS symptom questionnaire fell by more than 100 points, with a 50-point drop considered a “clinically significant” improvement.

By contrast, women in the support group averaged a 30-point decline.

“I think people with IBS should learn mindfulness skills,” said Delia Chiaramonte, director of education for the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine in Baltimore, noting that it was “100 percent safe” and could offer a way to manage IBS symptoms on their own, long-term.

“Part of the problem with IBS is the attention people give to the physical discomfort, and what the mind then does with that.”

Chiaramonte, who was not involved in the study, said it was “well-designed.” Testing mindfulness training against a support group, for example, helps control for the fact that people involved in any form of therapy may simply expect to get better — and, therefore, do.

“And still, the mindfulness group did better. So it’s not just contact with another human being, or not just that they expected to get better,” Chiaramonte added.

But larger trials need to be done, including some that recruit men. In addition, mindfulness can be learned in many different ways — and the study only looked at the specific technique of mindfulness-based stress reduction.

“This study doesn’t tell us if learning mindfulness in other ways would work,” she added. (Reporting by Amy Norton at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies)

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