Meditation for IBS: Harnessing the Gut-Mind Connection

Meditation Has Been Proven to Help With Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Key Takeaways:

  • Meditation and other practices that work on the gut-mind connection have been shown to be very effective at reducing IBS symptoms, even months after the intervention.
  • Meditation works by assisting in regulation of neurotransmitters, decreasing inflammation, improving the gut microbiome and regulating stress.
  • For people who have improved gut health but still have IBS symptoms, meditation may be a missing link in healing.

If you have been dealing with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), adding in meditation can be a helpful, but often overlooked, tool in your treatment toolbox. It accesses the gut-mind connection to help improve symptoms of IBS such as abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and brain fog. Meditation may also help to improve symptoms of other gastrointestinal conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Meditation for IBS: woman touching her stomach

What Is Meditation? What Is Mindfulness?

Meditation, as defined in the dictionary, is the act of focusing the mind, in silence or with chanting, for religious, spiritual, or relaxation purposes.

Meditation has a long tradition in religion that may date back to as early as 5,000 BCE. It was used in ancient Egypt and China and in the faith traditions of Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Meditative practices came to the West in the 1900s, and researchers began studying it for its medical benefits starting in the 1960s [1].

When studying meditation for health purposes, the National Institute of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health explains that the process of meditation generally requires these four components:

  1. A quiet, distraction-free location
  2. A comfortable posture, whether sitting, lying down, walking, or otherwise
  3. Something to focus your attention on, such as a word, phrase, object, or bodily sensations (like inhales and exhales or a guided meditation)
  4. Openness of mind and attitude to allow distracting thoughts to come and go without judgment

Mindfulness is often discussed along with meditation. Mindfulness is the term for the fourth component of the process of meditation: paying attention to the present moment, without judgement. 

This article will share the research on a few different types of mindfulness and meditation interventions that work to support a healthy gut-mind connection. 

Meditation for IBS: brain and intestines illustration

The Gut-Mind Connection

The gut and mind are connected in many ways. In fact, some of the pharmaceutical drugs that are used to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms work because of their effects on neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. 

There are few mechanisms by which anything that affects the brain affects the gut, and vice versa. 

  • Neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that transmit signals from the brian to various cells) such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are made in the gut and taken to the brain via the vagus nerve. These neurotransmitters affect appetite, regulate pain, affect mood, and regulate the digestive system [4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 5 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • The gut and brain communicate in part via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the 10th and longest cranial (starts in the head) nerve, and it creates a two-way messaging system, which is called the gut-brain axis. This nerve travels from the base of the brain all the way down throughout the digestive tract, which allows the brain and gut to communicate. The vagus nerve releases neurotransmitters that affect both gut and brain function such as mood and digestion. The vagus nerve also controls other body functions such heart rate, breathing, and reflex actions like coughing and sneezing [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].    
  • Psychological stress typically triggers a fight-or-flight response, which releases hormones that disturb the gut microbiome and increases inflammation [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

What this really shows us is that anything that causes stress to the mind, such as psychological stress, affects how the gut works. Anything that affects how the gut works affects how the mind works. 

A treatment approach that positively affects the gut and the mind, therefore, will likely be especially powerful when it comes to healing. 

Meditation for IBS: guy meditating in nature

Why Meditation Works

Meditation works to improve IBS and IBD in three ways. 

  1. Meditation reduces stress and anxiety, which affects the digestive system. 
  2. The relaxation response created by meditation can actually change gene expression in the genes that contribute to IBS and IBD. 
  3. Meditation decreases inflammation that may contribute to these diseases. 

Let’s look at these three mechanisms a bit closer. What you will notice is that they are all related in the complex but amazing system of the gut-brain connection.

Stress Reduction and the Gut

Managing stress is important for general gut health and proper digestion, and can help with symptom reduction.

Stress changes the microbiome (the balance of bacteria that live in the gut and keep it healthy) and those changes can lead to IBS symptoms [8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Stress also changes the balance of neurotransmitters that are needed for proper digestion and movement of food through the GI tract. 

Reducing stress may help improve this neurotransmitter balance and improve gastrointestinal symptoms.  Regulating stress response also helps calm states of chronic inflammation (which we will talk more about below) and decrease leaky gut by maintaining a healthy gut lining [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. 

People with chronic illnesses, such as IBS and IBD (irritable bowel disease) including Crohns and ulcerative colitis tend to have higher levels of anxiety and/or depression. In fact, one study found that IBS patients were three times as likely as healthy subjects to have either anxiety or depression [10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. The chronic pain and life disruption that comes with gastrointestinal illness causes a lot of psychological stress, creating a circular system where the stress from the illness increases illness symptoms. Decreasing that stress can help improve overall symptoms. 

Meditation Can Change Gene Expression

This research is pretty fascinating and is one of the first looks into the mechanism of action (exactly why in the body) meditation which reduces stress and creates a relaxation response (a state of rest that changes the response to stress) works to improve IBS and IBD. 

A 2015 study of a nine-week relaxation response-based mind-body group intervention found that not only were IBS and IBD symptoms improved, but there was also altered gene expression. In particular, the intervention suggested that NF-κB (nuclear factor kappa,) a protein complex that controls DNA transcription, is a target molecule in both IBS and IBD. The study noted that the ability of mindfulness practices to help regulate NF-κB may be one of the reasons why meditation helps improve IBS and IBD [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. The study also found 1,059 other genes in IBD and 119 genes in IBS related to inflammation, stress, or DNA degeneration that can contribute to IBS and IBD. 

NF-κB contributes to immunity, inflammation, cancer, and nervous system function, basically helping to improve both the stress response and inflammation that can lead to IBS and IBD [12 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. 

Meditation Can Reduce Inflammation

Inflammation has been found to be a contributing factor to both IBS and IBD [12 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Meditation and mindfulness techniques have been shown to decrease inflammation, even decreasing C-reactive protein (a blood marker for inflammation) in patients with IBD [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 15 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Stress increases inflammation as well as changes the microbiome in the gut, both of which can lead to symptoms of IBS or IBD [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. A healthy gut makes short-chain fatty acids that have an anti-inflammatory effect, but during stress the corticotropin-releasing hormone is triggered which disrupts the microbiome leading to an unhealthy gut [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Since meditation decreases inflammation it also improves the gut microbiome. A poor gut microbiome can contribute to leaky gut, which also increases inflammation [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Meditation Interventions for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease

There are many different forms of meditation/mindfulness-based interventions with research-backed benefits for IBS, IBD, and other gastrointestinal issues. Let’s look at some of the methods and their effectiveness. 

InterventionDescriptionResults
Mindfulness-Based MeditationFocusing attention on the present moment without judgement. This can be done by using many different forms of meditation.• Chronic and acute pain decreases with mindfulness practices [16 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 17 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Meditation may reduce IBS symptoms, ulcerative colitis flare-ups (IBD), anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Gut-directed HypnotherapyTypically a seven-session protocol where a therapist employs relaxation techniques and imagery to induce a hypnotic state, a state of deep relaxation. The therapist then uses suggestions focused on calming the digestive tract, possibly improving any miscommunication between the brain and the gut [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 18].• This form of hypnotherapy can help relieve abdominal pain, bloating, and bowel dysfunction, and improve quality of life for IBS sufferers [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
• The American Gastroenterological Association recommends gut- directed hypnotherapy as an intervention for moderate to severe IBS [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
• Around 35% of IBS patients doing individual or group hypnotherapy had adequate IBS symptom relief at three months [19 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)CBT helps patients assess unhelpful thought patterns and create more helpful emotional responses, thus decreasing psychological stress [20 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. It is used for treating many different mental health issues but is also used in IBS and IBD…

For example, in the case of IBS, a patient who feels abdominal pain may expect the pain will always lead to a bowel accident. This creates anxiety and fear every time they have any stomach distress. With CBT, the patient learns to break that thought pattern and remember that stomach pain often does not result in bowel accidents, thus not allowing a few bad incidents to create anxiety every time pain is felt [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].  
• CBT is one of the most effective IBS treatments, decreasing risk of becoming symptomatic by around 38% [21 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
• CBT is more effective at reducing symptoms than just general relaxation therapies [22 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)An eight-week class that teaches people to cultivate mindfulness by focusing on their bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions with curiosity and compassion rather than judgement [23 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]• MBSR may improve the GI symptoms associated with IBS.
• Feelings of anxiety around GI issues are decreased with MBSR because it cultivates a non-reactive response to GI distress [23 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
• MBSR reduces illness-related anxiety, improving the gut-mind connection [24 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
• Significant improvements in  stress, depression, and quality of life in IBD patients were seen with the use of MBSR [25 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
• MBSR improved inflammatory markers in IBS and IBD, which did relate to less symptoms in IBS, but was inconclusive in IBD symptoms [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 15 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 26 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Can You Treat IBS With Meditation Alone?

While there is great evidence supporting meditation and other gut-mind interventions in treatment of IBS, it is not a perfect intervention for digestive health. The way the intervention is administered and underlying health issues matter in the effectiveness of meditation for IBS sufferers. 

For example, online CBT was not shown to significantly improve IBS related anxiety [27 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. However, as mentioned above, in-person CBT did improve IBS anxiety and symptoms in another study.

As you can tell from all of the contributing factors to IBS and IBD, many factors contribute to these illnesses. While meditation reduces inflammation, if someone is eating a highly inflammatory diet or has extremely poor sleep, their inflammation levels may still be high enough that some symptoms are still present [28 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Additionally, if something like too many bad bugs in the gut microbiome are contributing to IBS or IBD, such as in the case of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or H. pylori, that may need to be taken care of in order to have meditation be more effective.

For these reasons, most people do best with a plan that includes additional lifestyle interventions to additionally support gut healing, along with meditation techniques.

Additional Interventions

Daily Brain Checklist infographic by Dr. Ruscio

Resolving any additional issues, such as leaky gut, inflammation, or offending gut bugs generally involves a few simple steps that you can take at home: an anti-inflammatory diet and probiotics, plus herbal antimicrobials if they are needed. 

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Reducing systemic inflammation is one of the most important first steps when it comes to improving gastrointestinal issues. 

To decrease inflammation, I generally suggest starting with a Paleo diet, which removes a number of common foods that create an immune response [29 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. The Paleo diet also improves the gut microbiome, further reducing inflammation [30 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

If the Paleo diet does not resolve symptoms enough, there is good evidence to try a low-FODMAP diet, particularly for IBS. A low-FODMAP diet restricts bacteria-feeding carbs, or, fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols such as wheat, onion, legumes, dairy, and fructose. These can ferment in the gut and cause gut symptoms [31 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 32 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Probiotics

As we mentioned earlier in the article, the balance of gut bacteria is extremely important in supporting good gut functioning and relieving gut symptoms. Good gut bacteria also supports a healthy gut-mind connection, which improves effectiveness of meditation-based interventions. One way to support a good balance of gut bacteria is to use probiotics. 

Specifically, in IBS, probiotics have been shown in double-blind studies to improve symptoms such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain [33 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 34 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 35 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

You can learn more about adding probiotics to your regimen with my probiotics starter guide

Herbal Antimicrobials

If trying an anti-inflammatory diet and probiotics do not resolve your symptoms, you may want to try herbal antimicrobials. These can remove any gut microbes that are causing stomach issues, such as the microbes in SIBO [38 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 39 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 40 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Person meditating beside a plate of fruits

Meditation for IBS and Gut Healing

Creating your own meditation practice or working with a practitioner to try a structured mindfulness-based intervention such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT,) CBT, or gut-directed hypnotherapy may be a missing piece to your IBS treatment plan. 

Just like how meditation may not be all that is needed, if you have healed your gut but keep experiencing the deep psychological stress related to having had a chronic illness, it may be damaging your gut. If you are struggling with parsing out exactly what issues you need to work on to heal your gut and improve your quality of life, please reach out to our clinic. We would be honored to help you on your path to wellness.

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