Reprinted from: Digestive Health & Wellness sponsored by Nexium Jan. 2004
Digestive Health & Wellness:
Gut check: Hypnotherapy for irritable bowel syndrome
By STACY LU
Though more commonly linked to efforts to lose weight or quit smoking, hypnotherapy is emerging as a potentially effective treatment for irritable bowel syndrome.
IBS is a painful disorder that affects some 30 million Americans. Its causes are not really known, and its symptoms — abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea — can be as stubborn as they are widespread. Medications help some patients, but only short-term, with risks of side effects. Sufferers can be virtually disabled by IBS, unable to leave their homes. An IBS patient misses 14 days of work in a year on average.
Yet most published studies show that at least 80 percent of chronic patients respond to hypnotherapy, with years of improved symptoms.
A British study recently published in the journal Gut followed more than 200 IBS patients who had been regularly treated with hypnotherapy. Seventy-one percent of all patients had improvements in symptoms, with the vast majority reporting continued benefits for more than five years after treatment.
Mind over body?
Used as therapy, hypnosis is all about control — returning it to the patient, that is. The procedure usually involves suggesting positive thoughts about health and well-being. The U.K. study used “ego-strengthening” suggestions aimed to increase a patient’s ability to cope with stress.
“These are often a combination of direct suggestions, analogies and metaphors. Such as a tree, with the roots of the tree being the unconscious mind, holding the person strong and steady,” says research leader Dr. Wendy Gonsalkorale, of the hypnotherapy unit in the University Hospital of South Manchester, England.
Dr. Olafur S. Palsson, associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says he uses various types of imagery exercises, including asking patients to “imagine a strong, protective coating like a medicine going down through the intestines…that will not let any discomfort or pain through the wall.”
Protocols vary. The U.K. researchers used a weekly session for up to 12 weeks; Palsson uses seven bi-weekly sessions. Following his highly standardized protocol, costs for treatment would be $800-$1,000.
Practitioners cannot say exactly why it works.
“We have shown in the research lab here that hypnosis alters motility, muscle movements in the gut and the sensitivity of the gut, both of which appear to be increased in IBS patients,” Gonsalkorale says. This suggests a physiological effect that works through mind-brain-body communication pathways such as the autonomic nervous system, which regulates many organs and muscles, she says.
A second brain
The innards are said to have a second brain. They comprise some 100 million nerve cells and can transmit and send signals, and have many of the same substances as the brain in the skull. The intestines are connected, however, to the main brain, particularly when it comes to sending stress signals. Hence stress is likely to send the digestive system awry.
“We have also shown that emotions such as anger increase gut sensitivity and motility, and reducing these emotions through hynotherapeutic strategies would also benefit the gut, obviously,” Gonsalkorale says.
Another recent study showed that hypnosis was also effective in treating functional dyspepsia, a persistent pain in the stomach, Gonsalkorale says. Hypnotized patients didn’t need medications and saw their doctors far less often than those who took conventional medicines.
Cognitive behavior therapy has also been shown to help IBS symptoms, though not as successfully as hypnotherapy. It is sometimes used in combination with other remedies. “A treatment combination is likely to include diet, medication, and hypnosis or cognitive-behavioral therapy, but various combinations should be studied,” Palsson says.
On the fringe
Some doctors are skeptical, however. Dr. Lawrence J. Brandt, chief of gastroenterology at Montefiore Medical Center and professor of medicine and surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said the studies in hypnotherapy were too few in number and were “limited in scientific validity,” though he didn’t entirely dismiss the therapy.
“I think that it’s conceivable that it might have a benefit in some patients,” he says. “You have people who are good doctors working for patients who want that kind of therapy, or at least don’t dismiss it.”
So for now, hypnotherapy remains on the fringe. “Only a tiny fraction of patients get access to this treatment,” Palsson says. “This needs to be studied on a larger scale. Templeton Hypnotherapist specializing in IBS: Contact: Harvey Hunt 805-434-2171 or www.HarveyHunt.com