Can hypnotherapy help with IBS?
"I had already worked with a nutritionist for a few years and was taking lots of (expensive) supplements like probiotics and nutritional support products. I followed the FODMAPs diet and had identified food triggers. Despite all this work, IBS still blighted many aspects of both my professional and personal life: I was getting IBS symptoms such as pain, wind, bloating and loose stools at least twice a day. Everything I ate or drank had to be tightly controlled at all times. I wouldn't eat for a few hours before going for a run or any outdoor activities such as on holiday."
This testimonial from one of my clients is typical for IBS sufferers. The numbers are staggering: there are around eight to ten million people in the UK who are, to varying degrees, affected by IBS. Half of them don't respond to drugs, and a million of them are defined as 'difficult to treat'.
They stop eating hours before leaving the house for fear of symptoms appearing and dread a ten-minute school run. Friends and family can't understand how difficult it is to live with the condition, and GPs often only hand out an info sheet, not knowing much about possible treatments. A typical recommendation is to avoid certain foods, but IBS needs a more holistic approach - body and mind work closely together and can influence symptoms in the most unexpected ways. Here is how.
A miscommunication between your brain and your gut
You might have heard that we have two 'brains'; the second, less famous one is wrapped in over 100 million neurons, called the enteric nervous system (ENS), and known as our gut. It is in constant communication with the brain in your head and picks up all kinds of cues to regulate digestion.
When you are stressed or worried, your gut gets informed by your brain that all is not well. As a result, you might experience typical IBS symptoms like bloating, nausea or diarrhoea. Several scientific studies have shown how powerful the brain-gut connection is: IBS is more common in patients with pre-existing mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. Symptoms worsen during times of heightened stress or anxiety.
Surprisingly, it seems that the problem works both ways: your gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes when it is irritated. Your brain reacts accordingly.
Mood swings might not be the cause of your IBS; they might be the result of a problem your gut experiences.
If you have experienced pain in the past and are anxious about it, you face a catch 22: constant worrying about what you are eating creates stress that makes your symptoms worse. And the worse you feel, the more you focus on the foods you choose - the only thing you think you can actively control. Meanwhile, your two brains are continuously sending signals to each other that exacerbate the problem.
Your gut is essentially in fight-or-flight-mode, it has become hypersensitive and hyper-reactive to any food in your GI tract. It's the hypersensitivity that needs to be tackled. That might sound counterintuitive, but the gut is under your brain's direct influence and reacts to your emotions. For me, no amount of nutritional know-how will alter this.
Many of my clients follow a detailed low FODMAP diet or have changed their diet significantly but are only vaguely aware of the importance of stress reduction; we live in a society that sees constant stress as normal. It is also often hard to reduce our workload - small kids need attention now, projects at work don't tend to wait, and there is always a long to-do list that won't shrink.
How hypnotherapy can help
To achieve permanent, long-lasting relief from IBS symptoms, we need to address the miscommunication between the gut and the brain. Your oversensitive nerves in the gut need to calm down. Hypnotherapy does that by engaging the subconscious mind. Several studies have supported its powerful effect. It has nothing to do with the kind of hypnosis you often see in movies - you are not being manipulated and always in control!
To achieve that, listening to either a hypnotherapist or an audio file brings you into a relaxed state while being mindful of your surroundings. Once you are in this state of relaxation, your brain can let go of the sensory overload it usually has to deal with - it becomes more receptive to new information and ideas. It is a feeling similar to that you experience when you are engrossed in an activity or are daydreaming.
Next, suggestions and associations are given to help you reprogram your inner beliefs. Over time, they will replace the negative associations your subconscious mind holds. As a result, hypnotherapy will reduce the signals of pain, relax the intestine, and help your body calm down the gut's sensitive nerves. You teach the mind to control your gut, so you are not at the mercy of your body functions anymore.
For hypnotherapy to work, you must spend 20-30 minutes a day doing the exercises. It is not a quick fix; changing your subconscious beliefs takes a few weeks, but it can transform your relationship with your body. Hypnotherapy can make it possible to live your life to the fullest again - a nice morning run or a relaxed holiday included.