Does hypnotherapy work for IBS?

Hypnotherapy is a great way to reduce the symptoms of IBS. Treatment is safe, relaxing, natural, and does not involve elimination diets. Not only that it is an evidence-based approach backed by 35 years of clinical research, it has also been shown to create long term results.

I have spent the last 20 years studying and practising the art and science of hypnotherapy. It has helped me to overcome a lifelong fear of public speaking and increased my confidence. I used hypnobirthing when giving birth to my children. The power of our minds is remarkable. There's hardly anything we cannot do when we engage with the subconscious mind.

Unfortunately, hypnotherapy is often misunderstood because of its portrayal in film, TV and literature. It's wrongly associated with power, control and belief. The hypnotist in films is always a power-hungry manipulator up to no good.  But hypnotherapy is a million miles away from that dramatised version of hypnosis. You are not under someone's control, powerless or unconscious, and you don't even have to believe in it to work. 

What is hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy uses hypnosis as a therapeutic technique to change how we think, feel, or behave. It can also create changes to physical functions such as pain response and digestion. 

Hypnosis is a state of focused awareness and narrowed attention combined with relaxation, often described as a trance state. We all go into a trance daily, even if we wouldn't call it that. Daydreaming is an example, or just 'dropping off' to sleep are good examples. Even being deeply absorbed in a book or film is a trance state. 

In this state, the subconscious mind becomes more receptive to suggestions, images and metaphors. The subconscious controls all the physiological functions we don't consciously think about, such as breathing, heart rate or digestion.

Hypnotherapy in medical and professional settings

In 1846, the Scottish physician James Esdaile published his experience with hypnosis in his book "Mesmerism in India". In it, he described how he successfully performed major operations like amputations with the help of hypnosis.

At a time when 40% of patients died after an operation, his mortality rate was 5%. He attributed his success to the use of mesmerism or what we call hypnosis. Also known as hypnosurgery it is used in operations instead of anaesthesia. It slows the flow of blood from tooth extractions, reduces blood pressure, eases the side effects of chemotherapy, speeds the healing of wounds and recovery from surgery. Olympic athletes have even used it to improve performance and mindset. 

When hearing about hypnotherapy as a treatment for IBS, most people's reaction is disbelief. That's hardly surprising, given that we usually see the mind and the body as two separate entities. A psychological approach to IBS does not mean that the problem is all in your head. It's not. However, we can use the mind to ease and control IBS symptoms. 

Hypnotherapy for IBS

Contrary to popular belief, IBS is not a problem of your digestive system; it is a disorder of the gut-brain interaction. There is nothing physically wrong with your gut; the problem lies in how your gut functions. This miscommunication between your gut and your brain can cause symptoms like bloating, pain, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea and heartburn. The complex digestion coordination is out of sync, causing trouble in your stomach and chaos in your colon. 

What can hypnotherapy do to correct those messages?

Gut directed hypnotherapy changes the function of the gut. It works by changing the communication between the gut and brain, reducing the hypersensitivity of the nerve cells and relieving IBS. Hypnotherapy also teaches the mind to control the gut, not the other way around. 

Stress and anxiety make IBS symptoms worse. Hypnotherapy helps by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It stimulates the body's "rest and digest" phase while the sympathetic system gets you in "fight or flight"- mode.

The parasympathetic system is a set of long nerve fibres going from your brain to various organs. They connect to them via particular neurons so they can send signals to them. Hypnosis helps to activate this system. It can also help change subconscious responses to situations such as the fear of needing the toilet when away from home or eating certain foods. 

In gut-directed hypnotherapy, the suggestions are focused on creating physical changes. They also focus on improving emotional wellbeing. Since the subconscious works with images, metaphor is a powerful way to communicate with the subconscious mind. That's why hypnotherapists use visualisations. For example, you may imagine drinking a soothing healing liquid that coats your entire digestive system and soothes discomfort. Your subconscious then uses these images to create physical changes, so you experience relief.

Is gut-directed hypnotherapy effective? 

In 1984 Professor Whorwell, an expert in IBS, decided to test the effectiveness of hypnotherapy as a treatment. Thirty patients with severe symptoms that didn't respond to other treatments were chosen at random. They received either seven sessions of hypnotherapy or seven sessions of psychotherapy plus placebo pills. 

The psychotherapy group showed a small but significant improvement in abdominal pain and general wellbeing but not bowel activity patterns. The hypnotherapy patients showed a dramatic improvement in all IBS symptoms. Later on, 35 patients were added to the initial 15 treated with hypnotherapy. For the combined 50 patient groups, the success rate was 95% for classic IBS cases but substantially less for IBS patients with atypical symptom pictures or significant psychological problems. 

Professor Palsson created the North Carolina Protocol, a standardised hypnosis treatment for IBS. It has been tested in two published research studies and benefited more than 80% of patients.  Well-controlled studies by Dr Simone Peters at Monash University in Melbourne have shown that gut-directed hypnotherapy improves gastrointestinal symptoms in people with IBS by 70-80%. These improvements were long term.

Monash developed the low FODMAP diet hailed as the gold standard in IBS treatment. It was a surprise for the team to find that hypnotherapy had the same impact without a diet. That makes it an excellent option for those who can't follow an elimination diet.

Studies like these are why the National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE), recommends hypnotherapy as a treatment for those with IBS who haven't responded to first-line treatments. 

A 95% success rate is mind-blowing. It raises the question of why hypnotherapy is not more widely known as an effective treatment for IBS. At present, it's seen as too time-consuming and expensive by the NHS, so only Professor Whorwell's team and private practitioners provide this treatment. 

Does gut-directed hypnotherapy also work online? 

There are many reasons IBS patients might want to work with an online therapist. Maybe their time is limited, or they cannot find a specialist in their area. Can hypnotherapy work in such a setting? 

A recent study has found that hypnotherapy conducted via Skype is nearly as effective as one in person. Here, the patients received 12 hypnotherapy sessions in total: only the first was face to face. Before the treatment, 65% had severe IBS pre-treatment, while 35% had moderate IBS.

After the Skype sessions, only 25% had severe IBS, 40% moderate IBS and the remaining 35% mild IBS. All the patients saw significant improvements in their IBS symptoms. Other symptoms commonly seen in IBS decreased, such as nausea, headaches, heartburn, low backache. The patients' quality of life and any existing anxiety or depression also improved.

Online gut-directed hypnotherapy allows you to access specialist support from the comfort of your own home.  I have created an online program, especially for IBS sufferers. 

If you are now curious about IBS hypnotherapy and wonder if it could help you too, you can book a free initial consultation with me at The Tummy Whisperer. 

Hypnotherapy Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Brighton & Hove, East Sussex, BN3

Written by Helen Brooks

Brighton & Hove, East Sussex, BN3

Helen Brooks is the woman behind The Tummy Whisperer, a Clinical Hypnotherapist with 18 years experience and Degree in Applied Psychology. Her mission is to raise awareness of gut directed hypnotherapy as an effective treatment for IBS. She is the creator of a successful online hypnotherapy programme and works with clients all around the world.

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