Practicing mindfulness meditation over an 8-week period reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms in women, according to a study published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology. Mindfulness meditation training involves focusing attention on present-moment experience and the nonjudgmental awareness of body sensations and emotions. Previous research has suggested that mindfulness training may be effective in reducing stress and pain symptoms in chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and depression. In the current study, the researchers theorized that mindfulness training may be effective in treating the psychological factors associated with pain in IBS—a chronic disorder that interferes with the normal functions of the colon and is characterized by symptoms of abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
Researchers from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Florida State University randomly assigned 75 women with IBS to either a mindfulness training group or an IBS social-support group. The mindfulness group included instruction and homework assignments (i.e., daily mindfulness practices and readings from self-help books), sitting and walking meditation, and mindful yoga. The social-support group included weekly discussions on various topics, one half-day session that involved the sharing of an “IBS-friendly” meal by participants, and weekly homework assignments (i.e., readings from a self-help book). The researchers assessed the participants at the start of the treatment period, at 8 weeks, and again 3 months after treatment ended, with tools that measured participants’ symptom severity, quality of life, psychological distress, and visceral anxiety (i.e., anxiety related to gastrointestinal sensations or symptoms).
The researchers found that compared with the support group, participants in the mindfulness group had greater reductions in IBS symptom severity immediately after the training (8 weeks) and at the 3-month followup. The two groups did not differ significantly in quality of life, psychological distress, and visceral anxiety immediately after treatment; however, participants in the mindfulness group had significantly greater improvements in these areas compared with the support group after 3 months. The researchers noted that these findings, combined with a trend toward continuing improvement in bowel symptoms over time after treatment, suggest that mindfulness training many have long-lasting beneficial effects. They suggested the need for further research to test for any common mechanisms of beneficial change in studies of different psychological interventions for IBS.
Gaylord SA, Palsson OS, Garland EL, et al. Mindfulness training reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome in women: results of a randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Gastroenterology.; 106(9):1678–1688.2011