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Meditate While You Medicate

Relaxation therapy helps treat irritable bowel syndrome

THURSDAY, Aug. 2, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Meditation may relieve the pain of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as well as medication does, new research suggests.

That's why some doctors now are ordering it for patients with the painful gastrointestinal disorder, which is characterized by severe bouts of either diarrhea or constipation, gas, pain and bloating. Usually, laxatives or anti-diarrheal medication are prescribed.

The new research shows that two doses of meditation a day may help control IBS symptoms for some time.

"Our studies showed that when practiced regularly, one of the simplest forms of meditation and relaxation was able to improve symptoms and make a difference in how well IBS patients were able to cope with this disorder in their lives," says Edward Blanchard, director of the Center for Stress and Anxiety Disorders at the State University of New York at Albany.

One IBS specialist welcomes the good news, but cautions against the notion that the disorder is all in the patient's head.

"It has taken many years to establish that IBS is a physiological and not a psychological disorder. And while it is good to have as many tools as possible to help patients cope with their symptoms, it's equally important to recognize that relaxation alone is not going to cure patients with IBS," says Dr. Lucinda Harris, an assistant professor of gastroenterology at Weill-Cornell Medical College.

Still, Blanchard says patients in his study saw significant results.

"A follow-up of 24 months showed that even those patients who did not practice the relaxation exercises as diligently as when they were in the study continued to experience some symptom relief they did not have before," he says.

While no one is certain why relaxation plays a role in treating IBS, one theory suggests our "gut" has a nervous system all its own.

"It's called the enteric nervous system, and like the central nervous system in the brain, it also has receptors for a variety of biochemicals, including those that are linked to the stress response," says Harris.

She says it's possible that relaxation therapy calms the enteric nervous system.

At the very least, Blanchard says meditation reduces stress -- and less stress could be the key to managing the symptoms of IBS.

"There are very few conditions that do not respond favorably to stress reduction, so when you have less stress in your life or you can better manage the stress you do have, you usually feel better," says Blanchard.

That was the case for 13 patients in Blanchard's study. The patients were divided into two groups. Pairs of patients, one from each group, were matched for both the type and severity of symptoms.

The two groups were then randomly assigned to either six weeks of meditation, or placed on a six-week waiting list. Both groups were asked to keep detailed diaries of their symptoms.

In the group assigned to meditation, patients were taught a type of relaxation first popularized in the 1970s.

"It is a very simple program that uses repetition of single sound, usually the word 'one,' along with concentration on breathing," says Blanchard.

The patients were told to do the relaxation exercise for 15 minutes twice a day. The researchers then calculated symptom scores for all participants, continuing until two weeks after the six-week trial ended.

"Clearly, patients assigned to the meditation group did far better, in terms of symptom management, than the control group," says Blanchard. By the end of the trial, he says two of the most frustrating and sometimes painful symptoms, flatulence and belching, had lessened.

At a three-month follow-up, the researchers found still less flatulence and belching, as well as less bloating, diarrhea and constipation. Two years later, researchers found even those patients who practiced the meditation less regularly still had significant relief.

While Harris says the findings are important, she says the group was small and patients shouldn't assume that meditation alone is all they need to control symptoms.

"Stress reduction can play a role in IBS, but stress is not the cause of IBS. So stress reduction, on its own, is not going to be the cure, and the study must be viewed in that context," says Harris.

Blanchard agrees: "Meditation should be not be used instead of traditional medical approaches, but rather along with other treatment modalities."

What To Do: To learn more about symptoms and treatments of IBS, visit the American Gastroenterological Association. For more about meditation, including the types of exercises used in this study, visit The Mind Body Medical Institute.

SOURCES: Interviews with Edward Blanchard, Ph.D., professor, psychology, director, Center for Anxiety and Stress Disorders, State University of New York at Albany; Lucinda Harris, M.D., assistant professor, gastroenterology, Weill-Cornell Medical College, New York City; press release State University of New York at Albany
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