MONDAY, May 9, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- A simple meditation technique can help ease the torment suffered by people with a chronic bowel disease, a new study has found.
The research, done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that women with irritable bowel syndrome who practiced "mindful meditation" had more than a 38 percent reduction in symptoms, far surpassing a nearly 12 percent reduction for women who participated in a traditional support group.
Moreover, meditation helped reduce psychological distress and improved quality of life, the study found.
One of the study authors said the practice, based on a Buddhist meditative technique, "empowers" patients to deal with an illness that is difficult to treat.
"It's not easy to treat IBS [irritable bowel syndrome], even with the best standard medical approaches," said study co-author Olafur Palsson, an associate professor, clinical psychologist and research in the gastroenterolgoy department at the university. "It's chronic and, over time, it's hard to treat because it is complicated."
Mindful meditation helps practitioners relax by focusing on the moment, paying attention to breathing, the body and thoughts as they occur, without judgment.
"It's a different way of using the mind and being aware," said Palsson. He noted that more than 200 hospitals around the country offer the mindfulness meditation training program.
The technique takes discipline to learn, but "becomes second nature after a while," said Palsson, adding, "this is not a clinical treatment, it's more educational."
The findings were to be presented Saturday at Digestive Disease Week meeting in Chicago. Research presented at medical meetings should be viewed as preliminary because it has not been subjected to the scrutiny that typically accompanies publication in medical journals. In addition, the number of participants in the new study was small, and the findings need to be confirmed in larger studies.
Irritable bowel syndrome is a common chronic illness that can start as early as adolescence and become a lifelong condition. Symptoms include abdominal pain, cramps, diarrhea and constipation. Cases range from mild to severe. It differs from inflammatory bowel disease, a more serious condition with a similar name.
In the United States, the disease is more common in women and about one in six people has the condition, according to the National Institutes of Health. The condition is believed to stem from a genetic predisposition and is triggered by stress, a gastrointestinal infection or gastrointestinal surgery.
Treatments include anti-spasmodic medications to relax the colon, and drugs to reduce constipation and diarrhea. Patients are advised to avoid drinks and foods that stimulate the intestines, such as alcohol, caffeinated beverages, some grains, chocolate and milk.
But the disease varies from one person to another, and one regimen does not help everyone, according to health officials.
For the study, 75 women between 19 and 71 years old, with an average age of nearly 43 years, were randomly divided into two groups. One group participated in a mindfulness meditation training session and the other in a traditional support group, both for eight weeks.
Ahead of time, the groups rated the treatments' potential benefit, or "credibility," about the same, the study said.
But at the end of eight weeks, the meditation group had a 26.4 percent reduction in "overall severity of symptoms" compared to a 6.2 percent reduction in the support group. By the end of three months, the disparity persisted as improvement increased to a 38.2 percent reduction in symptoms for the meditation group vs. a 11.8 percent reduction for the therapy group, the study found.
The study authors also noted that mindful meditation was inexpensive and widely available.
One expert praised the research results as original and powerful.
"It's a small sample, but I'm impressed. It's not so easy to do this with treatments that are not well-defined," said Dr. Albena Halpert, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at Boston University Medical School. "There have been other studies that looked at psychological treatment options, but this is the first looking at mindfulness, and the results are robust."
Halpert said she was surprised that both groups rated the potential benefit of the treatment option they were to receive equally.
"You can call it the placebo effect or whatever you want, but you have to believe in a treatment for it to work," said Halpert. "It's interesting that people would think it [mindfulness training] would have the same benefit as a support group."
To learn more about mediation, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.