If you’ve been around this block a few times, you probably already know that mindfulness practices—like meditation—are good for your mental health. But more research is finding that mindfulness can improve physical health, too, including improving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), like bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and more.
In fact, in one study the majority of IBS patients experienced significant improvements in their gastrointestinal symptoms after an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction class, according to research published in Neurogastroenterology & Motility. They also saw improvements in their overall quality of life and their anxiety about their IBS symptoms.
"This study shows that people with irritable bowel syndrome can have significant improvements in their symptoms and quality of life without medication or diet change, just by participating in a mindfulness based stress reduction class," said study author Kirsten Tillisch, M.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles, in a news release.
The study authors pinpointed one mindfulness skill that appeared particularly instrumental in these improvements: the ability to stay in the present moment and act with awareness. This skill—learning to focus on your activities in the here-and-now, rather than simply functioning on “autopilot”—is one of five assessed in the study.
"[The study] implicates a specific aspect of mindfulness as particularly important: acting with awareness. It appears that by improving this moment to moment awareness in their daily actions, people with irritable bowel syndrome feel better, possibly because this mindful activity in the present moment keeps the brain from going back to old fears or worries,” explains Dr. Tillisch.
Some of the specific symptoms that saw improvements with the program included abdominal pain, distension, and GI-related fear and anxiety, per the study results.
Mindfulness is the practice of becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings, body, and environment in an accepting and nonjudgmental manner, and can include things like meditation and deep breathing exercises. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a specific type of evidence-based mindfulness program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.; the one used in this study involved 2-hour classes for eight weeks in a row, along with a one-time four-hour retreat. It also comes with homework: 30 minutes of meditation practice per day.
While this study focused on the effects that mindfulness-based stress reduction can have on IBS, it was originally developed for stress management. Nowadays, it’s being used for all sorts of things—like depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cancer, and other illnesses, according to a 2011 review.
Want to give it a try? Mindfulness-based stress reduction classes are offered all over the country—sometimes even at your local YMCA for free or at low cost. You can also take these courses online, such as the one offered through the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center, where Kabat-Zinn originally developed the program.