It’s that time a year when food comes to the forefront of celebrating with family and friends. While sharing a specially prepared meal is a beautiful tradition, sharing in too many food-centered celebrations may leave our bodies and minds feeling not so well.
Speaking of the link between bodies and minds, the connection between the mind and the gut is becoming better and better understood. There is a large part of our nervous system that lines the walls of the digestive system from the esophagus to the rectum, known as the Enteric Nervous System. It is this that you feel when you have “butterflies in your stomach” or go for your “gut reaction.” It also contributes to links between our emotions and our digestion.
Today I’ll be reviewing an article that explores the positive benefit Mindfulness training has on reducing symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).*
For these researchers, IBS is defined as a “functional bowel disorder characterized by symptoms of abdominal discomfort associated with defecation disturbances.” It is experienced by 10{2bd103ee3922297dd26721aa2b4723f52b7c1e46e10078a5bb1f7638d0cbcf8c} of the American population, and there is no known cure. While medications exist, they are limited in efficacy, costly, and carry negative side effects. Therefore, lifestyle modifications, including dietary changes and psychological therapies, are at the forefront of the treatment options. Again, this goes back to the brain/gut connection. This particular study compared the effects of mindfulness meditation with an IBS support group in reducing IBS severity.
Ultimately, 75 women participated in the study, which consisted of attending 9 sessions of either mindfulness meditation or attending a support group. The mindfulness intervention, based on programs by Jon Kabat-Zinn, included body-scan exercises, sitting and walking meditation, and mindful yoga. The mindfulness exercises were focused on coping with IBS symptoms. For example, developing an ability to distinguish symptoms in the abdominal area from thoughts about the symptoms.
The support group shared IBS friendly meals, received education and participated in group discussions. As the researchers suspected, the mindfulness group had a more significant reduction in IBS symptoms as measured by the IBS severity scale. In fact, at the three-month follow up, the IBS symptoms in the mindfulness group had reduced by 30{2bd103ee3922297dd26721aa2b4723f52b7c1e46e10078a5bb1f7638d0cbcf8c}.
There are many things to consider when evaluating the strength of a research study. One needs to consider whether the study population reflects a cross section of society and was randomized to different study groups. It is important for the researchers to be blinded as to which intervention group the participants are in to avoid bias in interpreting the research results. The funding for the research study should not be connected to the researchers, again to avoid any possible bias.
Overall, this is a strong study. Its design is a randomized control trial, where individuals are randomly assigned to it did involve only women as a study population. Although the research participants performing the intervention were not blinded, those involved in data collection and management were. They used a standardized measurement tool (the IBS severity scale) to measure symptoms. Great effort was made to make the two interventions as similar as possible to avoid any confounding variables. The only main limitation is that only women were involved in the study, so technically the results cannot be generalized to men.
While most of us may not have a diagnosis of IBS, I’m sure we can all relate to occasional digestive upset related to stress. In order to keep our gut healthy over the holidays, try practicing mindful eating. Below are a few tips:

  • Before beginning a meal, take a minute to feel gratitude before jumping into eating. Relax your abdomen. Take three slow, steady breaths.
  • Take small bites, and chew each bite well, taking time to savor the flavors in your food
  • Try eating with your left hand, or eating with chopsticks, to slow yourself down
  • Finally, fully enjoy savoring this special time of year with family and friends!

~Michelle Downing DPT, RYT
*Gaylord et al. Mindfulness Training Reduces the Severity of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Women: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial. Am J Gastroenterol 2011;106:178-1678-1688

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