Although we’ve all heard allusions to the “mind/body connection,” Western medicine still tends to downplay or ignore the effect people’s attitudes and emotions can have on their overall health. In her recent New York Times article “Let the Mind Help Tame an Irritable Bowel,” Jane E. Brody discusses an even more specific connection: that of the mind and the digestive system. “The gut,” she writes, “has been called the body’s second brain, containing 95 percent of the body’s neurotransmitter serotonin and direct nerve connections to the brain.”

For patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (I.B.S.), a disorder characterized by medically inexplicable diarrhea, constipation, or a cycle of the two, these findings are provocative to say the least.

…learning to minimize stress and emotional disturbances can reduce the symptoms of I.B.S., perhaps more effectively than medications, recent research has indicated.

…This is perhaps an overreaction to the past when most patients with I.B.S. were told there was nothing physically wrong with them — it was all in their heads. After all, they had no obvious organic cause like a tumor, infection or ulcer.

In the modern era of medicalization, the pendulum swung the other way. Gastroenterologists now recognize that I.B.S. is a real physiological, or “functional,” disorder, though no specific cause has been discovered.

While many I.B.S. patients do find relief through diet changes alone, steering clear of potential problem foods such as wheat, chocolate, caffeine, and alcohol, others find they can manage their symptoms best with both diet and counseling or stress-reduction training. One promising British study on hypnotherapy, cited by Brody, found that 81 percent of the 204 participants felt better for up to six years after treatment. Just try and find a pill with such long-lasting positive effects!

A good friend of mine suffers from I.B.S., and spent several frustrating years eliminating potential “trigger” foods to no avail. Once he started to focus on stress reduction, however (psychotherapy plus regular sessions of meditation and relaxation), his flare-ups were greatly reduced. It certainly seems like the estimated 15 percent of Americans living with I.B.S. would do well to acknowledge both the “mind” and “body” components of their disorder, managing their symptoms through a combination of both dietary changes and stress-reduction techniques.

Resources: The Mind-Body Digestive Center