Yoga Helps Manage IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)

2 September 2013

Let’s start with what irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) actually is and what causes it?

Contrary to common opinion IBS is not a disease; it is a group of symptoms that occur together. Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, meaning it is a problem caused by changes in how the GI tract works. The most common symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain or discomfort, often reported as cramping, along with diarrhea, constipation, or both. In the past, IBS was called colitis, mucous colitis, spastic colon, nervous colon, and spastic bowel. The name was changed to reflect the understanding that the disorder has both physical and mental causes and is not a product of a person’s imagination.

Anxiety may be primarily a mental health issue, but it is much more than that, anxiety and associated stress has a very real effect on your body chemistry. The stress from IBS changes your hormone production, alters your immune system, and for many, it upsets their digestive tract, which in turn causes more anxiety and stress; a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

So it should come as little surprise that anxiety is now being recognized as a contributing factor to the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as a chronic condition. The symptoms of which include; bloating, gastrointestinal discomforts, erratic bowel movements, chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation.

IBS is diagnosed when symptoms such as bloating, gastrointestinal discomforts, erratic bowel movements, chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation are present without a medical cause, and while scientists believe that there are likely a number of factors that go into IBS, most gastroenterologists agree that anxiety and stress are major contributors to its development.

Yoga to the rescue

For those who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, yoga helps greatly to alleviate symptoms and keep stress in check. We all, at one time or another, have eaten something that “just doesn’t quite sit right.” But for the more than 30 million adults in the United States who suffer from IBS (two-thirds of whom are women) those awful symptoms are an ongoing struggle, not a temporary discomfort.

Of course, there are times when a particular food or an allergy triggers an episode, but generally no one factor can held responsible. IBS has frequently been dismissed as psychosomatic, but recently it has been redefined as “a disorder with variable symptoms having possible neurological, immunological, or psycho-emotional roots,” to quote Gary Kraftsow, the founder and wellness instructor of American Viniyoga Institute and author of Yoga for Transformation.

Because there is no known organic cause (or cure) for IBS, treatment generally focuses on symptom relief. Medications such as antidiarrheals, antispasmodics, or tricyclic antidepressants have been found to be helpful when symptoms become overwhelming. Yet research studies have shown that lifestyle modifications can be an effective drug-free method of dealing with the symptoms and easing the pain. A Mayo Clinic study in the reported in the American Journal of Gastroenterology (February, 1998) showed that exercise, diet, and stress management reduced IBS symptoms.

This is reason many experts recommend regular stress reduction exercise like yoga as a more effective way to prevent recurrences over the long run. “With IBS the goal is to reduce symptoms and restore efficient functioning to the system,” says Kraftsow. “And certain yoga postures may be restorative no matter where on the spectrum your symptoms lie.”

Abdominal breathing in particular has proven to be helpful in IBS sufferers and deep inhalations and exhalations may benefit those who tend to breathe shallowly when stressed or those who swallow air while eating and/or talking, which traps air in the stomach.

Most IBS sufferers often battle irregular bowel habits that are painful and unpredictable. During one of these flare-ups, Kraftsow recommends engaging postures that provide a soothing effect, suggesting forward bends and simple abdominal twists like Jathara Parivrtti (abdominal twist) and Apanasana (knees-to-chest pose); both of which may work to help soothe a hyperactive bowel or stimulate a sluggish one.

For those who suffer irregularity and constipation, digestion can be stimulated by working the abdominal area a bit more strongly with Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) or Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose); simple move into the postures with the stomach remaining held in after an exhalation.

Although yoga is one effective way to combat IBS, when symptoms recur, experts recommend a care plan that incorporates a diet that eliminates “aggravating foods” (especially fatty meats and dairy) and includes plenty of nutritionally balanced foods as well as probiotics (The best foods for IBS health are those that are gentle on the digestive system and encourage “smooth passage” through the intestines)…as Kraftsow says, “treatment that respects the whole person.”

Summary: In particular, yoga is an excellent (and enjoyable!) way to manage IBS and relieve it’s symptoms of diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, bloating, nausea etc. Yoga also helps stabilize the digestive process. Yoga is also tremendously beneficial for preventing or minimizing menstrual cramping, which often aggravates IBS.

For those people with IBS, yoga is perhaps the most helpful for its ability to reduce the stress, anxiety, and pain of this chronic illness. Regular practice will indisputably improve your physical and mental fitness, promoting relaxation, and giving you a sense of control over your overall health and well-being. As with other stress management techniques, the more you practice, the greater your improvement will be.

*Rae Indigo is ERYT500

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