Meditation calms irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

A study presented recently at a medical meeting revealed that a form of meditation called “mindfulness training” was associated with significantly improved symptom scores for irritable bowel syndrome patients compared with a support group. Below I’ll discuss the study and the reasons I do NOT recommend “mindless meditation”:

Furthermore, the improved symptom scores remained decreased at three months after the intervention, and quality of life scores improved significantly by that time point as well.

However, this study was published as an abstract and presented at a conference. These data and conclusions should be considered to be preliminary until they are published in a peer-reviewed journal.

In the meantime, here are the details in a report from MedPage Today:

A form of meditation known as mindfulness training reduced symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in a randomized trial, a researcher said.

Three months after completing an eight-week course of mindfulness training, patients had a mean 38.2% reduction in IBS severity scores, compared with 11.8% among patients assigned to participate in support groups, reported Olafur Palsson, PsyD, of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

The meditation group also had significant reductions in specific symptoms, including severity of abdominal pain and bloating, and significant improvements in quality of life, Palsson told attendees at the Digestive Disease Week meeting in Chicago.

The training was adapted from the Kabat-Zinn mindfulness training program, with IBS-specific content included, Palsson said.

Mindfulness training seeks to divert patients’ attention away from past problems and anxieties about the future by having them focus on immediate experiences.

For example, Palsson said at a press briefing on the study, participants are told to simply think about their own breathing.

Other meditation programs and psychological interventions have previously been found to reduce IBS symptoms, although the studies have seldom been very rigorous.

The current trial is the first randomized, controlled study of mindfulness training to be reported, Palsson said.

But he did cite other limitations to the analysis: it included only women and the study design shed no light on what it was about the mindfulness training that was effective. In particular, whether the IBS-specific content was helpful remained unclear.

Press briefing moderator Robynne Chutkan, MD, of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said the mind-body interaction in IBS can definitely be used to patients’ advantage.

She added that the mindfulness training seems especially attractive because “it’s something patients can learn and take away on their own. This concept of self-determination for patients is so important.”

As a Christian physician, I cannot recommend “mindless meditation,” but rather, meditation in which we fill our minds and hearts with either God’s word, or the thoughts He directs that we concentrate upon or think about.

For example, the Psalmist tells us:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)

In other words, it’s not “mindless meditation” the Scripture instructs, but meditating “on his law day and night” … or meditating upon the ancient and timeless wisdom of the Bible. And, the prophet, Joshua, wrote:

Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. (Joshua 1:8)

The Psalms emphasize not “mindless meditation,” but meditation upon the Word of God, His character, and His works and deeds:

  • I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds. (Psalm 77:12)
  • I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. (Psalm 119:15)
  • I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11)

In addition to thinking about, memorizing, and meditating upon these timeless principles, the Bible also gives us this direction on meditation:

… brethren, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of reverence and is honorable and seemly, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely and lovable, whatever is kind and winsome and gracious, if there is any virtue and excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on and weigh and take account of these things [fix your minds on them]. (Philippians 4:8, Amplified)

Said another way:

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies. (Philippians 4:8-9, The Message)