A simple meditation technique can help ease the torment suffered by people with a chronic bowel disease, a study has found.

The research, done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that women with irritable bowel syndrome who practiced "mindfulness meditation" had more than a 38% reduction in symptoms, far surpassing a nearly 12% reduction for women who participated in a traditional support group.

Moreover, meditation helped reduce psychological distress and improved quality of life, the study found.

About Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common chronic illness that can start as early as adolescence and become a lifelong condition. Symptoms include abdominal pain, cramps, diarrhea and constipation. Cases range from mild to severe.

In the United States, the disease is more common in women and about one in six people has the condition, according to the National Institutes of Health. The condition is believed to stem from a genetic predisposition and is triggered by stress, a gastrointestinal infection or gastrointestinal surgery.

Treatments include anti-spasmodic medications to relax the colon, and drugs to reduce constipation and diarrhea. Patients are advised to avoid drinks and foods that stimulate the intestines, such as alcohol, caffeinated beverages, some grains, chocolate and milk.

But the disease varies from one person to another, and one regimen does not help everyone, according to health officials.

About Mindfulness Meditation

The practice, based on a Buddhist meditative technique, "empowers" patients to deal with an illness that is difficult to treat," said study coauthor Olafur Palsson, PsyD, clinical psychologist and health researcher in the gastroenterology department at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

"It's not easy to treat IBS, even with the best standard medical approaches," said Dr. Palsson. "It's chronic and, over time, it's hard to treat because it is complicated.

Mindfulness meditation helps practitioners relax by focusing on the moment, paying attention to breathing, the body and thoughts as they occur, without judgment.

"It's a different way of using the mind and being aware," said Dr. Palsson. He noted that mindfulness meditation is inexpensive and widely available. More than 200 hospitals around the country offer the mindfulness meditation training program.

The technique takes discipline to learn, but "becomes second nature after a while," said Dr. Palsson, adding, this is not a clinical treatment, it's more educational."

Study Details

For the study, 75 women between the ages of 19 and 71, with an average age of nearly 43 years, were randomly divided into two groups. One group participated in a mindfulness meditation training session and the other in a traditional support group, both for eight weeks.

Ahead of time, the groups rated the treatments' potential benefit, or "credibility," about the same, the study said.

But at the end of eight weeks, the meditation group had a 26.4% reduction in overall severity of symptoms" compared with a 6.2% reduction in the support group. By the end of three months, the disparity persisted as improvement increased to a 38.2% reduction in symptoms for the meditation group versus an 11.8% reduction for the therapy group, the study found.

The findings were presented at a Digestive Disease Week meeting in Chicago. Because the number of participants in the new study was small, the findings need to be confirmed in larger studies.

Expert Reaction

"It's a small sample, but I'm impressed. It's not so easy to do this with treatments that are not well-defined," said Albena Halpert, MD, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. "There have been other studies that looked at psychological treatment options, but this is the first looking at mindfulness, and the results are robust."

Dr. Halpert said she was surprised that both groups rated the potential benefit of the treatment option they were to receive equally.

"You can call it the placebo effect or whatever you want, but you have to believe in a treatment for it to work," said Dr. Halpert. "It's interesting that people would think it (mindfulness training) would have the same benefit as a support group."

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