Alternative Therapies for IBS (cont.)

Acupuncture probably doesn't fix diarrhea or constipation, but it may help with discomfort caused by gas. "If the patient has more of the pain-bloat IBS, they might respond better to acupuncture because that would mediate the pain," Frissora says.

"IBS is not caused by stress, but many people say it aggravates their symptoms."

If IBS pain is caused by a special sensitivity of the enteric nervous system -- the nerves that wire the brain to the gut -- acupuncture could perhaps alter the signals the brain reads as painful sensations.

"I think that a lot of the success of acupuncture depends upon who's doing it and how much experience they have with IBS," she says. She recommends checking with your insurance company to find out if there is an acupuncturist on the plan.

Fiber Supplements

In a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, Schoenfeld looked at the studies done to date on several natural fiber supplements, or stool "bulking agents," used in treating IBS. These included:

  • Wheat bran
  • Corn fiber
  • Calcium polycarbophil (brand name Fibercon)
  • Psyllium

In general, the studies showed that fiber supplements helped with constipation. They were not, however, much better for other IBS symptoms compared with a placebo.

The Mind-Gut Connection

IBS is not caused by stress, but many people say it aggravates their symptoms. Exercise is one of the best ways to relieve stress.

Alternative practices such as yoga and tai chi are known to help people cope with stress, but they haven't been studied as way of managing IBS. Nevertheless, Frissora says they can't hurt. "I think that any exercise is good for IBS," she says. "I tell patients, I don't care what kind of exercise you want to do." Walking, running, and swimming are good, too.

What's more, Schoenfeld says, "If you exercise regularly, the frequency of your bowel movements will increase. If you can get people with irritable bowel syndrome to have a more regular pattern of moving their bowels, that usually provides some relief for their IBS symptoms."

Behavioral therapy is sometimes considered for people with IBS, although the syndrome isn't merely a product of one's mind. A number of studies have shown that many kinds of behavioral therapy can help IBS symptoms, including:

  • Relaxation therapy
  • Hypnosis therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Psychotherapy

The studies that Schoenfeld reviewed for the American Journal of Gastroenterology showed that these things worked, but he could not say for certain that they are proven beyond any doubt because of problems with how the various studies were done.

Frissora says she thinks hypnotherapy is best suited to people whose IBS is worsened in anxiety-inducing situations such as public speaking or flying on a plane. She says she thinks psychotherapy is most helpful for people who feel that their IBS symptoms are related to an emotional trauma.

Published March 29, 2004.

SOURCES: Philip Schoenfeld, MD, assistant professor, University of Michigan School of Medicine; spokesman, American College of Gastroenterology. Christine Frissora, MD, assistant professor, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York. American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2002.Comprehensive Therapy, 2002. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse web site. National Library of Medicine web site.

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