Mind Body Therapies
Mind-body medicine is an exciting field in which the pace of scientific discovery is happening rapidly. Large populations around the world have come to embrace the practice of meditation and yoga, and this has led to an increased focus on scientifically examining and explaining the perceived benefits of these therapies.
As science begins to better understand how our thoughts and attitudes impact our physical wellbeing, a whole new assortment of potential therapies may open up to individuals battling chronic disease. While there is reason to be optimistic about the new treatments that could arise from this research, we must remember that mind-body medicine is still evolving, and carefully designed studies are needed to show just how effective these tools may ultimately be.
Today, talented researchers around the world are working to test the efficacy of mind-body medicine. Designing tests that accurately capture the benefits of these therapies can be challenging. For example, mind-body therapies are often applied in conjunction with standard conventional treatments, making it difficult for researchers to isolate the effect a particular mind-body therapy had on a patient. Also, the positive benefits of mind-body therapies can be subtle, and therefore difficult to measure using conventional research techniques.
Fortunately, researchers have already found ways to validate many of the important benefits of mind-body medicine. Considerable scientific research already exists to support the use of mind-body therapies to reduce stress, reduce anxiety, improve mood, and even alleviate the physical symptoms of some diseases.
Reflecting on this body of research, John Astin of the California Pacific Medical Center writes that “there is now considerable evidence that an array of mind-body therapies can be used as effective adjuncts to conventional medical treatment for a number of common clinical conditions.” Psychiatrist James Lake from Stanford University recently commented that “extensive research has confirmed the medical and mental health benefits of meditation, mindfulness training, yoga, and other mind-body practices.”
These two researchers based their comments on studies that demonstrated mind-body therapies help individuals suffering from coronary artery disease, headaches, insomnia, incontinence, postsurgical outcomes, chronic pain, treatment-related symptoms of cancer, and hypertension.[1,4,5,6,7,8,9] Given the encouraging outcomes of these recent studies, there is a strong need for more research that specifically isolates the effects of these treatments on Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
The most relevant research to date for those of us living with IBD involves the ability of mind-body therapies to reduce stress. High levels of stress and their associated mood disorders are believed to adversely affect the physical and psychological symptoms of individuals living with IBD. Additionally, numerous well-designed studies have suggested that psychological stress, adverse life events, or depression may worsen IBD disease activity.[11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18]
To prevent the harmful effects stress can have on IBD patients, mind-body therapies can be used to improve one’s mood and sense of wellbeing. Studies have demonstrated the mind-body therapies such as meditation, yoga, guided imagery, and relaxation techniques significantly reduce levels of stress in the body.[19,20,21,22,23,24,25]
There are three primary ways these therapies achieve a reduction of stress and anxiety: (1) by triggering the body’s relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system engages, lowers heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and eases muscle tension), (2) by encouraging positive thinking, and (3) intentionally utilizing the placebo effect (research has shown that when people believe they are going to get better physically, they oftentimes do).
Researchers have not devoted significant time to examining whether mind-body therapies directly impact IBD. In 2005, a small study published in Psychotherapy & Psychosomatic reported that mind-body therapies significantly improved the quality of life of IBD patients currently in remission. Additionally, the study suggested some improvement in physiological symptoms, although these findings were less conclusive. This particular study was designed using a patient enrollment of about thirty people living with ulcerative colitis, which makes it hard to generalize across the broader IBD population. A few studies have suggested that mindfulness meditation improves the quality of life of individuals living with IBD.
Our organization feels that there is substantial research supporting the safety and efficacy of mind-body therapies as tools to reduce stress and improve quality of life. Therefore, we recommend patients discuss these approaches with their doctor, to decide if it might be worth trying as part of a comprehensive treatment program for IBD.
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