Gut FeelingsIf you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, yoga can help alleviate symptoms and keep stress in check. At one time or another, everyone has eaten something that "doesn't quite sit right." But for the more than 30 million adults in the United States who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)-two-thirds of whom are women-that awful feeling is an ongoing struggle.
IBS symptoms can include abdominal discomfort from diarrhea, constipation, and bloating or varying degrees of gas. Sometimes a particular food or an allergy triggers an episode, but generally no one factor can be blamed. IBS has often been dismissed as psychosomatic, but recently it has been redefined as "a disorder with variable symptoms having possible neurological, immunological, or psycho-emotional roots," says Gary Kraftsow, founder of American Viniyoga Institute and author of Yoga for Transformation (Penguin USA, 2002).
Without any known organic cause or cure for IBS, treatment primarily focuses on symptom relief. Medications like antidiarrheals, antispasmodics, or tricyclic antidepressants can be helpful when symptoms are overwhelming. Yet research has suggested that lifestyle modifications can also be an effective method of easing the pain. A Mayo Clinic study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology (February, 1998) showed that exercise, diet, and stress management reduced IBS symptoms. "The Mayo study shows people do better if they use active and positive coping strategies for pain," says Bruce Naliboff, Ph.D., a functional disorders and pain specialist at the UCLA Center for Integrative Medicine and West Los Angeles VA Health Care Center.
This is why many experts recommend regular stress reduction and 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 helpful in IBS sufferers, says Naliboff, and deep inhalations and exhalations may benefit those who breathe shallowly when stressed or swallow air while eating or talking, trapping air in the stomach.
IBS sufferers often battle bowel habits that are painful and unpredictable. During a flare-up, Kraftsow recommends concentrating on postures that provide a soothing effect. He suggests forward bends and simple abdominal twists like Jathara Parivrtti (a revolved twist) and Apanasana (a knee-to-chest pose), which may help soothe a hyperactive bowel or stimulate a sluggish one.
For constipation, you can stimulate digestion by working the abdomen more strongly in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) or PParivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose); just move into the postures with the belly held in after releasing an exhalation.
But yoga is just one component to fighting IBS. When symptoms recur, experts have found that IBS responds best to a care plan that incorporates anxiety relief, exercise, and a diet that eliminates aggravating foods and includes nutritional or herbal supplements, or as Kraftsow says, "treatment that respects the whole person."