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Meditation for Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease

For people with inflammatory bowel disease—ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease—keeping symptoms at bay is essential to living a high quality of life. IBD relapses happen with acute episodes of intestinal inflammation.

While IBD flare-ups can be unpredictable, many people have linked their stress levels with symptom relapses. Medical evidence also supports this connection between life stressors and flare-ups in people with IBD. 

Stress-management has, therefore, become an increasingly valuable natural remedy for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

IBD affects every person differently. People with IBD should develop a stress-management toolkit and include techniques that are most effective for them. While there’s no shortage of proven stress-reduction practices, meditation is one approach that may be useful for people with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis because of its benefits for both emotional and physical well-being.

IBD and Stress Management

Though stress is no longer considered a direct cause of inflammatory bowel disease as it once was, it’s still seen as having a correlation to IBD symptoms. Stress is a physiological response involving the central nervous system. While short-term stress poses no real health risk and is a biological survival tool, chronic stress, as experienced by many people today, is involved in up to 90% of diseases

Researchers have looked into the relationship between stress and disease. They’ve discovered that a chronic state of stress weakens the body’s sensitivity to inflammation responses, making inflammation more widespread and long-lasting in chronically stressed people. Over time, high levels of inflammation lead to various diseases. 

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are inflammatory conditions affecting the intestinal tract. The more stressed a person is, the more susceptible they are to inflammation & IBD relapses.

Doctors have also discovered a “brain-gut axis,” which is the connection between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system.

Because of the gut-brain axis, whenever the central nervous system moves from its parasympathetic state (rest-and-digest) to its sympathetic state (fight-or-flight), the intestinal tract experiences a stress response as well. In people with IBD, this stress response may be enough to cause a relapse—particularly if the person is also managing a mood disorder, such as generalized anxiety or depression.

The Gastrointestinal Stress Cycle

Unfortunately, stress response and IBD relapse is a vicious circle—stress increases the risk of flare-ups, and flare-ups increase stress levels. This “gastrointestinal stress cycle” is an important concept for all IBD patients to understand so that they can better predict relapse episodes and manage symptoms accordingly. 

According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, IBD patients with high levels of stress and anxiety are at a higher risk of:

  • Needing surgery
  • Not following medication protocols
  • Lower quality of life
  • Higher perceived stress levels and inability to cope with stress

Managing the GI stress cycle is critical for ensuring the physical and emotional well-being of patients with IBD. People who are particularly susceptible to stress can adopt stress-monitoring and -reducing techniques to improve their health and feel better day-to-day.

Benefits of Meditation for Stress Reduction and More

People with IBD looking for ways to manage their stress and prevent relapse, or manage relapse symptoms more effectively, might consider meditation for stress-relief. 

Meditation is an ancient practice often involving mental focus to improve self-awareness in your psychological, emotional and physical states. While there are many different approaches to meditation, the most common form is to sit in silence and bring your attention to a single point of focus—the breath, a mantra or bodily sensations. During meditation, you shift your awareness away from your racing thoughts and into the present moment. 

Over time, meditation may improve your ability to cope with anxiety, pain and many other emotional and physical effects. 

Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR) is a structured eight-week meditation model designed to increase your awareness of your reactions. As you become better at noticing your stress responses, you can learn to take control of your reactions, which allows your stress levels to subside. 

Lots of research has examined the benefits of MBSR and other mindfulness practices, and how these techniques can help—particularly with stress, inflammation and pain. Below are some of the ways that meditation may be a natural remedy for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Decreases Stress Hormones

Meditation is strongly considered to be an effective stress-management tool, making it a potentially useful holistic therapy for people with IBD. During meditation, your mind is focused singularly on the present moment, the goal of which is to take your nervous system out of a stress response and into a relaxation response. 

Unless consciously keeping yourself in rest-and-digest mode, you may remain in a low-grade fight-or-flight state. When your central nervous system is in its sympathetic state, your body releases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline raises your heart rate, blood pressure and mental alertness. Cortisol increases your blood sugar and shuts down non-essential functions like the digestive system and parts of the immune system.

By consciously taking yourself out of the stress-response state and into a more relaxed state, your body will stop releasing these stress hormones and return to a state of homeostasis—the natural balance between stress and relaxation. 

Once your stress hormone levels drop, you experience:

  • Reduced heart rate
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Slower breathing
  • Dilated blood vessels
  • Relaxed muscle tension

Studies have found that meditation effectively reduces stress hormones and other stress-response symptoms. One study found a significant reduction in cortisol levels in medical students after practicing mindfulness meditation. Other studies have found similar results.

For people with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, keeping stress levels down is critical—especially in those who are particularly susceptible to stress-related relapse. If you have IBD, consider taking up a meditation practice to improve your ability to move from stress-response to relaxation-response and keep your stress hormone levels down.

Reduce Inflammation

Given the connection between stress and inflammation, it stands to reason that if meditation reduces a person’s stress response, it might also reduce their inflammation. One study from 2013 looked into whether this hypothesis is valid.

Researchers from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a comparison study between two groups of participants. One group underwent an eight-week MBSR intervention while the comparison group underwent a Health Enhancement Program (HEP), which consisted of nutritional education, physical activity, strength training and music therapy.

The researchers used tests to induce stress and inflammation in participants of both groups. They measured the groups’ stress and inflammation levels before and after the respective interventions. Both the MBSR and HEP groups had a comparable reduction in stress, which was measured in cortisol levels and self-reported stress. However, the MBSR group had significantly lower inflammation levels post-stress than the HEP group.

The findings suggest that MBSR and other interventions aimed at reducing emotional reactivity in patients can act as an anti-inflammation therapies. 

For people with IBD, a regular meditation practice may help them to physiologically rebound from the inflammatory effects of stress. Practicing meditation during remission may help prevent a flare-up, and practicing meditation during relapse may help get inflammation under control.

Alleviate Chronic Pain

Meditation is typically seen as a mental or emotional practice—not necessarily a technique that will lead to physical health outcomes. However, evidence suggests that regular meditation can help people improve their perception of pain and even increase their pain tolerance levels

The potential relationship between meditation and reduced physical pain means that for people experiencing chronic pain, such as those with IBD, meditation may not necessarily heal the underlying source of physical pain. However, it may help them cope with existing pain, effectively increasing their quality of life. 

During meditation, the aim is to bring awareness to the self—both the body and mind. In practicing greater self-awareness, people can develop a deeper understanding of how their pain affects them. 

It seems counter-intuitive, but by bringing your attention to your pain rather than trying to escape it, your mind and body eventually become less sensitive to pain, and you can reduce your suffering. 

This paradox is another reason why people with IBD may benefit from a meditation practice, especially when in the throes of a relapse.

Improve Mood

The benefits of meditation for reduced pain sensation also suggest a link between meditation and improved mood in people with chronic conditions and inflammatory diseases. Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders commonly co-occur in people with chronic pain and inflammatory diseases. 

One study looked at a population of IBD patients and assessed them for rates of depression and anxiety. Of the 327 patients reviewed, 25.8% had depression, 21.2% had anxiety and 30.3% had depression and/or anxiety. The researchers also found that patients experiencing an active disease state were significantly more likely to have depression or anxiety. The findings also showed that women were more likely to suffer anxiety.

Finding ways to improve mood is critical in patients with IBD who are much more likely to suffer from mood disorders than the general population. 

Several studies over the years have looked into the benefits of meditation for stress and anxiety and improving mood. A common finding among these studies is that meditation practices improve multiple quality of factors, including mood, by alleviating depression and anxiety symptoms. 

Researchers are still looking into the exact explanation for meditation’s effect on mood. One explanation is that meditation alters brain activity. Because meditation is a cognitive intervention technique, it can interrupt connections in the brain that cause anxious and depressed feelings, helping to improve overall mood.

Healing IBD With Meditation for Stress-Relief

People with IBD need effective stress-management techniques and holistic therapeutic interventions that help improve quality of life and prevent and manage relapse. Meditation has shown to help reduce stress hormones, decrease inflammation, alleviate chronic pain and improve mood. 

Researchers have investigated the potential benefits of a meditation practice in people with IBD. 

The studies below demonstrate that meditation affects measurable improvements in both physiological and psychological symptoms in people with IBD.

Researchers Find Mind-Body Intervention Improves Stress and Inflammation Levels

A 2015 joint-study between the Jill Roberts IBD Center and researchers at the New York Medical College, Columbia University and Weill Cornell Medical College tested the effectiveness of the Breath-Body-Mind Workshop (BBMW)—breathing, movement and meditation—on 29 patients with IBD. The researchers were specifically interested in the effect that BBMW would have on the patients’ psychological and physical symptoms and inflammation levels.

Of the 29 participants, one group underwent BBMW training while the other group underwent an educational seminar. Using various tests, the researchers measured factors like stress, anxiety and depression levels, as well as self-reported symptoms and C-reactive protein levels—an inflammation biomarker. 

At the 6-week mark, the BBMW group significantly improved their results, both in psychological symptoms (stress, anxiety and depression) and self-reported physical symptoms compared to the seminar group. At the 26-week mark, the BBMW group showed a significant decrease in C-reactive protein levels compared to the seminar group, which saw no significant change at all. 

The study results suggest that mind-body interventions, like meditation and breathwork, can potentially help IBD patients with a host of psychological symptoms, as well as make measurable improvements in physical symptoms—especially inflammation activity.

Pilot Study Finds Meditation May Affect Genes Associated With Inflammation

A 2015 pilot study from researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital examined the effect of meditation in patients with IBD and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Participants—19 with IBS and 29 with IBD—underwent a nine-week relaxation response training, and researchers assessed participants’ symptoms and inflammation markers before and after the training.

The results showed that patients had sustained significant improvements in their symptoms, stress levels and overall quality of life three weeks after the training. They found no significant changes in the patients’ inflammation levels. However, in the IBD patients, they did observe changes in over 1,000 different gene expressions—many of which are known to contribute to stress response and inflammation.

The results showed that the relaxation response training did reduce the expression of several genes that directly affect the inflammatory responses in IBD patients. In other words, the relaxation response training changed the way the patients’ bodies trigger IBD inflammation.

Study Finds Improved Quality of Life After Meditation

A 2016 Australian study looked into whether meditation might be more effective than conventional treatment at improving the overall quality of life of IBD patients. In the study, 60 IBD patients were divided into two groups, with one group undergoing an eight-week MBSR intervention, and the other group receiving treatment-as-usual. 

The researchers compared the participants in both groups by measuring their levels of mindfulness, quality of life and anxiety and depression. Researchers measured these results in participants before intervention, immediately after intervention and then again six months post-intervention. 

The results showed that patients who underwent the meditation intervention had significantly better results in all areas compared to the treatment-as-usual group. Additionally, at the six-month mark, the meditators also had sustained their mood, quality of life and mindfulness scores better than the non-meditator group.

Other Stress-Reduction Tools for IBD

Controlling stress is a critical component of disease-management and improving quality of life in people with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Besides meditation, there are plenty of other stress-reduction techniques that people with IBD can implement into their daily lives. 

Here are some ways to control stress for people with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis:

  • Exercise regularly: Physical activity is a proven way to boost your mood, improve sleep quality and reduce tension. Exercise releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. Walking and yoga are among some of the most recommended forms of exercise for reducing stress in people with IBD.
  • Pursue hobbies: Having a project or hobby can help you take your mind off of stressful events. Developing your own interests and making time for them can help boost your self-esteem and give you a sense of satisfaction and purpose. To manage stress and tension, take time each day or week to do what you enjoy.
  • Spend time outdoors: Being in nature is a natural stress-reliever that helps reduce feelings of anxiety and depression in people with IBD. Getting outside on a regular basis can help boost your mood and make you feel happier and more capable of coping with daily stressors.

Natural Healing for Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are inflammatory bowel diseases that require ongoing management and lifestyle interventions to prevent and control flare-ups. Many patients with IBD experience relapses that can be linked to stress responses that trigger inflammation. 

Keeping stress levels down is a crucial natural remedy for IBD.

Meditation may help people with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis cope with their condition and improve their overall quality of life. A regular meditation practice has been shown to reduce stress levels, lower inflammation, alleviate chronic pain and improve mood. Though meditation has tremendous benefits for many people, the practice alone isn’t enough to create lasting changes to your health. 

Natural healing of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis requires a holistic approach. By combining meditation and other stress-reduction techniques with nutritional therapies and lifestyle changes, you can address all aspects of your life that are currently affecting your health. With an integrative healing plan, you’ll not only experience fewer IBD symptoms, but you’ll achieve sustained well-being and vitality.

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