Can simply changing your thoughts relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome? New research is showing that using mind-body techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)-a type of psychotherapy-and hypnosis are having a positive effect in reducing the cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea and/or constipation associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).  That's good news for the more than 25 million people-mostly women-in the U.S. affected by IBS, especially since there is currently no cure for the disorder. In addition, over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs have not proven to be very effective countering symptoms in the long-term.

Although there are no known causes of IBS, the problem is referred to as a "functional" disorder. The reason: while the muscles and nerves in the bowel of IBS sufferers appear to be extra sensitive (causing muscles to contract too much after eating or the nerves to overreact when the bowel stretches, resulting in cramping or pain) there is no physical explanation for the problem. And, while emotional stress does not cause IBS either, it can worsen the symptoms. So, reducing or better managing stress through CBT or hypnosis techniques, say experts, can help alleviate IBS symptoms by teaching patients relaxation skills and helping them identify and change overly negative thoughts.

In a National Institutes of Health-funded trial of 75 IBS patients who were randomly assigned to one of three groups, nearly three-quarters of the volunteers who learned CBT skills by using a self-help manual and supplemented by four sessions with a therapist, reported significant improvement in their quality of life and symptoms. Sixty-one percent found similar improvement after receiving ten sessions with a therapist but without the manual and just seven percent of the control group, which received no treatment, said they experienced significant relief.

Based on these study results, the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases is funding an $8.5 million, seven-year, multi-center clinical trial of a similar program of primarily at-home, self-administered cognitive behavioral therapy. The study hopes to prove that such a program is not just as effective as standard in-office medical treatment, but is more effective over time.

If you suffer from IBS, ask your doctor if cognitive behavioral therapy and self-hypnosis could work for you. In addition to relieving stress in your life to reduce symptoms, making some lifestyle changes like eliminating fatty foods from your diet, eating smaller meals, and exercising can also help.