Gut-directed hypnotherapy is quickly becoming one of the most promising new techniques for managing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but what exactly is it? And how can our minds change what happens in our gut?
You might already be familiar with the idea of hypnotherapy — a form of deep relaxation that allows the mind to become open to suggestions or prompts. This technique is being used more and more in a therapeutic setting to treat all kinds of health conditions and it’s having great success. In fact, studies show that over 70% of IBS patients may significantly benefit from gut-directed hypnotherapy.
Gut-directed hypnotherapy & the gut-brain connection
To understand how gut-directed hypnotherapy works, you first need to understand how the gut and the brain are connected.
The ‘gut-brain axis’ is a two-way connection between your brain (the central nervous system) and bowels (enteric nervous system). They communicate back and forth along a superhighway of nerve fibres called the vagus nerve.
They also communicate along the HPA-axis, which manages our stress responses.
It’s the chemical communications that run along these messaging services that can make your stomach feel nauseous when you’re worried or have butterflies when you’re excited.
It’s thought that people who have IBS experience a malfunction in this ‘gut-brain link’. This means that the wrong messages are being sent, or that the right messages are being sent but are being misinterpreted as bad, when they are, in fact, normal. When such a miscommunication happens, that’s when you may experience gut pain, constipation or diarrhea.
With all this communication, or miscommunication going on, many people with IBS want to regain control over the flow of communication between their brains and bowels — and that’s where gut-directed hypnotherapy comes in.
How does gut-directed hypnotherapy work?
Hypnotherapy is about training those areas of the brain we don’t normally have conscious control over, like your gut-brain connection. While we don’t fully understand how gut-directed hypnotherapy works, According to Monash University researchers, it’s believed that by entering a deeply relaxed and focused state, your brain becomes open to suggestions on how to better communicate with your gut to improve symptoms. It’s like giving your body and brain some rest and relaxation time to put their misunderstandings aside and recalibrate.
Hypnotherapy can also help to regulate the HPA-axis and relieve stress, which is one of the major triggers of IBS. Often people with IBS may worry about having a flare-up, or are anxious about the symptoms of a flare-up. This stress in itself can make symptoms worse. In this situation, a deeply relaxing hypnotherapy session can act as a circuit breaker.
What’s a gut-directed hypnotherapy session like?
A gut-directed hypnotherapy session can last anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes and can be done in-person with a therapist, or in your own home through an app such as Nerva, with audio recordings from a gut-directed hypnotherapist. It’s worth noting that longer sessions doesn’t necessarily mean additional benefits— in fact, a 2016 study that used 15-minute sessions showed that gut-directed hypnotherapy could be as effective as a low FODMAP diet.
Whichever method you choose, you can usually expect three key stages to a typical gut-directed hypnotherapy session.
The first stage is called hypnotic induction. This is the deep relaxation phase. During this stage, you’ll be guided through relaxation exercises and gently be induced into a focused state of relaxed and absorbed attention. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class or guided meditation the relaxation exercises might be familiar to you; you might be asked to close your eyes and then relax your face, arms, stomach and back, or to focus on your breathing. This induction may be repeated, almost exactly the same, in every hypnotherapy session. This is to help you practice achieving a state of focused relaxation faster and more effectively over time.
Once you have completed the exercise you should find that your body feels calm and you are able to ignore outside distractions while focussing on the voice of your therapist.
In the second stage of the session, your therapist may begin a visualization exercise to help your mind focus on what’s happening in your gut. Types of imaginative imagery used in gut-directed hypnotherapy visualizations could include:
- Envisioning the smooth muscles of your digestive tract as a series of lubricated passages in which food material passes through easily and according to your needs.
- Imagining your gut as a free-flowing river. You can control the flow according to your needs.
- Visualising relaxing environments, such as being on the beach or in a beautiful forest.
The final stage of a gut-directed hypnotherapy session usually focuses on introducing helpful suggestions into the relaxed mind. ‘Suggestions’ are simple statements that the hypnotherapist delivers into your unconscious, where they can be more readily absorbed and worked upon.
A suggestion during a hypnotherapy session for IBS could include statements such as:
- You will remain free of any symptoms of reflux, nausea, abdominal pain, discomfort, bloating or wind.
- You will be able to open your bowels freely with a sense of complete evacuation.
- You’re continuing to get better hour by hour, day by day, week by week and month by month.
Listening to suggestions during a hypnotherapy session is different to hearing them in your normal daily life.
For example, if you were to be given a helpful suggestion, such as “Your gut will feel comfortable and relaxed”, in your normal waking state, your conscious mind might fight against it, saying “but I can’t feel better!” or “I will always be in pain!”
In effect, the relaxed and absorbed state of concentration you enter during gut-directed hypnotherapy helps suggestions sink in, so that your mind and body can work together to fix miscommunications that trigger symptoms.
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How long does gut-directed hypnotherapy take to work?
Studies show that around 70% of people reduced their gut-related symptoms after six weeks of gut-directed hypnotherapy. However, it’s important to remember that there is no cure for irritable bowel syndrome, and that while gut-directed hypnotherapy has been shown to help many people manage their symptoms, it’s not a cure either.
To get the best out of gut-directed hypnotherapy, you may want to try some initial sessions (usually done over several weeks or months) then maintain your results through less frequent, on-going sessions to address or prevent future flare-ups.
Who can use gut-directed hypnotherapy?
Almost anyone experiencing IBS symptoms may try gut-directed hypnotherapy, also known as gut-targeted hypnotherapy or hypnotherapy for IBS. While it is generally understood to be an exceptionally safe practice, hypnotherapy may not be appropriate for people with psychotic symptoms, such as delusions or hallucinations. It is important to speak to your doctor to find out if gut-directed hypnotherapy is right for you.
Around four out of five people will see benefits from gut-directed hypnotherapy. Researchers are unsure why hypnotherapy for IBS works for some people, but not for others. However, if you want to give it a try, it is at least more likely than not that you will see some results.
Can anyone be hypnotized?
Moving to a hypnotic state happens more commonly than you might realize. Have you ever found yourself daydreaming, or becoming so absorbed in a book or movie that you don’t notice the world around you? Hypnosis is a similar state of mind. While responsiveness to hypnotism may vary, most of us drift in and out of this state at various times without even realising it.
In one study, around 10% to 15% of participants were found to be highly hypnotizable. Another 15% to 20% fell into the low hypnotizability range. Interestingly, most people fell into the middle ground, an area that is important for clinical efficacy. The good news is that you do not have to be highly hypnotizable to see the benefits from GDH. The repetition in the sessions is designed to give people a chance to learn and improve at entering this state of focused relaxation.
The scientific evidence behind gut-directed hypnotherapy
If you’d like to dive into the numbers (and we strongly suggest you do!) there are a number of interesting studies that show how effective hypnotherapy for IBS can be.
Gut-directed hypnotherapy has been studied for years. The first was in 1984 and there have been over ten clinical trials run since. It is also part of the 2021 American College of Gastroenterology recommended treatments for IBS.
One study showed that the benefits of hypnotherapy are as effective as the low FODMAP diet, an elimination diet with a strong track record of reducing IBS symptoms.
Another study from 2018 showed that six sessions of individual or group hypnotherapy improved symptoms in 50% of participants, compared to 23% in the control group. Here, the control group only received education about IBS.
Follow up studies have shown that the benefits of gut-directed hypnotherapy are maintained for up to five years. This doesn’t mean symptoms will reappear after five years — only that the study followed up with the patients for this period. Sometimes, people relapse but then improve after returning to hypnotherapy sessions.
Other psychological therapies for IBS
Besides gut-directed hypnotherapy, there are several other therapies for IBS that are thought to work by acting on the gut-brain axis. The most common psychological treatments for IBS include:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): is psychotherapy that may assist you to improve your thoughts and behaviours to think more positively. CBT involves understanding the connection between thoughts, feelings and actions. Several studies have shown that CBT is effective in reducing symptoms of IBS as it helps restore more healthy coping strategies and some normalcy in symptom awareness.
- Yoga: is an ancient practice that involves breathing and postural exercises. Yoga has been shown to improve symptoms of IBS by restoring signals between the brain and the gut, and lowering stress.
- Mindfulness meditation: involves focusing on the present moment and limiting emotional reactions to judgements. Research shows that mindfulness meditation is effective in reducing stress and symptoms of IBS.
Where to next?
If you’d like to explore gut-directed hypnotherapy then it’s important to find a suitably qualified therapist with a healthcare background such as a counsellor, psychologist or doctor. Hypnotherapy isn’t regulated everywhere so it’s important you find a provider with the right skills and qualifications. Many states, counties and even countries have hypnotherapy boards and associations — this is a great place to start.
You may also want to consider an at-home digital therapeutic option, such as Nerva, which is designed by world-leading researchers.
If you’d like to find out if gut-directed hypnotherapy could be right for you, head to our online assessment tool to learn more about hypnotherapy and try seven days for free.
The Wrap Up
Gut-directed hypnotherapy is a common treatment option for IBS. Like every approach to IBS management and treatment, there’s no guarantee that this specific approach will work for every person. That said, hypnotherapy has been shown to work for around 4 in 5 people, so it may be an excellent choice for an integrated management plan. Be sure to speak to your doctor before adding something new, such as gut-directed hypnotherapy, to your healthcare routine.