A few years back I was diagnosed with IBS and began a strict regimen of medication prescribed by my doctor, which hasn’t made much of a difference. A co-worker of mine suggested massage in addition to my already strict diet. How would that help with IBS? – Soon-Ji
Great question, and one that is often asked when alternative practices are suggested for digestive ailments. How does something outside of the body aid in healing inside the body?
First, let’s take a look at the causes and physiology of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. IBS is a multifaceted gastrointestinal disorder characterized by abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and changing bowel habits. It’s considered to be a chronic condition, and is also known as “colitis” or “spastic colon.” Symptoms can suddenly appear and then disappear, only to come back when triggered by foods, gastrointestinal inflammation, anxiety or stress.
Fortunately, despite the symptoms and discomfort, the GI tract isn’t damaged by IBS, and people can recover from this disorder through medication (if severe), changes in nutrition and lifestyle, or stress-relieving practices like massage, meditation, yoga, or acupuncture.
The hypotheses of what causes IBS include infection, inflammation, food sensitivities or allergies, medications, and environmental factors like depression, anxiety, and stress. However, the most recent studies find that the relationship between our microbiome (GI tract and digestive systems) and our central nervous system plays a significant role.
While stress isn’t a cause of IBS, studies show that it aggravates the condition. The symptoms of IBS seem to be worse, become more severe, or more frequent when people experience negative emotions, anxiety or certain levels of sadness or depression.
Signals from the microbiome communicate with the brain to make changes in the timing of secretions, secretion amounts, and overall immune function. When we have healthy food intake, digestion, and bowel movements, the communication between the brain and the microbiome are balanced. But when stressors are introduced – nutritional, mental, physical or spiritual – our bodies become unbalanced, and this is when the symptoms of IBS become demonstrative.
One of the contributing secretions that regulates our stress levels is serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter found in our digestive tract, blood platelets, central nervous system, and deep in the center of our brains in the pineal gland. Our microbiome hosts 80 percent of the bodies’ serotonin while the rest is synthesized in the central nervous system. This neurotransmitter is an inhibitor and regulates our appetites, memory, temperature, muscle contractions, bone metabolism, cardiovascular function, and endocrine regulation. Serotonin also influences sleep regulation and behavior, and because it contributes to feelings of well-being, it also influences our mood – feelings of happiness or depression. Serotonin changes how fast food moves through our GI tract and impacts the consistency and timing of our bowel movements. It also affects how much fluid, like mucus, is secreted to aid in digestion, and influences how sensitive our intestines are by making us feel full or experience abdominal pain.
Bio-individuality, the differences in our bodies and how they responds to internal and external influences, plays a role in the intensity of IBS symptoms. There are 14 different receptors found in both the large and small intestines that react to serotonin. The intensity of these receptors depend on our bio-individuality. This is why it is difficult to diagnose IBS and find a common medication or wellness program that helps heal a wide range of people.
To recap, IBS is a GI tract disorder that is impacted by diet, lifestyle, stress and our levels of serotonin secretion. Serotonin influences our mood along with regulating the functionality of many of our body systems. One of the reasons some medical professionals encourage alternative wellness therapy, like massage, is that this practice decreases stress and anxiety, and promotes the functionality of our immune system. The physical effects of massage on IBS patients in various studies over the past two decades have shown that massage movements provide pressure that can relax abdominal muscles and stimulate the colon. Other effects include the relief and decrease of stress, anxiety, fear, and general muscle tension related with those emotions in the abdomen.
Consider speaking with a massage therapist who specializes in IBS and gut health. Collective studies in the mid-1990s from the International Journal of Neuroscience, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and the American Institute of Stress have reported that regular weekly massages decrease daily stress by 40 percent, increase the experience of life-satisfaction, and positively stimulate the nervous, limbic, and digestive systems.
Plus, massage just feels darn right good! So why not try it out for a few months and see for yourself if it makes a difference with your IBS symptoms? You have nothing to lose but a few hours’ time lying down, feeling relaxed.
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