Our guts are complex systems which are intertwined with essential functions inside our bodies. Did you know that the gut is often referred to as the “second brain”? This is due to the complexities and scientific connection between our brains and mental well-being. With this said, treating digestive diseases is anything but simple. It usually requires more than the use of medications and nutrition therapies. When treating digestive diseases like Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), it is essential to evaluate the whole individual through an integrative approach for sustainable healing. Alternative therapies for relief of stressors and mental health challenges associated with IBD can sometimes have as much of an impact as traditional treatments.
Understanding Inflammatory Bowel Disease
As described in previous posts, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a chronic relapsing condition characterized by inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Its cause is unknown, making it difficult to treat and manage. While IBD is sometimes referred to as an invisible disease, according to the latest research, an estimated 1.3% of U.S. adults (approximately 3 million) had IBD in 2015. In 2017, there were an estimated 6-8 million cases worldwide. This is likely an underrepresentation since many cases go undiagnosed.
What are some possible causes of IBD?
- Dysbiosis or an imbalanced gut that contains more harmful intestinal microbes than good.
- Poor immune response to the bacteria that enters the lamina propria (connective tissue) through the changes in the epithelium.
- Genetic variations in the pathways that maintain intestinal inflammation.
The mental health connection to Inflammatory Bowel Disease
The brain and gut are closely connected and communicate through a bi-directional pathway, often called the “brain-gut axis”. As mentioned, the gut hosts the second largest number of nerve connections outside of the brain. This is also why it’s referred to as a “second brain.”
Chronic illness and autoimmune disorders are challenging to manage and can leave patients feeling lost and missing answers. In the case of IBD and other GI diseases, patients may feel insecure in their everyday lives and fearful of finding a needed restroom or losing control in public. This continual worrying and stress can worsen symptoms and cause flare ups. This is the reason integrative approaches that teach patients how to manage their symptoms and stress can be extremely beneficial.
How to treat IBD with integrative medicine
Integrative medicine focuses on curing the whole person, including mind, body, and spirit. Within integrative medicine, alternative treatment methods that are more lifestyle based are often used in tandem with traditional medication. This approach can be extremely beneficial. Traditional western medicine approaches primarily focus on treating diseases when they occur. In contrast, integrative medicine looks for the root causes of conditions and aims to prevent poor health using lifestyle practices and alternative treatments.
Integrative medicine is oriented around healing. It involves a collaboration between the patient and healthcare provider, treatment is customized by patient, and it promotes patient self-care. While there are some misconceptions and skepticism around this holistic approach, integrative medicine is evidence-based.
Integrative medicine treatments for IBD also aim to reduce the patient’s stress and tension in various ways and include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – The brain-gut connection is complex, so Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a common treatment for GI issues. CBT is a multi-step, one-on-one process that helps patients understand their condition, identify their behavior and thought patterns that could be worsening their symptoms, and find coping mechanisms to improve their quality of life.
- Yoga and Meditation – Both yoga and meditation are excellent tools for de-stressing and relaxing your mind (and therefore, your body).
- Acupuncture – Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine and dates back more than 3,000 years. It has actually been found to help with physical and psychological symptoms and causes of IBD. Acupuncture stimulates specific acupoints in the body and is demonstrated to relieve pain and symptoms of GI disorders. Past studies also show it improved disease activity index scores including weight loss, bleeding and stool consistency, decreased levels of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules (cytokines), and improved the normal function and the integrity of the intestinal lining.
- Nature Bathing – Being in nature is proven to improve health. In fact, a study of 20,000 people by The European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter, found that individuals that spend two hours a week in nature were more likely to report good mental and physical health.
- Exercise – There are so many benefits to staying active. It helps patients by releasing feel-good endorphins, aiding digestion, maintaining healthy weight, building muscle and many other positive outcomes.
- Pelvic Floor and Massage Therapy – These methods relieve tension that might be worsening symptoms. See if a pelvic floor physical therapist or massage therapist is in your area.
Complex conditions require complex treatments
When conditions are complex, they must be managed with complex treatments. There is no one-size-fits all solution for patients with chronic diseases. It is important for a patient to consider all treatment options and use trial and error to find the best combination of approaches. While alternative treatment options can be very effective, combining them with traditional medication is often important. Check with your doctor to understand any and all concerns. If you or a loved one are suffering from IBD and want to explore alternative treatment options, do your research and ask your doctor if they are right for you.