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Irritable bowel syndrome and your second brain

Updated: Apr 11

Between 20% and 30% of UK citizens are thought to suffer from irritable bowel – and that’s just the ones who have plucked up the courage to ask for help. Because some of the symptoms overlap with more serious conditions, it’s always important to see your GP before self-medicating.

So, what is IBS and how is it diagnosed? Interestingly, there’s no specific test for IBS. GPs work on a set of criteria: people reporting experiencing abdominal pain at least once a week for three months, along with changes in bowel habit. IBS is often described as ‘C’ or ‘D’ – constipation- or diarrhoea-prevalent. Some people present with one or the other, while others suffer from both.

Along with physical discomfort, which can be surprisingly severe, IBS can have social and emotional implications – IBS sufferers often check the location of lavatories before attending events, some turn down invitations for fear they will be unwell and embarrassed. IBS can dominate your life.

A diagnosis of IBS often involves ruling everything else out; doctors normally focus on type of pain and bowel habit, and you may have simple blood, stool or imaging tests to look for abnormalities.

While discussing these things is never easy, most conditions are best found and treated early, and the thought is often worse than the test!

Having IBS confirmed gives you a variety of opportunities to find a solution. While there is sometimes no single remedy, several approaches can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

Dietary Changes:

  • Low FODMAP Diet: This is a structured approach that eliminates specific fermentable carbohydrates for a period, then gradually reintroduces them to identify triggers.

  • Increased Fibre Intake: Fibre helps regulate digestion. The focus is on sources of soluble fibre like oats, apples, and carrots.

  • Identifying Food Triggers: Some people find certain foods worsen their IBS. Keeping a food diary can help pinpoint these triggers.

Lifestyle Changes:

  • Stress Management: Stress can exacerbate IBS symptoms. Techniques like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing can be helpful.

  • Regular Exercise: Exercise can improve gut motility and reduce stress, both beneficial for IBS.

  • Adequate Sleep: Adequate sleep is crucial for overall health and can positively impact IBS management.


  • Antispasmodics: These medications relax muscles in the gut, potentially reducing cramping pain.

  • Antidiarrhoeals: For diarrhoea-predominant IBS, medications can slow down intestinal transit.

  • Laxatives: For constipation-predominant IBS, laxatives can help move transit along.

Other Therapies:

  • Probiotics: Supplements containing beneficial gut bacteria may offer some relief, and research is ongoing.

So what’s this second brain?

Your gut is called the "second brain" because of a vast network of nerves located within your digestive system called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is complex, with estimates suggesting it contains hundreds of millions of neurons, rivalling the number of neurons in your spinal cord.

Here's why the ENS is referred to as a "second brain":

  • Complexity: The ENS is independent to an extent, able to function on its own without direct control from your brain. It manages a number of digestive processes like controlling muscle contractions and regulating the release of enzymes.

  • Communication: The ENS communicates with your brain in both directions. It sends signals about digestion and gut health, while also receiving instructions from the brain to influence digestion. This two-way communication is called the gut-brain axis.

  • Influence on mood and well-being: The gut and brain are intricately linked. The gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria living in your gut, can influence the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, impacting mood and emotions. Conversely, people understand the impact that mood has on their digestion.

It's important to note that the ENS is completely different from the brain in your head! The ENS lacks the ability for rational thinking, but its role in digestion and its connection with wellbeing has earned it the nickname "second brain."

Hypnotherapy has emerged as a favourable approach for managing irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. Here's a closer look at how it works and its potential benefits:

Rewire Your Gut: How Hypnotherapy can Hack your Mind to Beat IBS

Hypnotherapy for IBS, also known as gut-directed hypnotherapy, uses hypnosis to target the gut-brain connection. During a hypnotherapy session, a trained hypnotherapist guides you into a state of deep relaxation, and in this state, you become more receptive to positive suggestions. A good hypnotherapist will get to know you and your physical responses before tailoring hypnosis to you individually.

Suggestions and imagery are used to:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety: Stress is a known trigger for IBS symptoms. Hypnotherapy can help manage stress, promoting relaxation and reducing the gut's sensitivity to stress signals.

  • Improve gut motility: Hypnotherapy can influence the nerves that control your gut muscles, potentially promoting more regular bowel movements and reducing discomfort.

  • Change pain perception: Hypnotherapy may help you perceive pain differently, making IBS symptoms feel less severe.

Benefits of Hypnotherapy for IBS:

Research suggests hypnotherapy can be effective in managing IBS symptoms. Here are some potential benefits:

  • Reduced pain and cramping

  • Improved bowel regulation

  • Less bloating

  • Improved overall quality of life

Hypnotherapy is considered safe. It can be particularly helpful for those who either haven’t found sufficient relief with other approaches like medication or dietary changes or who combine it with them.

Hypnotherapy for IBS, also known as gut-directed hypnotherapy, works by targeting the complex communication between your brain and gut, known as the gut-brain axis. Here's a breakdown of the mechanisms involved:

Professor P J Whorwell, a gastroenterology specialist pioneered a specific approach for treating irritable bowel syndrome in the early 1980s. It focuses on:

  1. The Gut-Brain Axis: The gut and brain are constantly sending signals back and forth.

  2. Hypnotic State: During hypnotherapy, a trained therapist guides you into a state of deep relaxation where you are open to positive suggestion.

  3. Positive Suggestions: The hypnotherapist uses personalized suggestions and imagery to influence your subconscious mind.

  • Stress and Anxiety: Hypnotherapy can help manage stress, a known IBS trigger. Suggestions reducing the gut's sensitivity to stress signals can be effective.

  • Gut Motility: By influencing the nerves that control your gut muscles, hypnotherapy may help regulate the bowel, easing discomfort.

  • Pain Perception: Hypnotherapy can help alter your perception of pain helping you reinterpret pain signals, making symptoms feel less severe.

  1. Learning and Reframing: Repeated hypnotherapy sessions can lead to long-term changes.

By targeting the gut-brain connection, hypnotherapy offers a unique approach to managing IBS symptoms and promoting a healthier mind-gut relationship.

Finding the right hypnotherapist

If you are considering hypnotherapy for IBS, look for a qualified, hypnotherapist (HPD) with plenty of client experience, particularly with working with IBS clients. Hypnotherapists should belong to the NCH or GHR or another large membership organisation. Most of all, you should feel positive about your therapist – so send an email or give them a call to see whether you are a fit for each other.

Big shout out to Philip Oroni @philipsfuture for the image

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