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National Institutes of Health • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

NCCAM Clinical Digest

Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Complementary Health Practices :
What the Science Says

March 2013
Woman sitting on bed holding stomach, head bowed

The following summarizes research on some of the most popular complementary health practices for IBS.

  • Hypnotherapy (hypnosis), which involves the power of suggestion by a trained hypnotist or hypnotherapist during a state of deep relaxation, is the most widely used mind and body intervention for IBS. Gut-directed hypnotherapy—a specialized form of hypnosis that uses hypnotic induction with progressive relaxation and other techniques, followed by imagery directed toward the gut—is also popular. According to multiple systematic reviews of the research literature, hypnotherapy may be a helpful treatment for managing IBS symptoms. Several studies of hypnotherapy for IBS have shown substantial long-term improvement of gastrointestinal symptoms as well as anxiety, depression, disability, and quality of life.
  • Herbal remedies are commonly used for IBS symptoms. Much of the research on these remedies has been done in China. A systematic review of clinical trials for 71 herbal remedies found limited evidence suggesting that a few of these herbal remedies might help improve IBS symptoms including abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. However, the review emphasizes that the studies were generally of poor quality.
  • Peppermint oil is one herbal remedy often used to treat IBS for which there are mixed results. There is some evidence that enteric-coated1 peppermint oil capsules may be modestly effective in reducing several common symptoms of IBS—especially abdominal pain, bloating, and gas. Non-enteric coated forms of peppermint oil may cause or worsen heartburn symptoms, but otherwise appears to be generally safe.
  • Probiotics, such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, are live microorganisms that are similar to microorganisms normally found in the human digestive tract and have been associated with an improvement in IBS symptoms compared with placebo. Results from studies suggest probiotics may decrease some patients’ abdominal pain, bloating, and gas.
  • While a few small studies have indicated that acupuncture has some positive effect on quality of life in people with IBS, systematic reviews have concluded that there is no convincing evidence to support the use of acupuncture for the treatment of IBS symptoms.

Evidence for other complementary health practices sometimes tried in treating IBS—including melatonin, meditation, reflexology, and yoga—is too limited to draw any conclusions about effectiveness.

1 Enteric-coating allows the peppermint oil to pass through the stomach unaltered so it can dissolve in the intestines. Note: If coated peppermint oil capsules are taken at the same time as medicines such as antacids, this coating can break down more quickly and increase the risk of heartburn and nausea. Back »

NCCAM Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, NIH, DHHS. NCCAM Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on CAM, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCAM-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, training CAM researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCAM's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCAM Web site at nccam.nih.gov. NCCAM is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.

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