In the first study to assess the use of the relaxation response for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a nine-week training program including use of the relaxation response had a significant impact on the clinical symptoms of these disorders.

The relaxation response is described as a physiologic state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation, yoga, and prayer and several studies have linked regular practice of the relaxation response to improvements in stress, anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption. Published in the journal PLOS ONE, this pilot study led by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was designed to investigate the impact of a relaxation-response-based intervention on improving the quality of life in patients with IBS or IBD and effects on inflammatory markers and gene expression. Forty-eight adults with a confirmed diagnosis of IBS or IBD participated in a nine-week group program focused on stress reduction, cognitive skills, health-enhancing behaviors, and relaxation response training, plus a session specifically focused on gastrointestinal health. Participants were also asked to practice relaxation response elicitation at home for 15–20 minutes per day.

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Participation in the intervention program appeared to significantly improve disease-related symptoms, anxiety, pain catastrophizing, and overall quality of life in the IBS and IBD patients at the end of the study, as well as three weeks later. Although there were no significant changes in inflammatory markers, changes in expression were seen in nearly 200 genes among participants with IBS and more than 1,000 genes in those with IBD; many of the genes with altered expression are thought to contribute to pathways involved with stress response and inflammation. Longer, randomized controlled trials are now needed to confirm the results of this small study.

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