Hypnotherapy for IBS

1st March 2020 | Author: Bianca Skilbeck

At some point in your life, if you are unlucky, you may find yourself amongst the estimated 10-15% of adults who experience symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Irritable bowel syndrome, or “IBS” is characterised by abdominal pain, diarrhoea, constipation and bloating. Sufferers often also report co-existing symptoms such as nausea, lethargy, anxiety and depression.

One of the most frustrating aspects of IBS, conveyed by this word, ‘syndrome’; is how poorly it is understood. There are currently no known biochemical disease markers to test for, which would be able to explain what is physiologically happening for someone who experiences IBS. What this means is that despite the very real and often debilitating symptoms that sufferers experience, there is no objective test or procedure which can diagnose IBS.

Due to the difficulty in diagnosis, treatment protocols have been invariably ambiguous in terms of their effectiveness. As Smith (2005) highlights, “there are currently no ‘gold-standard’ treatments for IBS”. Whilst countless iterations of drug treatments and diet and lifestyle interventions are tried by many; often the results are less than satisfactory, leading to growing frustrations for sufferers.

Given that there is no way to test for IBS, one of the standard ways to measure IBS is through understanding a person’s quality of life; and impact quality of life is something which IBS certainly does.

Several studies have shown that due to physiological symptoms and psychological distress, IBS can have a significant impact on a person’s capacity to work, travel, maintain an adequate diet and maintain satisfactory sexual functioning. Smith (2005) reports that up to 50% of all referrals to gastroenterology clinics can be attributed to IBS. Depression and anxiety are frequently reported by IBS sufferers as well, although it is worth noting that whether  psychological distress is linked to IBS as cause or effect, is uncertain.

With growing frustrations surrounding diagnosis and treatment, there has been an increased interest in the use of complementary therapies to aid treatment in gastroenterology, and there has been one therapy which has been increasing brought up in scientific circles and within doctors’ offices. That therapy is hypnotherapy.    


That hypnotherapy works for symptoms of IBS is actually no secret. Well at least it’s no secret if you are within the profession.



Whilst the first randomised controlled trial for the use of gut-directed hypnotherapy for IBS was published in 1984, there has been evidence of its uses in scientific literature as far back as in the 1920’s when progressive relaxation was described as beneficial for IBS patients (Whorwell, 2005).

For myself, as I do my research for this article, none of these statistics or descriptions come as much of a surprise. Having been in private practice as a hypnotherapist since 2013, I have had numerous clients who have seen me for symptoms of IBS who have described exactly how debilitating the condition can be. Sometimes these clients have come directly to me for IBS; other times it has been more indirect. For example, I have had clients who have come to improve anxiety or some other condition, but have then confided that their IBS symptoms have also improved since undergoing treatment.

Nonetheless, for a variety of reasons, hypnotherapy as a first line treatment for the physiological symptomology of presentations like IBS and other gut-related conditions, has until now remained under-explored and rarely considered in the scientific community. Hypnosis has a dubious and sometimes sketchy history with some interesting characters associated with it. It has frequently been shunned to the quackery of stage shows, charlatans and eccentric one-man-bands; over-claiming and under-delivering as to its powers. Until now, this has been a regrettable, as pointed out by Whorwell (2005), “hypnosis can be extremely beneficial when included as part of a treatment package”.

So, with all of this in mind, you can imagine my surprise and delight when I logged in to the Monash University website, and the feature banner highlighted the effectiveness of hypnotherapy for IBS!

Yes, finally!!

The word was getting out and science was proving what so many have known for a long time to be true; that hypnotherapy can and should be considered as a top line treatment for symptoms of IBS.  

What does the science say? 

In a study from Smith (2005), the physical symptoms of IBS of 75 patients were recorded over a period of seven days. An IBS quality of life questionnaire was administered, as well as a questionnaire to measure anxiety and depression. The study participants received between 5 and 7 sessions, subsequent to which, statistically significant results were recorded, particularly in the measures of emotional, mental health, sleep, physical function, energy and social roles. The author of this study concluded that hypnotherapy for the treatment of IBS appeared to have a very positive impact on IBS symptoms and it was most effective in patients who experience abdominal pain and bloating.

In a much larger study from Miller and colleagues (2015), 1000 patients who received 12 sessions of hypnotherapy over 3 months found clinically significant reductions in the IBS Symptom Severity, Noncolonic Symptoms and Quality of Life Scores. 67% of participants reported a reduction in abdominal pain scores and pain days halved, from 18 to 9 days per month. Similarly, patients diagnosed with anxiety and depression almost halved, from 63% to 34% and 25% to 12% respectively.

In 2016, Monash university conducted a study of the use of hypnotherapy for IBS, and in their words, “results were so positive that even the researchers were surprised”

78 participants were divided in to groups which used hypnotherapy as a standalone treatment, dietary changes as a standalone treatment and a combination of the two. The results showed that the hypnotherapy treatment group was just as effective as the low FODMAP diet, despite having no dietary changes. What also surprised the researchers was that the group which had the combined therapy and dietary changes did not appear to show any extra improvements additional to the standalone hypnotherapy treatment group. These improvements were found to have been maintained 6 months post the treatment, leading the researchers to conclude that this was not merely a placebo effect that had taken place.  

So what actually is gut directed hypnotherapy?

Gut directed hypnotherapy is the use of hypnotic techniques which are designed to return the gut and whole digestive system back to normal and healthy functioning. By using powerful and repetitive suggestions and metaphors, the client or patient is guided in to a relaxed state of focus. Whilst the conscious mind begins to quieten the constant ‘chatter’ that so many of us experience, the unconscious mind can get to work at tapping in to its natural biological intuition, and beginning the process of healing.

In a program of hypnotherapy for IBS, a client will usually sign up for weekly sessions to begin with. As the treatment progresses, sessions may be stretched out to fortnightly or even monthly, depending on how they are responding to treatment. Most practitioners will offer a recording of the session, so as this can be listened to in between sessions, ideally on a daily basis, to get the maximum benefit.

Hypnotherapy is considered a safe, effective and non-invasive way to address the symptoms of IBS

It is seen by many as a great complement to existing treatments which patients may be receiving through their medical doctor or other specialist. Given the advances that we now have in technology, many hypnotherapy practitioners will offer online sessions via a platform such as Zoom or Skype; making this kind of therapy accessible to more people, regardless of location or time constraints.

If you would like to know more about how gut-directed hypnotherapy may be your secret ingredient to treating the symptoms of IBS, please get in contact at bianca@freedomfromfood.com.au or head over to the contact form.





Miller, V., Carruthers, H. R., Morris, J., Hasan, S. S., Archbold, S. & Whorwell, P. J. (2015) Hypnotherapy for irritable bowel syndrome: an audit of one thousand adult patients

Monash University (2019, June 24). How hypnotherapy is helping people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Retrieved from https://lens.monash.edu/

Smith, D, G. (2005). Effect of nurse-led gut-directed hypnotherapy upon health-related quality of life in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 15, 678–684. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2702.2006.01356.x

Whorwell, P. J. (2005). Review article: the history of hypnotherapy and its role in the irritable bowel syndrome. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 22, 1061–1067. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2036.2005.02697.x


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I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of this land upon which Freedom from Food operates. I would also like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians, past, and present.

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