Complementary & Alternative Medicine

Written by: Casey Hribar | Last reviewed: March 2022 | Last updated: March 2022

Some people use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as additional treatment methods for managing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

A complementary therapy is one used alongside traditional treatments. An example would be a person practicing acupuncture while still taking their IBS drugs. Alternative medicine is used instead of traditional approaches.1

Integrating CAM into a treatment plan

Everyone’s experience with IBS treatment will be different. However, when traditional drugs do not provide adequate relief, many often turn to CAM. In some cases, adding complementary therapies alongside a treatment plan may provide greater benefit.

However, not all CAM options provide beneficial results. Some may interfere with IBS drugs or could be dangerous if not performed by a trained expert. Talk with your doctor before trying any new therapy or adjusting your current treatment plan.1,2

You may already use CAM as a part of your IBS treatment plan in the form of diet changes or exercise. However, other CAM options that people with IBS may consider include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Biofeedback
  • Herbs or supplements
  • Hypnotherapy

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine. It is thought to improve wellness and reduce pain and stress. Acupuncture involves the use of tiny needles. These needles are inserted into the skin at specific points on the body. The goal is to realign a person’s energy flow or life force. This flow is known as qi or chi (pronounced “chee”).3

Some people with IBS use acupuncture to reduce stress and decrease pain. With acupuncture, it may be possible to improve bowel symptoms.

The research on acupuncture for IBS is mixed. Several studies have found that acupuncture seems to improve symptoms and quality of life compared to common drugs, herbs, or supplements used to treat IBS.4-7

Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a process of training your body to gain control over certain functions. For this, a specialist places sensors on certain areas of the body. These sensors are connected to a machine. This machine has a computer that shows how the body is responding in real-time.8,9

This allows the person undergoing biofeedback to recognize and adjust how their body is functioning. Biofeedback is not painful, and it does not give you electric shocks or uncomfortable sensations.8,9

The goal of biofeedback in IBS is to gain better control over the system that controls gut function. Some specific biofeedback targets studied in IBS include:10,11

  • Body temperature
  • Skin sensations
  • Heart rate
  • Muscle contractions

IBS symptoms may be reduced when your body can recognize when it is being activated and learns how to control the response.10,11

Herbs and supplements

Supplements are a large part of treating IBS. Examples include fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics. There are other herbs or supplements that some people with IBS may try as well. These include:2

  • Peppermint oil
  • Aloe vera
  • Curcumin
  • Fennel
  • Carmint
  • Aniseed

While herbs and supplements seem safe because they often come from natural sources, they are not regulated in the United States. This makes it hard to know what their exact ingredients are. In addition, some can interfere with other drugs. Before trying a new herb or supplement, talk with your doctor to make sure it is safe.

Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy involves guided hypnosis by a trained expert. Hypnotherapy may improve communication between the brain and the gut, leading to improved IBS symptoms. Guided hypnosis involves creating a trance-like state. However, the person undergoing hypnosis is aware of what is going on at all times.12,13

The hypnotherapy used in IBS is usually gut-directed and aims to improve awareness and control of symptoms. During a session, the goal is to achieve a deep state of relaxation. Imagery and metaphors are then used by the therapist to educate a person on their gut and its function.12,13

The therapist then uses breathing techniques and pain-relieving tactics to encourage the person’s control over the gut and symptoms. With practice, it may be possible to affect the communication between the gut and brain. This may lead to changes in gut pain sensation and motility.14

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