My mother has had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for years and has struggled to treat it with diet and drugs. I read a recent study about how hypnosis is helping people with IBS—and also found research dating back 10 years about supporting its effectiveness. It turns out that my mom had never heard about this treatment option, and that made me wonder how many of my readers with IBS didn’t know about this treatment either. Here’s what you need to know…

The word “hypnosis” conjures up images of magician-like performers putting people to sleep as they gaze, mesmerized, at a sparkling object. But that’s far from what modern hypnotherapy is really like. Hypnosis is known to help people suffering from anxiety, pain, insomnia and tobacco addiction. You can add IBS to this list. Olafur S. Palsson, PsyD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has pioneered the technique and developed a protocol for treating IBS with hypnosis that is now used around the world. Here, Dr. Palsson tells High Energy for Life readers how it can help them.


The stereotypical image of hypnosis is an individual in a sleeplike trance. But hypnosis is actually a much more active mental state characterized by a narrowed focus of attention…a heightened, vivid imagination…and increased receptivity to verbal suggestions and to the idea that thoughts can affect behavior.

The first part of any hypnotherapy treatment involves a clinician guiding the patient into a very deeply relaxed state characterized by both comfort and concentration. Then the part of the session that focuses on the clinical problem can begin.

Patients with IBS have recurring bouts of diarrhea and/or constipation. They also may experience cramps, abdominal pain and bloating. IBS is a chronic condition without a cure. There are a number of medications that can help, but most people try hypnosis when symptoms don’t respond to treatment from medications.

When treating IBS patients, a hypnotherapy practitioner uses verbal suggestions that help in getting the digestive tract to function differently. For example, the practitioner might suggest that the digestive tract be less sensitive to pain or irritation or for the muscles of the gut wall to move in a more relaxed or coordinated way. Direct suggestions might sound like this—“You might have previously experienced bowel discomfort or pain, but you now will feel pleasant, warm soothing sensations.”

Other verbal suggestions might include that symptoms be experienced differently, for example, to be noticed less frequently or to be less severe. Mental imagery can be used. For example, patients might be asked to think of the intestines as a flowing river and to mentally alter the flow of the river in their imaginations as a way to neutralize symptoms. This could include slowing the “river flow” if diarrhea is a problem or speeding it up in cases of constipation.

One theory as to why hypnosis helps IBS is that the hypnotist’s suggestions change what the brain brings to the patient’s conscious attention. For example, the brain stops telling the patient that he/she is experiencing pain in the intestines. Another theory is that the brain sends fewer signals to the intestines that are interpreted as pain.

Patients don’t usually notice any changes in symptoms until after a few sessions. But by the end of the treatment (usually seven sessions conducted every other week or 12 sessions conducted weekly), symptoms can be drastically reduced. Studies from 2002 published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences and American Journal of Gastroenterology found that many patients, including those with severe IBS, had a reduction in symptoms by half, and some patients reported being almost symptom-free.

When improvement does occur, it usually lasts for years without further treatment. A 2003 study published in Gut found that some patients maintained treatment benefit for five years.


Since hypnotherapy isn’t regulated, it’s crucial to seek a state-licensed health professional, such as a mental health professional or doctor who practices hypnosis. For a list of practitioners in the US who offer Dr. Palsson’s protocol for IBS, go to Another helpful resource for finding a hypnotherapist is the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (, a nonprofit organization for health-care professionals who use hypnosis. The site offers a referral service. But before you visit a clinician, call to ensure that he or she is familiar with treating IBS.

Insurance coverage varies from state to state, as well as among health insurance companies, so check with your insurance plan to see if hypnotherapy for IBS is covered in part or in full. Some practitioners use hypnosis as a regular part of their medical or psychology practice. In some cases, the treatment is billed as a treatment visit for IBS but not specifically for hypnosis. Without insurance coverage, the full program can cost around $1,000.