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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Holistic Treatment Approach

by Tracie O\'Keefe(more info)

listed in ibs, originally published in issue 59 - December 2000

It's rather like haemorrhoids – showing your bum to the doctor can make people feel they are not exactly putting their best face on. IBS is one of those problems that makes people think they are unattractive if anyone else finds out. Disturbances of the bowel can also indicate cancer or torn tissues, poisoning or congenital bowel defects, so it is very important to go to the doctor and be examined.[2] Sometimes that may involve having a barium X-ray to make sure there are no obstructions in the gut or bowel. When none of those things are found, unpredictable bowel control is then generally classified under the anomalous title IBS, for the want of a better diagnosis.

IBS comes in three basic forms, all of which can involve bloating of the midriff, flatulence, pain in the intestines and anal canal. The first happens when a person is unable to predict when they need to go to the toilet. Their stools are so liquid and unpredictable that an accident can happen at anytime, anywhere. This may also precipitate them having to go to the toilet up to every half an hour and often has dire consequences in the workplace. Having to explain to employers where you keep nipping off to can put people in danger of losing their jobs for skiving. In fact, some people are unable to hold down a job at all.

The second kind of IBS is when a person is constantly constipated and unable to pass motions. They may go for weeks without being able to evacuate their bowels, even to the extent that they are afraid to eat properly, thereby creating a vicious circle. I remember my old granny used to fill herself up with laxatives on a Saturday night before bed and sprint across the yard to the outside toilet every Sunday morning at 6.30 a.m. sharp and was not seen again until breakfast.

The third kind of IBS is when a person has a combination of the two previous types in that the consistency of their bowel motions is always changing and is so unpredictable that people are often prisoners in their own homes. Relationships can break down because people become preoccupied with their condition and unable to join in with family, friends and socializing. Depression can even follow as people feel so isolated and hopeless about their situation that they believe there can be no cure.

What IBS is depends on the person you talk to and the practitioner you consult. Unfortunately some general practitioners, because they only have around six minutes with a patient, administer inappropriate medication.3 Holistically, the whole person, their diet, exercise routines, state of mental health, social circumstances and attitudes towards acting out with others need to be considered. Some people's difficulties may have begun with an infection, virus, food poisoning or neurological dysfunction in the gut due to repressive or anxiety-based behaviour.

Once the gut is disturbed, it needs to be given the right conditions to recover naturally. Many people who start to get psychologically dependent on medications often end up like my old granny with a bowel that only works spasmodically due to the shock of unnatural chemical abuse. Flushing the gut out is bad news because it loses the naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and enzymes that help digest food.

Hypnotherapy has now been used for several years in combination with diet, exercise and in some cases psychotherapy. In my practice, I tell clients there are two rules to helping a person manage IBS that they absolutely must learn at the very start of treatment:

What goes in your mouth is what you become

What goes into your mind is also what you become.

If either of those two are junk, it is time to clean up your act. You get the results from the treatment on a par with what effort you invest into it personally. There are no quick fixes – you are the one who owns your digestion. Let me tell you at this stage I have had results with every case of IBS I have ever treated, only because the client and I have worked very closely together and were both committed to solving the problem.

There are two diets I prescribe. People who have very loose stools are immediately put on a detoxifying cooked brown rice diet with tiny meals six times a day for two weeks. Then they begin to move across to a raw food vegan organic diet over the next few weeks, which also consists of six very small meals a day.

States of mind and brain activity in daily life


High Beta
23-35 cps
Used by humans during the fight or flight response
15-22 cps
Cognitive process in the every day life
8-14 cps
Healing state and increased suggestability in reprogramming
5-7 cps
Healing state, deep reprogramming, resting
0.5-4 cps
Sleep Healing, resting
cps = Cycles per Second
People with various forms of IBS spend a lot of their time in High Beta and suffer from anxiety. Constipation occurs when people are not in control of moving into High Beta during exercise.

For people who are constipated or have a combination of loose stools and constipation they move straight onto the raw food diet.[4] All clients are asked to eat at exactly the same time each day so that the body has rhythm and it knows what to do at specific times of the day. Each client is required to do a considerable amount of reading to become their own nutritional expert and I help guide them with a reading list.[5] After every meal the person is asked to use the toilet even if they feel they do not need to, so evacuation becomes a habit at exactly the same time each day. Hypnosis is used to help people reprogramme their eating habits.

The second approach I use is that I require every client to have at least one hour's exercise twice a week regularly and that includes a 20-minute aerobic cardiovascular session, each time with running and cycling. People with constipation are required to walk for half an hour per day. What this does is shake up the intestines, pumping the bowel and moving along undigested waste. Yoga is very good but on its own will not help because it is not energetic enough. Again, hypnosis is used to help people with exercise motivation.[6]

Hypnotherapy is then used to help the person learn how to relax their body progressively so the spasms that occur in the bowel during IBS can begin to be brought under control. IBS sufferers have constantly been found to have poor anxiety management capabilities, and re-education on how to once again become at one with their bodies is essential.

Patient relaxed

Finally psycho-imaginary visualization and sensory experiences are used to help the person learn how to control different part of their body separately, boost the immune system and put the body into a healing state.[7] Every client is taught self-hypnosis because when they go out into the world they need to be doing what we are doing in the session themselves. Strange as it may seem, we know we have been successful when it is time for the client to sack me because I am not needed any more. I think I am one of the few people I know who absolutely loves getting sacked by their clients.

Let food be your medicine
and medicine be your food.

Case Study 1: Helen

Helen was a 29-year-old banker in the city in a profession that was at the least precarious. She still owed a great deal of debt from completing her education at university. Even though it was a buoyant market, she had not bought a property because if a crash came she was afraid it would be last-in first-out. Despite the fact she was a stunning half-Asian, half-European beauty, she felt very unattractive, having experienced a lot of prejudice and harassment at school.

She had a highly dysfunctional life pattern typical of some IBS sufferers, working from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. in the evening, not taking any lunch or breaks, eating junk food and sandwiches at her desk, and drinking lots of coffee and wine late at night. Her symptoms were sweaty palms, headaches, temperatures, red in the whites of her eyes, bloated stomach, unable to concentrate and constant painful constipation. She had reached the point where she had started to become bulimic, making herself sick every day because she was afraid what she had eaten would cause her pain.

Treatment started with regressive hypnotherapy, which revealed the extent to which her early school history had damaged her self-esteem and how she could come to terms with what had happened. Hypno-psychotherapy was carried out to help her gain a better sense of self and be happy with who she was and how she looked. Hypnotic reprogramming was used to help her change her lifestyle, work patterns, priorities and eating habits to a raw food vegan organic diet. Organizational skills and exercise routines were included in this.

In three months' time, after six sessions, we both mutually agreed that therapy was over. Helen had control of her digestion and just as importantly knew the things she had to do every day to keep control. The self-hypnosis she had learnt during treatment had boosted her confidence so much that she decided to change her job for a more pleasant one with less hours and more pay, without all the stress of her previous position.

Nature knows what to do – what it needs is the chance to get on with its job.

Case Study 2: Martin

Martin was 52 years old, lived alone in the bungalow he had inherited from his parents and had been made redundant from a clerical job two years earlier. His social life was non-existent, being housebound because of constant loose and unexpected bowel movements and an ever-present worry that he would never get a job again. He had very little confidence in himself and lived mainly on a diet of steamed fish, boiled potatoes and dairy produce. He had not done any exercise since cycling in his twenties.

We used hypnosis immediately so that he could sit though the whole two-hour initial session without having to run to the toilet. The first contract we made between us was that he would turn the whole of the gardens of the bungalow into a smallholding to provide fresh organic food for himself. On the third session, three months later, he had started a low-cost organic gardening service where he went to other people's houses on his bicycle to plant organic crops for them.

At the beginning of treatment I asked Martin to use self-hypnosis three times a day for 30 minutes each time and later this was reduced to just once a day. His lifestyle, diet and social life completely changed and his IBS disappeared. For a few months the next summer he was so busy with the business that he stopped using self-hypnosis and the IBS came back, but once we had done some work in the session and he resumed the hypnosis everything seemed to get back on course. The last time I heard from him he had rented an allotment and was selling his produce on a market stall on Sundays with a girlfriend who also owned an allotment.


1. Backhouse Susan and Dancey Christine P. Treating IBS. Robinson. London 1995.
2. Smith Tony ed. The British Medical Association Complete Family Health Encyclopaedia. Dorling Kindersley. London. p603. 1994.
3. Moore Thomas J. Prescription for Disaster: The Hidden Dangers in Your Medicine Cabinet. Simon and Schuster. New York. 1998.
4. Miller Susie and Knowler Karen. Feel-Good Food: A Guide to Intuitive Eating. Women's Press. London. 2000.
5. Langley Gill. Vegan Nutrition. Vegan Society. Sussex. 1995.
6. O'Keefe Tracie. Self-Hypnosis for Life. Extraordinary People Press. London. 2000.
7. Rossi Ernest Lawrence. The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing. WW Norton. New York and London. 1993.


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About Tracie O\'Keefe

Tracie O'Keefe, DCH, is a clinical hypnotherapist, psychotherapist, counsellor and health practitioner at the London Medical Centre. She is an internationally well-known therapist, researcher into and writer on human behaviour and health, and a member of the British Register of Complementary Practitioners. She can be reached on Tel: 020-7935 4490.

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