Scientists find a more effective at-home treatment for common bowel diseases

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In a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found a more effective at-home treatment for common gut diseases.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects up to 10% of the U.S. population. Yet typical treatments—often called “treatment as usual” by the field—don’t tend to succeed. They usually ask people to adopt restrictive diets, keep symptom diaries, and reduce stress.

They also incorporate over-the-counter laxatives and prescription medications called antispasmodics intended to help with cramping.

A new mobile digital therapeutic, Zemedy, aims to flip the script. It offers resources centered around cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that focus on gut-brain miscommunication and hypersensitivity around gut sensations happening for someone with IBS.

In the study, the team found that using the app for eight weeks led to improvements in health-related quality of life, fewer gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, and less anxiety about visceral sensations, benefits the participants retained three months later.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on changing the thought process and behavior around a particular ailment.

In the case of IBS, that could mean relaxation training and cognitive reframing or de-catastrophizing, for instance, or exposure therapy around foods and situations feared for their potential to cause GI distress.

These treatments have proven effective for IBS because the disorder likely results from a miscommunication between the central nervous system, which controls the brain, and the enteric nervous system, which orchestrates GI behavior, coupled with something called dysbiosis, or a change in the gut microbiome.

According to the team, all of this leads to a terrible thing called visceral hypersensitivity, which is where people become much more aware of sensations in the gut, sensations most people wouldn’t notice.

The discomfort gets massively amplified in the brain, which then responds with stress hormones that exacerbate issues with the gut and can cause diarrhea or constipation. But CBT changes how the brain processes stress.

The app itself combines education, relaxation techniques, tools to overcome an aversion to physical activity, an interactive CBT skills program, and information about healthful eating.

To test the app, the team split 121 participants into two groups: an immediate treatment group, which received a link to download the app and encouragement to begin working through its 10 modules right away, and a waitlist control group.

The results showed that the app was effective at helping those who suffer from IBS.

The researchers believe the findings point to the need for treatment options that don’t require restrictive diets or hard-to-maintain lifestyle changes.

CBT is a better long-term fix, and technology like this is a way to get that treatment into people’s hands.

If you care about bowel health, please read studies about a plant-based diet may help treat this inflammatory bowel disease and findings of this common bowel disease linked to prostate cancer.

For more information about bowel diseases, please see recent studies about a gut feeling may be key to early detection of colon cancer and results showing that this gut problem may be linked to restless legs syndrome.

The study is published in JMIR mHealth uHealth. One author of the study is Penn clinical psychologist Melissa Hunt.

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