By Sara Merrick-Albano, E-RYT, C-IAYT
Autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis affect patients in different ways for each individual. As the exact causes of these diseases are unknown, it can be challenging to provide symptom relief. The good news is that yoga therapy can aid in managing the stress and uncertainty associated with experiencing symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as provide stability during the treatment process.
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects the entire GI tract, while ulcerative colitis is limited to the colon.1 Symptoms for both diseases include diarrhea, fever, low energy, and fatigue, constipation, loss of normal menstrual cycle, abdominal pain and cramping, blood in the stool, mouth sores, reduced appetite and weight loss, and more.
The root of both of these chronic autoimmune conditions2 is inflammation, which must be managed with medication. Yoga therapy may be an effective solution as a complementary medicine to primary care treatments.
By teaching clients breathwork and meditation, stress management techniques, increasing awareness, grounding techniques in physical postures, and body strengthening and flexibility, yoga therapists can help clients mitigate and manage symptoms of IBD in three significant ways.
1. Yoga Therapy Facilitates a Cycle of Care
First, yoga therapy targets a key aspect of IBD: stress. Stress management is essential for IBD patients, as stress majorly affects IBD “via impaired intestinal barrier function, disturbance of the gut microbiota, intestinal dysmotility, and immune and neuroendocrine dysfunction.”3 Yoga therapy helps IBD patients develop stress management strategies in the following ways:
- Mindfulness practices like breathwork and meditation decrease stress in the body, as well as increase awareness of how stress affects symptoms.
- Grounding techniques help establish body awareness so that IBD patients can learn to self-regulate more effectively.
- Physical postures lead to body strengthening and flexibility.
Although yoga therapy by itself is a great tool to manage stress, yoga therapists often refer clients struggling with IBD to a psychotherapist in addition to their regular yoga therapy sessions. A nurturing cycle of care is created: yoga therapy increases awareness, thus facilitating a more impactful experience in psychotherapy.
Often, yoga therapy clients working in tandem with a psychotherapist experience shifts in their mental states and outlook much faster than when using yoga therapy or psychotherapy alone.
2. Yoga Therapy Provides Support During Medication Selection
As every patient reacts differently to certain medications, the medication selection process for IBD can be challenging. Techniques taught in yoga therapy sessions help to regulate the body during physical and mental changes due to medication side effects4 and IBD symptoms.
Not only do yoga therapists help patients increase body awareness and regulate the central nervous system, but they also provide a long-term plan for each patient, modifying as needed over time.
In our clinical experience, we have seen yoga therapy work as a supportive structure for IBD patients who are often going through overwhelming changes in both their bodies and their lifestyles.
3. Yoga Therapy Provides Long-Term Psychosomatic Support
Finally, yoga therapy provides a long-term support system for IBD patients via the development of a home practice. Clients can use this consistent home practice to manage stress and IBD symptoms for years to come, alongside their medication and doctor’s visits. This is the key difference between yoga therapy sessions and group yoga classes: a trained yoga therapist will provide tailored mind-body practices for each client that help mitigate individual symptoms.
For most IBD clients, we recommend a longer-term commitment to yoga therapy. This can be anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, or longer if necessary. At the beginning of our work together, yoga therapy sessions will occur multiple times per month. As we move forward, sessions occur less frequently, about once a month.
The true power of yoga therapy lies in the learned tools that clients will use for years after completing the prescribed number of yoga therapy sessions. Home practices may include physical postures, breathwork, meditation, and other techniques to balance the mind-body system and mitigate fatigue. As yoga therapists, our goal with home practices is to encourage clients to build agency in their own healing. In this way, yoga therapy can facilitate a long-term strategy for managing IBD symptoms.
How to Use Yoga Therapy as a Complementary Medicine for IBD Patients
Yoga therapy requires an initial consultation and follow-up sessions. This long-term format is crafted specifically to deal with autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. As yoga therapists, we work with clients on all aspects of wellbeing, helping IBD patients build a consistent mind-body practice that enriches the work of their doctors.
Yoga therapy is a complementary medicine that should be practiced under the guidance of a trained and experienced yoga therapist, who can tailor the practice to the individual needs and abilities of the IBD patient. Yoga therapists are well-positioned to treat each client as a whole individual, providing complementary care for clients with autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Are you interested in referring your IBD patients to yoga therapy? Request a meeting today to meet with a representative of Yoga Therapy Associates. At Yoga Therapy Associates, we administer yoga therapy for individuals suffering from chronic physical and mental health conditions.
Yoga Therapy Associates currently accepts clients referred by their physician for complementary care. Our scope of work includes supporting healing, reducing suffering from chronic conditions, and slowing degenerative disease progression.
Yoga Therapy Associates offers yoga therapy at four locations in Connecticut and via telehealth.
- UCLA Health. (2023). Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Ulcerative Colitis vs Crohn’s Disease. UCLA Health System. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.uclahealth.org/medical-services/gastro/ibd/what-ibd/ulcerative-colitis-vs-crohns-disease
- La Barbera, D., Bonanno, B., Rumeo, M. V., Alabastro, V., Frenda, M., Massihnia, E., Morgante, M. C., Sideli, L., Craxì, A., Cappello, M., Tumminello, M., Miccichè, S., & Nastri, L. (2017). Alexithymia and personality traits of patients with inflammatory bowel disease. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep41786
- Sun, Y., Li, L., Xie, R., Wang, B., Jiang, K., & Cao, H. (2019). Stress triggers flare of inflammatory bowel disease in children and adults. Frontiers in Pediatrics, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fped.2019.00432
- Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 353. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353