Although meditation is chiefly regarded as a practice aimed at benefitting the mind, medical practitioners have long championed its practice to benefit the body. Now researchers may be able to recommend it as a treatment for previously incurable gastrointestinal disorders. A new pilot study by the Benson Henry Institute (BHI) and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) was the first to look specifically at meditation's effect on patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), and the results – while preliminary – suggest meditation has the potential to specifically address the genes that express stress and inflammation which fuel digestive discomfort, according to a press release from the Massachusetts General Hospital Digestive Healthcare Center.

For the study, 19 IBS and 29 IBD sufferers were enrolled in a 9-week meditation course and met once a week for 90 minutes to learn relaxation response, a mind-body intervention defined by Henry Benson as the antithesis to the natural "fight-or-flight" stress response. Study participants were taught a variety of meditative techniques (breath work, yoga, imagery), cognitive skill building and acceptance.

Along the way, researchers looked at patient responses to questionnaires about symptoms and measured inflammation levels both before enrollment in the program and after participation. Then they followed up to examine the effects of the program. At each data-collection point, the team also took blood samples to look for any genetic changes.

The results – even for such a short period – demonstrated marked improvement for both IBS and IBD sufferers. Participants felt relief from their symptoms (stomach pain, cramping and diarrhea) and reported feeling less anxiety about them and more resilient in response to pain.

"One interesting clinical impact was a decrease in both IBS and IBD patients in what is called pain catastrophizing – a negative cognitive and emotional response to pain or the anticipation of pain," notes the study's co-senior author, John Denninger of the Benson-Henry Institute at MGH, according to the Harvard Gazette.

Researchers also looked at gene expression in patients and found that meditation was helping to alter gene expression associated with stress - for instance, the inflammatory response that is common for IBD sufferers. They noted that meditation intervention affected a molecule called NF-κB, which is pivotal in the stress response. In fact, they hypothesize that regulating this molecule may counteract the harmful effects stress plays in both diseases.

"What is novel about our study is demonstration of the impact of a mind-body intervention on the genes controlling inflammatory factors that are known to play a major role in IBD and possibly in IBS," notes Braden Kuo, an assistant professor of medicine Harvard Medical School and the study's lead researcher.

IBD is an umbrella term for gastrointestinal (GI) diseases, including Crohn's disease and Ulcerative colitis, characterized by inflammation and destruction of the bowel wall. IBS affects at least 10 percent of the U.S. population, reports the Washington Post. But doctors are not exactly clear what causes it. So far, treatments for both IBS and IBD have focused purely on symptom relief, making BHI and BIDMC's findings all the more significant and worthy of additional study.

The study's results were published in the journal PLos One.