Complementary Health Approaches for IBS

What’s the Bottom Line? 

What do we know about the effectiveness of complementary health approaches for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)? 

  • Although there isn’t firm evidence, some studies suggest that psychological and/or physical approaches, including hypnotherapy, may help. 
  • Researchers have investigated probiotics and a variety of dietary supplements for IBS. Some may improve IBS symptoms, but the quality of many of the studies is weak, so we can’t draw conclusions about their effectiveness. 

What do we know about the safety of complementary health approaches for IBS? 

  • Psychological and/or physical approaches appear to be safe for IBS. 
  • Some dietary supplements studied for IBS can cause side effects, may interact with medications or other supplements, or contain ingredients not listed on the label. 

What Is IBS? 

IBS is a chronic disorder that affects the large intestine and causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, cramping, constipation, and diarrhea. 

As many as one in five Americans have symptoms of IBS. The cause of IBS isn’t well understood but stress, large meals, certain foods, and alcohol may trigger symptoms in  

What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Complementary Health Approaches for IBS 

Some evidence is emerging that a few complementary health approaches may be helpful for IBS. However, the research is limited so we don’t know for sure. 

Psychological and Physical Approaches for IBS 


For easing the severity of IBS, actual acupuncture wasn’t better than simulated acupuncture, a 2012 systematic review reported. 

A 2009 clinical trial included in the review found that of the 230 participants with IBS, those who received either actual or simulated acupuncture did better than those who received no acupuncture. 

Hypnotherapy (hypnosis) 

Researchers are studying gut-directed hypnotherapy (GDH), which focuses on improving bowel symptoms. Several IBS studies have found an association between hypnotherapy and long-term improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms, anxiety, depression, disability, and quality of life. The American College of Gastroenterology stated in a 2014 paper that there is some evidence that hypnosis helps with IBS symptoms, but the research is very uncertain. 

Mindfulness meditation training 

Some studies suggest that mindfulness training helps people with IBS, but there’s not enough evidence to draw firm conclusions. 

The American College of Gastroenterology stated in a 2014 paper that the few studies that have looked at mindfulness meditation training for IBS found no significant effects. But the authors noted that given the limited number of studies, they can’t be sure it doesn’t help. A 2013 review that included these and other studies concluded that mindfulness training improved IBS-associated pain and quality of life but not depression or anxiety. The amount of improvement was small. 


In a small 2014 NCCIH-supported study, young adults (18 to 26 years old) reported generally feeling better and having less pain, constipation, and nausea after completing a series of yoga classes, compared with a waitlist control group. They were still feeling better at the study’s 2-month followup. 

There’s too little evidence to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of meditation, relaxation training, and reflexology for IBS. 

Dietary Supplements for IBS 

A variety of dietary supplements, many of which are Chinese herbs and herb combinations, have been investigated for IBS, but we can’t draw any conclusions about them because of the poor quality of many of the studies. 

Chinese herbs 

In a 2008 systematic review, a combination of Chinese herbs was associated with improved IBS symptoms, but extracts of three single herbs had no beneficial effects. 

Peppermint oil 

Peppermint oil capsules may be modestly helpful in reducing several common symptoms of IBS, including abdominal pain and bloating. It’s superior to placebo in improving IBS symptoms, the American College of Gastroenterology stated in a 2014 paper. 


Generally, probiotics improve IBS symptoms, bloating, and flatulence, the American College of Gastroenterology stated in a 2014 paper. However, it noted that the quality of existing studies is limited. It’s not possible to draw firm conclusions about specific probiotics for IBS in part because studies have used different species, strains, preparations, and doses. 

Placebos, Placebo Effects, and IBS 

To understand the usefulness of any intervention, rigorous studies are needed to compare the approach being tested with comparable but inactive products or practices, called placebos. The placebo effect describes improvements that aren’t related specifically to the treatment being studied but to other factors, such as the person’s belief that they’re taking something helpful. Even how a clinician talks with patients may lead to a positive response unrelated to the treatment. Placebo effects are often seen in IBS treatment studies. 

In a 2008 clinical trial on placebos, 262 adults with IBS were given simulated acupuncture, simulated acupuncture with added positive attention from the health practitioners, or no intervention. None of the groups received actual acupuncture. The group that received the added positive attention improved the most, and the simulated acupuncture group fared better than the group who received no intervention. 

Normally, researchers tell study participants that they’ll receive either a placebo or the treatment being tested, but they won’t know which they received until after the study. However, in a 2010 study, funded in part by NCCIH, researchers told 40 people with IBS that they were getting a placebo and that placebos have been shown to help people. The other 40 received no intervention. Members of both groups had teh same amount of patient-practitioner interaction. People given the placebo showed greater improvement than those given no treatment. 

More To Consider 

Unproven products or practices should not be used to replace conventional treatments for IBS or as a reason to postpone seeing a health care provider about IBS symptoms or any other health problem. 

If you’re considering a practitioner-provided complementary practice such as hypnotherapy or acupuncture, ask a trusted source (such as the health care provider who treats your IBS or a nearby hospital) to recommend a practitioner. Find out about the training and experience of any practitioner you’re considering.  

Keep in mind that dietary supplements may interact with medications or other supplements and may contain ingredients not listed on the label. Your health care provider can advise you. If you’re pregnant or nursing a child, or if you’re considering giving a child a dietary supplement, it’s especially important to consult your (or your child’s) health care provider. 

Tell all of your health care providers or Care Team about any complementary health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care. 

Source: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health