As a college student, Julianna B. began experiencing the unpleasant and distressing signs of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including abdominal cramping, diarrhea and frequently feeling as if she needed to use a bathroom. Julianna's condition was long-lasting and possibly genetic—both her father and grandmother have IBS.
Doctors gave her medications to dry out her system, but the side effects created new agony. "I felt like I was replacing my symptoms with worse symptoms," she says.
So Julianna looked for alternatives. She read online that researchers were exploring the role yoga—a mind-body practice of physical poses (asanas), breathing exercises and meditative thought—might play in improving IBS and other intestinal disorders. Using videos and a book about yoga, Julianna started learning basic poses at home.
"Within two days, I saw a difference," she says. "The yoga restores the balance to my digestive system. I don't know how it does it, but I can feel it physically."
After three months of doing yoga, she felt well enough to stop taking medication. The only time she needed medicine again, she says, was when she let her yoga practice lapse due to long hours at work as a financial marketing specialist. Now Julianna, who is 25, practices regularly in her Rochester, Michigan, home.
"I still have symptoms from time to time, but they are markedly down when I do yoga. When I'm not doing yoga, I have symptoms 100 percent of the time," she says. "If I do it at least three times a week, then I have little or no problem."
Scientific investigation into how yoga might help IBS sufferers is still going on, but yoga has long been shown to help reduce stress, a major contributor to IBS symptoms. Yoga also lessens anxiety and depression, which can affect both emotional well-being and short- or long-term physical difficulties.
Does it make sense to roll out the mat the next time you have a health concern?
"Many research studies have shown that yoga is alleviating certain medical conditions," says Kyeongra Yang, PhD, MPH, RN, an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing.