Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder with brain-gut-microbiome alterations. Gut-directed hypnotherapy (GHT) has been shown to improve quality of life and symptoms in IBS. This therapy targets psychological coping, central nervous processing and brain-gut interaction. Studies have also demonstrated effects of hypnosis on intestinal transit and the mucosal immune system. So far, no study has examined the effect of GHT on the intestinal microbiome. This study aimed at examining microbial composition, IBS symptoms, and psychological distress before and after GHT.
Fecal samples were collected from 38 IBS patients (Rome-III criteria, mean age 44 years, 27 female, 11 male, 22 diarrhea-dominant, 12 alternating-type and 4 constipation-dominant IBS) before and after 10 weekly group sessions of GHT. Assessments in psychological (perceived stress, PSQ; psychological distress, HADS-D; quality of life, visual analogue scales) and IBS symptom-related variables (IBS severity, IBS-SSS; single symptoms, visual analogue scales) were performed with validated questionnaires. Fecal samples underwent microbial 16S rRNA analyses (regions V1⁻2).
Microbial alpha diversity was stable before and after GHT (chao1 2591 ± 548 vs. 2581 ± 539, p = 0.92). No significant differences were found in relative bacterial abundances but trends of reduced abundance of Lachnospiraceae 32.18 (4.14⁻39.89) Median (Q1⁻Q3) vs. 28.11 (22.85; 35.55) and Firmicutes: Bacteroidetes ratio after GHT were observable. Significant reductions in symptom severity (323 (266⁻371) vs. 264 (191⁻331), p = 0.001) and psychological distress 17.0 (12.6⁻21.8) vs. 12.0 (8.3⁻18.0), p = 0.001, and increased well-being were found after GHT. Adequate relief after therapy was reported by 32 (84%) patients.
Reductions in IBS symptoms and psychological burden were observed after gut-directed hypnotherapy, but only small changes were found in intestinal microbiota composition. The findings suggest that hypnosis may act by central nervous impact and other factors largely independent from microbiota composition modulating the brain-gut axis, possibly alterations in vagus nerve functioning and microbiota metabolism.