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Rolfing and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Over the years, many of the clients who saw me for musculo-skeletal problems also reported having Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  In every case, these clients’ abdomens were tenser than the norm. Up to 50% of gastroenterology referrals are related to this syndrome.[1]

As a Rolfer, I view the body as parts that are all interconnected. Systemic tension and misalignment throughout the body can cause gut tension. The converse is also true; your gut tension will produce stain in your musculo-skeletal system, as my study of visceral manipulation (releasing tension specific to organs) showed me. It’s as if each organ is a balloon attached to other balloons that are attached to the inner abdominal wall. The tension of the body can affect the structure and positioning of one of these organ balloons, pulling them out of position, which will affect the organ’s function.

What does stress do?

Beyond structural stress, any emotional or physiological stress compounds the problem. Emotional stress builds up in your soft tissue-and your guts are all soft tissue. They can become an emotional reservoir for chronic stress. If you hold onto your feelings, you hold your guts tense.[2] Since the colon is partly controlled by the autonomic nervous system (the survival, or fight-or-flight, nervous system) we are inescapably tied to storing chronic stress in our gut. This constant irritation creates inflammation, which produces an immune response, which many researchers tie to IBS.

Trauma, both physical and emotional, can set up IBS. The physical trauma of an injury or surgery can create structural strain that affects the colon. Emotional trauma can produce post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that continually produces tension for the brain-gut axis.

What is the solution?

If structural or emotional stress is part of the cause of your IBS, you need to release that stress to achieve sustainable results. Creating a relaxed stomach is part of this. I know what you’re thinking: we’re supposed to have a tight stomach, right? What about rock-hard abs? Six-packs? But a tight, hard gut is not healthy. Babies and animals don’t have tense stomachs; adults do because of stress and aesthetics.

Often the biggest hurdle I have with my clients getting well is having them relax their stomachs so they breathe deeper, giving their organs more room and getting their deep back muscles to relax. I also tell them not to do sits-ups or crunches until they master breathing with their bellies.

When I had my clinic in Scottsdale, AZ, where we ran our Mindfulness Stress Reduction courses, we got a lot of students with IBS. By learning to relax-particularly, relax their stomachs-their conditions would improve or disappear.

Physical manipulation, such as Rolfing, is the short cut to getting your stomach to relax and stay relaxed, thereby allowing your bowel to heal. No part of your body can fully heal if it is under stress. Its resources are going to what it experiences as survival, not to healing.

Take a deep breath, breathe into your abdomen, relax your stomach … you are now on the road to healing your IBS.

Owen Marcus, MA Certified Advance Rolfer, www.align.org, 265.8440.


[1] Jenifer K Lehrer, MD,eMedicine Specialties > Gastroenterology > Colon

[2] Fukudo S, Nomura T, Muranaka M, Taguchi F (1993). “Brain-gut response to stress and cholinergic stimulation in irritable bowel syndrome. A preliminary study”. J. Clin. Gastroenterol. 17 (2): 133-41

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