Health psychologists have begun treating gastrointestinal disorders that are strongly affected by stress, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease, functional heartburn, functional dyspepsia and ulcerative colitis.
Biochemical signaling between the brain and the GI tract, known as the brain-gut axis, can have a major effect on gastrointestinal disorders. The normal stress of everyday life can aggravate certain GI conditions. And in a vicious cycle, worrying about or dwelling on severe pain, constipation, diarrhea and other GI symptoms can make the symptoms worse, which in turn increases the stress, said Sarah Kinsinger, PhD, ABPP, a Loyola Medicine health psychologist who specializes in treating GI disorders.
Dr. Kinsinger offers behavioral treatments specifically designed to target brain-gut pathways. These treatments teach patients coping strategies to manage symptoms and reduce stress. She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy, an evidence-based treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. She also offers behavioral relaxation techniques, including diaphragmatic breathing (also known as belly breathing or deep breathing) and gut-directed hypnotherapy.
In many patients, psychological or behavioral interventions can be more effective than medications, Dr. Kinsinger said. She usually sees patients for five to seven sessions, and the treatments typically are covered by insurance.
"It is very gratifying to see patients get better after in some cases suffering for many years," Dr. Kinsinger said. "Psychological and behavioral interventions do not cure their disease, but the treatments can provide patients with safe and effective coping mechanisms and greatly reduce the severity of their symptoms."
For some conditions, such as IBS, psychological and behavioral treatments can be the primary treatments. For other conditions for which there are effective drugs, such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, psychological and behavioral treatments can be effective adjuncts to medications.
Dr. Kinsinger earned a PhD degree in clinical psychology from the University of Miami and completed a health psychology fellowship at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago. She is board certified in clinical health psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology.