My healing story
If you’ve ever felt butterflies before a hot date, or gotten an upset stomach due to an important exam, you know there is an intimate link between life’s stressors and the body’s response through physical symptoms.
I learned this first hand in my first high-pressure job, when I was clocking stressful, long hours, and developed a mild version of IBS, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I had abdominal pain daily, everything I ate made me feel sick and bloated, I was fatigued, and frequent visits to the bathroom interrupted my work. This made me feel powerless and anxious in front of my illness.
Like the reformed millennial that I am, I quit my job, and decided to reset my body by going on a yoga and detox retreat. I have not had any digestive problems since, bar having to exclude from my diet a few foods and drinks I know I don’t tolerate, such as coffee.
Whereas this kind of intervention is not accessible to everyone or might come after unnecessary suffering in the illness journey, the experience gave me the insight that there could be something valuable in applying behavioural changes and relaxation techniques to a physical condition like IBS, and that drugs alone are not the answer to health.
I realised then that we need an integrative approach to improve our physical condition, learning to manage stress and emotions, and to minimize triggers, especially for complex conditions like somatic disorders.
We can use the power of our brain to enjoy better physical and mental health. This isn’t based on positive thinking, it’s based on science and neuroplasticity, and the body’s extraordinary capacity to heal.
The mind-gut connection
Many mental and physical wellness issues originate as imbalances in the gut. The gut is very complex — it has the largest number of immune cells, the largest number of nerve cells outside the brain, the largest number of hormonal or endocrine cells.
There are more neurons in our digestive system than in our spinal nerve, which is why our gut is often spoken of as our second brain. The gut produces 90% of serotonin (key hormone linked to mood regulation), 50% of our dopamine (our reward neurotransmitter), and hosts 70–80% of our immune tissue, being where most of the bacteria in our body live. The gut also plays a key role in stress regulation: when a person becomes stressed enough to trigger the fight-or-flight response, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can divert all its internal energy to facing a perceived threat.
An imbalanced gut left unhealed can lead to functional or immune abnormalities and other health issues: irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, depression, chronic fatigue, type 1 diabetes to name a few.
Meet Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Take IBS. This condition affects 15% of people and encompasses a range of unpleasant physical symptoms that can make life miserable, from constant stomach ache, frequent bloating, flatulence, bouts of extreme tiredness, and abnormal bowel movements. Most sufferers also experience anxiety or depression.
IBS currently has no proven cure, and solutions provide just temporary or partial relief to symptoms. Even in the modern era of medicalization, IBS patients are often left without an answer, looking frantically for solutions and the next promise of a cure.
Why this matters:
- IBS is very common — it affects 1 in 6 people, being more common than diabetes, asthma, or heart disease. That is a staggering 800+ million people affected worldwide, double those with diabetes.
- Women suffer more — IBS typically starts in young adults, and affects women disproportionately, with ⅔ of diagnosed patients being female.
- It’s disabling — the pain and discomfort of IBS can be severely affecting daily functioning. IBS is the second driver of sick days after the common cold.
- Has high co-morbidity with mental health problems — IBS patients are 2–3 times as likely to develop depression or anxiety than the general population, with 70–90% of those who seek treatment experiencing emotional difficulties.
- It’s costly — The medical costs associated with IBS in the United States alone is estimated at $10bn/year, excluding over the counter drugs or complementary medicine. Up to double that spend is indirect costs from lost productivity.
- It’s hard to treat — Out of close to 10 million IBS sufferers in UK, 25% are not responding to drugs or multiple therapeutic interventions. That leaves 2.5 million chronically underserved and desperate for solutions.
Latest research indicates that the brain–gut axis plays a key role in the disorder, and the presence of psychological factors and central processing deficits contribute to symptom severity and disability. Daily stress and anxiety are key triggers for IBS, which can make daily functioning a challenge in the hyperstimulated world we live in.
Leveraging proven behavioural medicine for IBS
Specialists are increasingly realising that mind and body treatments are needed, combining medications, dietary precautions, and behavioral and emotional retraining. Because of the mind-gut link, if patients don’t deal with the emotional and biopsychosocial factors that relate to their symptoms, they are likely to continue to have symptoms, which is why including a psychotherapeutic angle can make all the difference in treatment outcomes.
Mindbody techniques are scientifically-proven behavioural, psychological and social approaches. These techniques are scientifically proven to achieve dramatic improvements in IBS, and can be more effective than standard approaches like medication.
CBT for IBS, relaxation techniques and hypnotherapy relieve symptoms, long term, for over 70% of patients, without the side effects most drugs can cause. In this case, patients only need a temporary intervention that will, unlike most drugs, typically produce sustained results. In a metastudy by Svedlund in 2002, in a staggering 19 of 22 studies reviewed, psychotherapy was superior to medication in outcomes.
Even for severe cases, therapies like hypnotherapy provide a great option, having been proven to help individuals whose conditions were refractory to other forms of therapy.
Meet Bold Health
This is why my co-founder Dr. Jossy Onwude and I created Bold Health: a technology platform rooted in evidence-based mindbody and behavioral medicine, to empower individuals to treat and manage their long term conditions in an accessible, personalised and easy to use way.
To start with, we are working with top experts in IBS and psychotherapy to make these proven solutions accessible and medically sound. We will offer a a digital self-management programme for IBS that helps patients relax, reflect, and overcome their symptoms, with sustained results.
We’re on a mission to help the 800 million IBS sufferers manage their condition and improve their quality of life.
Besides IBS, there are numerous other conditions where pharmaceutical approaches either don’t exist yet or are partial, missing the mindbody link, so we have an exciting opportunity to help chronically underserved patient populations get control over their body and their life back.
Our ultimate purpose is to free people from the burden of modern illness, enabling them to live boldly.
Behavioral medicine for other underserved conditions
The chart below shows current underinvestment in venture innovation for some of the most prevalent and expensive conditions in the US, with cancer and diabetes having captured the vast majority of investor money and attention over the past few years.
This has to change, with more resources dedicated to innovations for prevalent and expensive conditions like IBS or psychiatric problems.
We already have proven behavioral and mind body medicine solutions able to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and more has to be done to make these solutions accessible and scalable.
The mindbody opportunity
My takeaways for you today:
- Mindbody approaches are NOT only about treating behavioral issues (like sleep, addiction, anxiety, depression) with behavioral medicine, but also about treating very physical conditions with behavioral and mindbody medicine.
- Underrated techniques like hypnotherapy can have wide ranging therapeutic impacts across physical conditions, with studied outcomes even more pronounced, faster and more sustained than drugs.
- Underserved functional somatic and autoimmune conditions deserve a lot more attention and solutions from the medical and scientific community. They are linked to physical and emotional stress and can be addressed with mindbody medicine, in an integrated way.
- Doing this is a matter of female empowerment — women are disproportionately victims of these modern illnesses (eg. women are 9 in 10 of fibromyalgia patients, 7 in 10 of migraine, 100% of endometriosis), which means they are also often forced to opt for part time work or less stressful (and often worse paid) jobs, therefore unable to reach their full potential while held back by these disabling conditions.
Right now, we have a unique chance to revolutionise our healthcare paradigm and to fill in a significant gap left by the pharma industry that has only partially offered solutions for the millions of people that suffer from chronically underserved conditions like IBS.
Here’s to your healthy gut!
Bold Health was founded within social impact accelerator Zinc, which focuses on building new companies that solve the developed world’s toughest social issues. Apart from Bold Health, multiple other companies have launched within the cohort, each striving to impact the lives of millions of people. Check them out: Goozby, Gilda, Anamorphia, Leika, Amble, Zentor, Project Kitchen Table, Tile, Zone, Uniq, Lucina, Resilio, Squad, Onigo, Levell, Trapeze, Bolster. Read more about the journey of the Zinc Mission 1 Cohort at www.zinc.vc.
Originally published at medium.com