This holistic, patient-centered approach is particularly important for people with chronic gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses or symptoms, given the well-established connection between the brain and the gut as well as the critical role of diet in digestive health.
At the Integrative Digestive Health and Wellness Program within the Melvin and Bren Simon Digestive Diseases Center at UCLA, a team of experts works collaboratively to enhance each patient’s overall health and wellness. In addition to the gastroenterologist who manages your care, other team members include a GI nurse practitioner and mindfulness teacher with expertise in the brain-gut axis and mind body approaches, registered dietitians with special expertise in digestive health, and a GI health psychologist who specializes in the use of evidence-based psychological strategies to reduce symptoms and improve the ability to cope with illness. By working together in an integrative fashion to meet each patient’s needs, we strive to achieve the best possible outcomes not only for your digestive health, but also for your overall well-being.
It’s no accident that people talk about their “gut feelings” or “gut instincts.” Through scientific research, much of it pioneered at UCLA, we continue to learn more about the powerful connection between the mind and the gastrointestinal tract. Our brain and our enteric nervous system — sometimes referred to as the “second brain” in the gut — communicate back and forth in ways that influence both mental and physical health. This is why when we are stressed we often feel it in the gut, and why people with anxiety or depression often have abnormal gastrointestinal function. It is also why conditions once classified, as functional gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation and chronic abdominal pain, are now understood to be rooted in altered brain-gut interactions.
Given this close connection, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that mounting evidence supports the therapeutic value of a wide range of dietary, behavioral and integrative health practices for patients with gastrointestinal disorders. Our Integrative Digestive Health and Wellness Program has embraced these evidence-based strategies and offers them as part of our comprehensive approach to patient care. For appropriate patients who wish to participate, our UCLA gastroenterologists can refer to the following experts who are integral members of the team:
Integrative Health Practitioner
Our program’s nurse practitioner has expertise in clinical care and research in gastrointestinal disorders and the brain-gut connection. They have special training in mind-body approaches and are a certified mindfulness teacher. The practitioner empowers patients to take charge of their health through practical health-promoting behaviors and mindfulness-based interventions that have been shown to reduce stress and relieve symptoms. The practitioner provides tools and strategies promoting sleep, fitness, stress management, resilience and self-care, all personalized into a care plan for the patient’s condition, goals and lifestyle. The practitioner is instrumental to ensuring that the entire integrative health team works together in a coordinated manner.
While proper nutrition is vital to everyone’s health, it is a critical factor for patients with a gastrointestinal condition, many of who suffer discomfort, pain and other debilitating symptoms that are exacerbated by the foods they eat, which in turn can affect their psychological well-being. The internet and news media put out a barrage of information about the pros and cons of various diets, foods and nutritional supplements, much of which is either conflicting or not based on solid science. As a result, by the time many patients see one of our program’s registered dietitians they are confused, frustrated, or both. Because our registered dietitians exclusively see patients with digestive problems, they can help to dispel myths and, working in tandem with the other integrative team members, offer practical, evidence-based dietary strategies suited to conditions and lifestyles. These strategies not only help to reduce symptoms, but also provide a sense of control over the management of symptoms.
GI Health Psychologist
Many patients with gastrointestinal conditions can also benefit from working with our GI health psychologist, who is specially trained in applying evidence-based psychological principles to influence the brain-gut connection and improve patients’ symptoms and well-being. For some, GI symptoms are worsened by stress, while for others, the stress of managing the symptoms can contribute to a significant impairment in qualify of life. With a referral from your UCLA gastroenterologist, you can see a GI health psychologist who can develop a treatment plan based on your goals, then work with you and your physician to implement a plan that can help to address your symptoms and ensure that you can lead a meaningful and fulfilling life while managing the condition. These psychological strategies include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which examines the role of thoughts and behaviors in the expression of GI symptoms and develops new approaches to handling the symptoms and reducing stress; acceptance and commitment therapy, a mindfulness-based behavioral therapy designed to assist the patient with coping and adjustment to the condition; and medical hypnosis, a form of relaxation training that uses imagery and positive suggestion to help calm the digestive tract.
UCLA is at the forefront of a new frontier in the way patients with gastrointestinal conditions are treated — one that recognizes the importance of not simply treating the digestive tract, but looking at the whole person and developing a comprehensive approach to enhancing health through a multidisciplinary team of experts. Our integrative health team is dedicated to providing individualized, patient-centered care grounded in the latest knowledge about digestive health, the brain-gut connection and strategies for improving the health and quality of life of patients who are experiencing these conditions. Together, we can help to identify the approach that is best for you, and work with you toward achieving the best possible outcome.