Have you heard that hypnotherapy can help alleviate IBS symptoms? Sound too good to be true? Or maybe you thought this was a fad, promoted by those on the fringe of the medical community? The great news is that there have been many clinical trials that have shown that hypnotherapy can relieve not only pain, bloating and gas, but also hard or loose stools, and urgency as well as well.
How is this possible? And how can an app help? We sat down with the brothers Alex and Chris Naoumidis, the co-founders of Mindset Health and creators of the Nerva app to learn more, and to bring you the info you need.
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Dédé Wilson: Alex and Chris, thank you for talking with us. I am very excited about this interview because we have been discussing hypnotherapy internally with our Success Team RDs for years, ever since Erica Ilton brought Dr. Olafur Palsson to our attention and his work at the University of North Carolina Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders.
There is, of course, a gut-brain connection and what hypnotherapy does is retrain how your brain and gut communicate.
Tell us in more detail what gut-directed hypnotherapy is, how you became interested in hypnotherapy for IBS, a bit about your respective backgrounds and also about your company, Mindset Health.
Alex & Chris: Great to speak with you Dédé.
Gut-directed hypnotherapy is a type of hypnotherapy targeted to improving symptoms of gastrointestinal tract disorders, primarily IBS.
Hypnosis is essentially a state of focused attention and relaxation that amplifies your ability to absorb new information while enhancing the brain and body’s connection. When guided by a medical professional towards gut-specific therapeutic techniques, it becomes gut-directed hypnotherapy.
During a gut-directed hypnotherapy session, the person is guided by the hypnotherapist into a focused and relaxed daydreaming state. Suggestions for the control and normalization of gut function are then made to the unconscious mind.
For more in-depth information read: Gut-Directed Hypnotherapy – Promising Therapy for IBS
We became interested in hypnotherapy for IBS when we explored the research behind hypnosis and discovered just how much clinical research supports hypnotherapy for IBS symptoms. As a celiac myself, helping people with a gut disorder self-manage their symptoms from home, without drugs, was an exciting opportunity.
Our background is in business and technology, and we work with the best researchers and medical experts in the world to help us build our programs. We founded Mindset Health to take that idea and scale it to help millions of people with chronic health conditions, like IBS, anxiety, or post-menopausal hot flashes, self-manage their symptoms without drugs.
So, Mindset Health has two apps: Mindset, which is geared towards helping people with anxiety and depression, and Nerva, which is gut-directed hypnotherapy and the focus of our discussion. Tell us about your scientific advisory board and explain how our community members can rest assured that Nerva is trustworthy and evidence based.
We realized that Chris and my expertise were in business and technology, not healthcare, so we prioritized working with the absolute best experts in the world. Dr. Michael Yapko is the leading hypnosis expert and writes the textbook of clinical uses of hypnosis.
Dr. Simone Peters is our gut-directed hypnotherapy expert and has run a clinical trial of her gut-directed hypnotherapy approach with Monash University. We’re also supported by Dr. Irving Kirsh, an associate director at Harvard Medical School, Dr. May Wong, a gastroenterologist, and Dr. Gary Elkins, the director of the Mind-Body Research Lab at Baylor University. We’re completely focused on building safe, evidence-based digital programs that people can put their trust in.
Briefly tell folks how Mindset came to be. Personally, I find your funding story to be fantastic. There are so many wannabe startups in the health and tech space and only those that rise to the top get the kind of attention and backing that you did.
We founded Mindset Health after we killed our previous startup and fell into a period of anxiety and self-doubt. After researching hypnosis and the brain/body connection, we founded Mindset to make hypnosis more accessible.
We went through an accelerator program in Australia (Startmate) to launch Mindset and then participated in Y Combinator in San Francisco, of Airbnb/Stripe/Doordash/Reddit fame, which helped us launch Nerva. Post this program, we fundraised a Seed round of $1.1 million to help grow our team, conduct research and scale Nerva to help more people.
I am very familiar with Y Combinator and for those who are not in the start-up space, basically what you need to know is that it is one of the most well-respected accelerator programs, with a lot of serious competition.
I have to admit, when I heard that hypnotherapy could be used for IBS symptoms, I was curious, but skeptical. I definitely did not know at first that there were clinical trials that had proven its efficacy. Can you talk a little about the most current research and what we know – and what we don’t know?
The exact mechanism isn’t known, but it’s thought that hypnotherapy works by enhancing mind-gut communication. The mind and the gut are directly connected (through the vagus nerve): one cannot function without the other.
When something disrupts that transmission, the brain can misinterpret normal signals from the digestive tract causing the body to become hypersensitive to stimuli, such as food or stress, triggering IBS symptoms.
This process is thought to be related to how FODMAPs trigger symptoms, with the gas caused by high-FODMAP foods’ fermentation potentially triggering these hypersensitive nerves.
You just explained the connection to FODMAPs so clearly. Thank you!
Gut-directed hypnotherapy is thought to shift the brain’s attention away from those stimuli by providing suggestions around self-regulation and normalization of gut function. It doesn’t get rid of the stimulus; instead, it helps change the threshold of perception, so your brain (and body) is not feeling it with the same intensity.
Along with this process, gut-directed hypnotherapy has been shown to help improve psychological functioning by reducing stress, anxiety, and depression and enhancing the overall quality of life, which also directly impacts IBS symptoms.
I love that you call it “The Nerva Experience”, because that is a very apt description. Nerva is a 6-week hypnotherapy program to help patients learn how to self-manage their IBS symptoms.
Walk us through the app. How much does it cost and how does it work?
The Nerva program is delivered through a mobile app on both iOS and Android. As you mentioned, the program consists of a 6-week core program plus an ongoing reinforcement program. You get a 7-day free trial to experience the program before deciding to pay. If you think that Nerva is right for you then it costs US$67 (AU$97, £47) for a 3-month subscription, which is 10x cheaper than in-person sessions.
The program’s core is a 6-week series of guided gut-directed hypnotherapy audio sessions, developed by Dr Simone Peters. Each session is designed to replicate the experience of in-person hypnotherapy but while comfortably at home. To start, you sit or lie down somewhere comfortable, putting your headphones on and closing your eyes. You then begin listening to an audio recording from your hypnotherapist, who helps you to deeply relax and focus before guiding you through a themed visualization.
From an inner river to a control center, each visualization provides suggestions to your unconscious that encourage self-regulation of IBS symptoms. At the end of the session, your hypnotherapist will count from 5 to 1, helping you become more refreshed and alert. Nerva’s sessions are very similar to in-person sessions, except that instead of closing your eyes and listening to someone in the room you’re closing your eyes and listening to an audio recording!
Nerva includes a flare-up toolkit, daily psychoeducational articles, and deep breathing exercises in addition to the sessions.
How many people have gone through your program? Do you have details on their satisfaction with the program?
We’ve helped over 5000 people so far, and many more are starting every day. We have an average rating of 4.5 from over 1700 App/Play Store reviews, and our users have reported strong results in their ability to manage their symptoms.
Tell us about the relationship between the low FODMAP diet and hypnotherapy.
In a 2016 study, researchers at Monash University (including our Dr. Peters) ran a study comparing the efficacy of gut-directed hypnotherapy to that of the low FODMAP diet in people with IBS.
They found that not only was gut-directed hypnotherapy effective but that it was just as effective as the low FODMAP diet for a similar proportion of people. The study also found that hypnotherapy was effective psychologically, with patients feeling less anxious and less depressed.
So, once the user has completed the 6-week program, what happens at that point?
Once they’ve finished the 6-week program, they move onto the post-program phase, which is a less intense reinforcement and maintenance period. Users can choose to stop using the program after the initial 6-week program, but we’ve found that many choose to continue using Nerva.
A portion of the IBS population is also dealing with anxiety or depression. Tell us a little about your other app, and also whether you have any plans for future apps?
As I mentioned earlier, gut-directed hypnotherapy has been shown to help people feel less anxious and depressed. Still, some people would like more specific mental health support, so we have an app called Mindset. Mindset is a broader program designed to help people learn skills to improve their mental health in anxiety, stress, depression, and sleep.