'Surgery' to fight the flab is all in the mind

"LOOK into my eyes… you are feeling very sleepy." When you wake up, you will have undergone a major, invasive operation costing thousands of pounds to carry out. Well, at least you will think you have.

Hypnotherapists are increasingly linking up with surgeons to help their clients lose weight using gastric-band procedures. But in this case, the knife, the operating theatre and the band in question exist only in the patient's mind.

Thousands of gastric band operations are carried out in the UK each year, with interest in the surgery encouraged by celebrities such as Fern Britton and Anne Diamond undergoing the procedure.

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Now gastric band hypnotherapy – using hypnosis to make someone believe they have undergone the surgery – has arrived in Scotland and is helping dieters to lose weight.

Julie-Anne Taylor, who offers the service at her Edinburgh clinic, believes she is the first hypnotherapist in Scotland to use the technique. She said it offered an effective alternative to surgery. "Gastric band surgery, like any other surgery, is very invasive," she said. "It is a major operation, but it is a last port of call for people who have serious obesity problems."

Scotland has the second-highest levels of obesity in the developed world, just behind the United States. About a quarter of Scots are estimated to be obese. Figures obtained from health boards under Freedom of Information legislation show 53 people classified as "dangerously" obese are on waiting lists for weight loss surgery in Scotland, while a further 600 are waiting for assessment for procedures such as gastric band surgery.

Taylor said that by using hypnosis it was possible to take someone through the steps of the procedure, just as it would be carried out in real life, so their subconscious actually believes they have had the band fitted.

"You take them through the basics of it – the gastric band is being inserted, it is being tightened to the right size and then the operation is over. You are coming around, you are feeling relaxed.

"They will start choosing different foods because they start feeling better and in the end they will lose weight," she said.

She said the gastric band would not be "fitted" in the first session. First, hypnosis techniques would be taught and the reasons for over-eating discussed. And after the "surgery", she said it could be repeated to improve the results.

"You can go back readjust it," she said. "If they are not eating enough, you can readjust it again. So there is no harm because you can play around until you get the right level."

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But just as with real gastric band surgery, Taylor warned that patients would have to be suitable to have it done. "If someone came to see me and they really wanted it, but they had only a few pounds to lose, I wouldn't do it because that would not be ethically correct," she said. "I am looking, really, at people around three stone plus to lose. That's my cut-off point."

Although some surgeons claim there is no evidence the technique works, about half a dozen of Taylor's clients have undergone gastric band hypnotherapy and she claims all have lost weight – one shedding five stones and two others losing two stones or more.

"I don't expect people to lose a massive amount quickly – we are trying to do it at a contained rate. But it has been very, very successful with pretty much all of them," she said.

John Butler, from the British Society of Hypnotherapists, said gastric band hypnotherapy was not a cure-all. "It is purely about the use of the imagination," he said. "Clearly, not everyone will respond to the same suggestion as effectively as others. It is not a magic wand or cure. But it is one useful technique."

But David Galloway, a obesity surgeon based in Glasgow, said there was no evidence to back up claims the technique helped people lose weight. "You can find plenty of people who have lost two or more stone through conservative techniques such as diet and exercise," he said.

"It may be someone can dupe themselves into believing they have a gastric band, and I don't want to decry that.

"But as a potential approach to the management of obesity in an individual, I think this is unlikely to fly."

Galloway said access to gastric band surgery on the NHS varied between health boards, with fewer private operations taking place.

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"It is a very highly successful procedure," he said. "It is incredibly safe – one of the safest operations we do.

"It is not without some potentially serious side-effects, but there is no surgery known to man which would avoid that potential criticism."