Spring is upon us, and with it comes Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) Awareness Month. IBS is a common gastrointestinal disease that affects the large intestines of over 30 million people in the United States. It is a chronic condition without a cure, but it can be managed through diet, lifestyle choices, and stress management. Symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
These may sound like minor symptoms compared to other chronic diseases, but the discomfort caused by this disorder is great enough that it is commonly associated with depression, anxiety, and poor quality of life. People with IBS miss three times as many days from work due to bowel symptoms than those without the disorder. Despite the prevalence of the disorder, many people remain undiagnosed and unaware that their symptoms are more than just minor discomfort after a greasy meal.
Numerous triggers and traits shared by victims of IBS have been identified, but the exact cause of the disorder is still unknown. Researchers have theorized that IBS is caused through a combination of emotional stress, environmental factors, diet, inflammation, and genetics. However, a research review published at the beginning of 2017 has suggested that changes to the gastrointestinal microbiota may be a cause of IBS.1
In this review, a research team from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota analyzed a large group of studies about gut microbiota and IBS that led to several new observations about the development of the disease. The results suggest that changes in the gut microbiota can be a result of IBS, but they also have the potential to be a cause of IBS. Individuals with IBS have a different makeup of gut bacteria than those without IBS. Poor dietary habits and antibiotic use can both disrupt gut microbiota and contribute to IBS symptoms. Changes in the gut microbiota may influence the ability of the GI tract to contract to move waste through the system. This can have a large impact on nearly every symptom related to IBS, particularly for those suffering from diarrhea or constipation. The review results also suggest that changes in the gut microbiota could impair communication networks between the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, predisposing people to IBS symptoms.
Most importantly, the researchers highlighted data suggesting that emotional stress can change the shape and function of microorganisms in the GI tract. This aligns with previous beliefs that stress, diet, and inflammation can lead to IBS. All of these factors can lead to changes in the shape and function of microorganisms in the GI tract, so the evidence that imbalances in the microbiota can lead to IBS are looking stronger than ever. This knowledge could lead to reprioritization of current treatment options for IBS towards options that have a positive effect on gut microbiota and new treatment options in the future. The researchers of the review article seem to agree, as they wrote, “Overall, the outlook is optimistic, and we now have the necessary tools and knowledge as we embark on developing effective microbiota targeted therapies for IBS.”
1Bhattarai, Y.; Muniz Pedrogo, D.A.; Kashyap, P.C. Irritable bowel syndrome: A gut microbiota-related disorder? Am. J. Physiol. Gastrointest. Liver. Physiol. 2017, 312, G52–G62.
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