Gut Feelings

Irritable bowel syndrome is a term for a constellation of symptoms, primarily abdominal pain and discomfort, diarrhea or constipation, and bloating that may be so severe as to result in distension, a visible swelling in the abdomen. These symptoms strike about 15 percent of Americans, two-thirds of them women. Three in five of these people, according to some studies, have anxiety, depression, or similar psychological issues, and many also have additional physical effects of the bowel disease, such as a form of severe heartburn known as gastroesophageal reflux.

Now research suggests that for many irritable bowel patients, those psychological effects are actually a bigger deal than whats going on on their guts. The researchers say they found that when irritable bowel patients are asked about their own assessment of their condition, the biggest factors influencing their answers are not the severity of the disease itself, but the patients mental state, social relationships, energy levels, other medical problems, and other non-gastrointestinal issues.

"Our findings suggest that in IBS patients and possibly patients with other diseases as well, health perceptions depend to a much larger extent on non-biomedical factors than those of us who are health care providers have ever suspected," Jeffrey Lackner, PsyD, an associate professor of medicine in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences who led the study, said in a statement.

It’s not clear what causes irritable bowel syndrome to develop, though it does tend to run in families. Scientists recently found a genetic defect that disrupts bowel function in a way that leads to irritation. This doesn’t cause all cases of the condition, but it does explain some. Others may be accounted for by any of a number of factors. Stress may trigger flare-ups, if not gradually create the conditions for them to occur. In addition, low serotonin levels are associated with irritable bowel as both cause and effect.

One way to fight irritable bowel syndrome is with diet. Probiotics, as supplements or in foods such as yogurt, can help reduce or eliminate symptoms and foster the growth of what are called gut microflora, beneficial bacteria lining the stomach that are important for digestive health.

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