The Secrets of the Brain-Gut Axis

Psychology and environmental factors can cause IBS

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) It's known that your psychological state can have a major impact on your health, and can even lead to disease. One of these diseases is the commonly diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome.

The triggers for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are not well understood. Scientists have begun to look into the psychosocial aspects of IBS – or how a patient's experiences of stressful or traumatic events, anxiety, and depression, might explain how they developed the disease.

"Ask your doctor how your mental health may relate to IBS."

A team of Romanian researchers, including Teodora Surdea-Blaga from the University of Medicine and Pharmacy IuliuHatieganu, reviewed the breadth of studies on the psychological and social factors of IBS.

IBS is characterized by abdominal pain and cramping, and changes in bowel movements, among other symptoms. It's estimated that 1 out of every 6 Americans experience symptoms of IBS, and most people experience mild symptoms.

It may sound strange, but there is evidence that abuse and other stressful life events are connected to the onset of IBS. Doctors frequently see people with trauma present for with symptoms, and researchers suspect that can influence the course of the disease.

But how? It turns out that the brain is linked to the gut. Scientists call it the “brain-gut axis,” and signals that travel through it can affect bowel function.

Stress can disrupt and change those signals, causing bowel dysfunction.

Researchers have found that a mix of genetics and traumatic or stressful experiences early in life, like losing a loved one and being abused physically or mentally, impacts how one copes with stress and also how the gut is developed.

This early experience reverberates throughout the patient's life. How they cope with daily issues and address their health can influence how early they get treatment, how they use treatment, and what the outcome of their disease is.

The researchers also looked at how IBS tends to affect more than one family member. Did this have a pyschosocial reason behind it? Or is it purely genetic?

It has been reported through some studies that experiences early in life, including birth weight, living conditions, personal and dietary habits, have been associated with higher rates of IBS among children and adolescents. The researchers also suggested that children may learn from their parents how to respond to IBS-like symptoms and complaints.

The researchers conclude that environmental and psychosocial factors do indeed contribute to IBS and influence how the disease symptoms are experienced.

However, some individuals are more susceptible than others to respond to environmental and social triggers by developing gut-related problems. Personality traits and psychiatric disorders put individuals at higher risk of developing IBS, the researchers suggest.

The paper was published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 21, 2012
Last Updated:
March 22, 2012