Irritable Bowel Syndrome – A Complex Interplay of Biological and External Factors

According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that accounts for as much as 12% of all primary care provider visits in the United States. IBS was once widely characterized as a psychosomatic condition, with little knowledge of the underlying biology, where mental stressors were abstractly the primary source of gastrointestinal (GI) unease. Today, we have reached a better understanding of how the gastrointestinal tract functions, and how sensitive the human microbiome is on several fronts. Although IBS is described as a state of dysbiosis within the gut, it is more the result rather than the cause.

Although IBS manifests in our biology, external factors can become internalized, affecting one’s biology. Stress is one such factor, profoundly affecting the psycho-neuro-immune-endocrine system of the gastrointestinal tract. The neuroendocrine system – as the name suggests – consists of communicative pathways between the nervous and endocrine systems, which is maintained by the hypothalamus. The impact of stress on the neuroendocrine system can lower one’s defenses within the gastrointestinal tract, giving harmful opportunistic microorganisms an advantage. This leads to an imbalance in the GI tract that can contribute to IBS symptoms.

Diet is also a major factor that is internalized to impact one’s digestive health. When healthy, the GI tract works as a protective barrier for the body against everyday toxins found in food and water. It also is important for absorbing and metabolizing nutrients. Maintaining a balanced microflora in the GI tract is important, and when in a state of dysbiosis, the stomach becomes dysfunctional.

Foods high in prebiotics, found in certain high fiber foods, go undigested in the upper GI tract, acting as a substrate upon which friendly bacteria can colonize. Diets high in unhealthy fats and red meat, however, can lead to harmful bacteria proliferating, creating a whole host of digestive consequences.

Researchers are continuing to gain a deeper understanding of IBS with various animal models, so that treatment can go beyond the symptoms and address the many sources that can alter one’s digestive health.

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Categories: Inflammatory diseases