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Getting to the bottom of IBS

September 9, 2021

Irritable bowel syndrome (or IBS), characterized by stomach pain, bloating, cramping, constipation and diarrhea, is diagnosed in an estimated 1.3% of U.S. adults. In a country of 330 million, that’s a lot.

Symptoms are often chronic and the condition often has no identifiable cause, visible damage or detectible disease, circumstances that are “frustrating for patients and their health care providers,” writes Marc E. Rothenberg, M.D., Ph.D. in the New England Journal of Medicine.

And though Mayo Clinic’s list of IBS causes include muscle contractions in the intestine, nerve abnormalities and early life stress, so far there is no test to definitively diagnose IBS. Writes Rothenberg, “Clinicians often have the impression that the disease is all in the head.”

Is IBS an allergic reaction to foods?

But it is turning out, as reported in the New York Times, there may in fact be physical explanations for IBS as have been revealed for other conditions with newly measurable physical or biochemical underpinnings, such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, or migraines.

IBS may actually start with an infection that disrupts the cells that line the bowel. When working properly, “these cells form a barrier that prevents allergy-inducing proteins in foods from being absorbed,” the New York Times reports. “When that barrier is penetrated, people can become intolerant to foods that previously caused them no issue.”

Or as Rothenberg writes, “[C]ommon gastrointestinal ailments, such as IBS and functional abdominal pain, may instead be food-induced allergic disorders.”

Research on IBS patients and mice support the hypothesis.

Chipping away at the IBS stigma

An identifiable cause and definitive test would not only solve the challenge of diagnosis but offer pathways to treatments. It would also dismantle the stigma of IBS as a psychosomatic disease.

At iSpecimen, we support research related to the gut and microbiome by helping research organizations procure human biospecimens such as stool or colon tissue, both diagnosed and normal. Researchers can obtain samples from patients of specific age, gender, race, condition, blood type, BMI, smoking status, medical history, family history, and more.

By examining the body – including its fluids, tissue and cells – we can sometimes gather important clues to establish that a condition is in fact not, and never was, all in the head.

Learn about the iSpecimen Marketplace where you can browse millions of richly annotated, de-identified human tissue and biofluid biospecimens, in addition to hematopoietic and immune cell products and COVID-19 samples. You can join for free.