HUNTER researchers have discovered a “groundbreaking” link between stress and gut diseases like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
More than 20 per cent of the population suffers from a functional gastrointestinal disorder (FGID), with the group of diseases accounting for about 36 per cent of visits to gastroenterologists, University of Newcastle honours student Jessica Bruce said.
“IBS is one of the most common ones,” Ms Bruce said.
“They are very prevalent within society, but we don’t really know what causes them.
“Patients can have a range of really unpleasant symptoms, but they don’t have any physical changes we can easily see in their gastrointestinal tract, and that has some large implications for diagnosis.”
But through her research at the University of Newcastle, Ms Bruce has made a link between stress and immune changes that can lead to symptoms such as constipation, bloating, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Ms Bruce, alongside fellow members of the Gastrointestinal Research Group at the university, believe they have worked out the way stress triggers the disease symptoms.
It was while looking into an FGID called functional dyspepsia that Ms Bruce made the discovery.
“There is a hormone that regulates your stress response,” she said.
“Historically, it’s the stress response that allows you to run away from a lion if you need to. But with FGID patients, there seems to be a dysregulation in their stress response, and their increased levels of anxiety and stress don’t correlate with increases in that particular hormone.
“We believe this leads to an increase in a protein within the gut, and we think an increase in this particular protein might be leading to very subtle immune changes in the intestines of these patients, which lead to the symptoms of pain, diarrhea, reflux, nausea, vomiting and bloating.”
Ms Bruce said she hoped the discovery would lead to a better understanding of what was going on in the gut for patients, and trigger the development of more targeted therapies to treat the symptoms and the disease.
“What’s really exciting is that we have a potential mechanism for how stress can influence the gut, and we are bringing together two aspects of the disease,” she said.
“Previously we’ve known there were some very subtle immune changes in these patients, and that stress was a major player. We have hopefully found a way to fill in the missing link through this particular protein.”
The Gastrointestinal Research Group is hoping to show this same mechanism occurs in patients with IBS.
“Up until only three or four years ago, it was thought these symptoms were all in the brain, whereas now we’re realising there are physiological changes at play, not just psychological,” she said.