Irritable bowel syndrome, wheat, stress and the search for a cure

Gut Reaction: Professor Nicholas Talley aims to find better treatments for gut diseases like irritable bowel syndrome and dyspepsia. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
Gut Reaction: Professor Nicholas Talley aims to find better treatments for gut diseases like irritable bowel syndrome and dyspepsia. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

A world-renowned Newcastle researcher is aiming to find a cure for unexplained gut diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome.

About one in seven people suffer from the syndrome, generally known as IBS.

University of Newcastle Laureate Professor Nicholas Talley’s team is investigating the role of environmental and dietary factors, including wheat, in causing gut problems.

“We have no doubt there’s a group of people who, when they eat wheat, believe they get sick with gut and other symptoms,” he said.

The researchers have found inflammation in the small intestine of sufferers.

They believe a wheat allergy or intolerance may be causing this in some people.

“We have information that says that’s certainly possible, but we have to prove it.

“If that’s correct, that’ll be a real breakthrough.”

He said there were many diet fads related to gut health, some of which might work and others which don’t work.

“You’ve got to be really careful about what’s trendy and what’s real. We’re trying to work out what’s real.”

He emphasised that many people who eat wheat “think it’s causing a problem and it’s not”.

“It’s a subset of people who we think are affected. That’s what the science is telling us,” he said.

Professor Talley is the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Global Research at the University of Newcastle.

He works as a staff specialist and gastroenterologist at John Hunter Hospital. And he’s the Medical Journal of Australia’s editor-in-chief.

He’s considered among the world’s best neurogastroenterologists – a profession that studies links between the brain and gut.

His recent work has pinpointed the gut as a major driver of anxiety and other brain changes.

Professor Talley said some who suffer from gut conditions have an abnormal stress response.

This suggests there’s a problem with the connection from the gut to the brain.

“In some people, the brain can drive the gut problems and, in other people, the gut can drive brain problems.”

It was easier to fix the gut than the brain, he said. 

“Diet can help the symptoms and there are new drugs and new approaches that can help the symptoms.” 

Antibiotics and probiotics can be used to help the gut and, subsequently, the brain.

Research into unexplained gut diseases is making progress on the path to a cure.

“If you’re asking whether we will be able to cure these problems, in other words eliminate them, we’re hopeful,” he said. 

“We think we’ve found some of the likely causes. If we can fix those, we’re hopeful people will get better.”