Common gut disease and mental health problems share common roots

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In a new study from the University of Cambridge, researchers tested more than 50,000 people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

They found that IBS symptoms may be caused by the same biological processes as conditions such as anxiety.

IBS is a common condition world-wide, affecting around 1 in 10 people and causing a wide range of symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating and bowel dysfunction that can significantly affect people’s lives.

Diagnosis is usually made after considering other possible conditions (such as Crohn’s disease or bowel cancer), with clinical tests coming back “normal.”

The condition often runs in families and is also more common among people who are prone to anxiety.

The causes of IBS are not well understood, but an international team of researchers has now identified several genes that provide clues to the origins of IBS.

In the study, the team looked at genetic data from 40,548 people who suffer from IBS from the UK Biobank and 12,852 from the Bellygenes initiative.

The results showed that overall, the heritability of IBS (how much your genes influence the likelihood of developing a particular condition) is quite low.

However, six genetic differences (influencing the genes NCAM1, CADM2, PHF2/FAM120A, DOCK9, CKAP2/TPTE2P3 and BAG6) were more common in people with IBS than in controls.

As IBS symptoms affect the gut and bowel, it would be expected that genes associated with increased risk of IBS would be expressed there—but this is not what the researchers found.

Instead, most of the altered genes appear to have more clear-cut roles in the brain and possibly the nerves which supply the gut, rather than the gut itself.

Researchers also looked for overlap between susceptibility to IBS and other physical and mental health conditions.

They found that the same genetic make-up that puts people at increased risk of IBS also increases the risk for common mood and anxiety disorders such as anxiety, depression, and neuroticism, as well as insomnia.

However, the researchers stress that this doesn’t mean that anxiety causes IBS symptoms or vice versa.

The study also found that people with both IBS and anxiety were more likely to have been treated frequently with antibiotics during childhood.

The authors hypothesize that repeated use of antibiotics during childhood might increase the risk of IBS (and perhaps anxiety) by altering the ‘normal’ gut flora (healthy bacteria that normally live in the gut) which in turn influence nerve cell development and mood.

One researcher of the study is Professor Miles Parkes.

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