Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Actually Caused by the Mind?

Getty Images Image: Getty Images Print Tired of constantly hearing the phrase “I’m just grumpy,” even when you’re actually just hungover? It may be time to consider a different explanation altogether. More: The 10…

Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Actually Caused by the Mind?

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Tired of constantly hearing the phrase “I’m just grumpy,” even when you’re actually just hungover? It may be time to consider a different explanation altogether.

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According to a recent study by researchers at Stony Brook University, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) may actually be caused by something else: nerve damage in the gut.

At first, I got kind of skeptical: All the studies I read seemed to suggest the exact opposite: That no one should believe in a digestive disorder that tends to make people miserable. After all, when you are so irritable and confined to your house that your mother has to call the police to get you out of bed in the morning, it’s not easy to attribute that to an upset stomach. But how could the reasoning go that if your gut doesn’t feel right, you must be experiencing your mind at fault?

Dr. Zalmay Khalil, gastroenterologist with Albany Medical Center in New York, says it is possible for your mind to affect your digestive system. “As more information is retrieved about the host as a whole, we can develop a more complete picture of the system as a whole,” he explains. “This changes the perception of disease and predisposes us to irrational fears and misconceptions.”

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Theories about brain-gut connection go back as far as the Egyptian scientists who found that the first crocodile and crocodile-eating dinosaurs can be traced back to our first brains. Khalil says modern-day studies linking IBS to emotional and psychological stress show that all too often, what we label as an “out of control mind” is really an “out of control stomach.”

This means that simple gastrointestinal upset — including things like IBS, bloating, constipation, flatulence and abdominal pain — may actually be caused by a weakening of our digestive systems. “It is common to believe that an illness must have something physically wrong with it, such as an underlying cause such as an underlying disease, inflammation or an infection,” Khalil says. “But our understanding is starting to spread that the ill may have a weaker gut than expected, which makes a diagnosis of an irritable bowel syndrome or food allergies possible.”

How we connect the general issue of the gut to the symptoms of the mind goes way beyond the idea that a stomach upset or GI distress is simply making you miserable. “People think they’re doing something wrong when they experience problems with the gut and that thought process and behaviour often impacts the mental state as well,” Khalil says.

Consider the following: We tend to “personify” the problems with our gastrointestinal tracts as embarrassing; we fight whatever challenges we get thrown at us with energy; we overreact and over-criticize ourselves; we struggle with rumination, the tendency to obsess about problems. Khalil notes that this overall state often leads to a stronger attachment to the issue.

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Does this sound familiar? Hopefully this idea is just another step toward better understanding gastrointestinal issues and hopefully a more well-informed, empathetic — and ultimately healthier — response to them. “Many patients who have irritable bowel syndrome and food sensitivities tell me their problems come from a lack of understanding of the position of the body’s power centers within the brain, and the brain’s desires to control the body,” Khalil says.

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