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The Oklahoman

Gravity may play a weighty role in irritable bowel syndrome

By Adam Cohen and Dr. Judith James,

2023-03-14
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Adam’s Journal

A friend sent me an article suggesting that gravity might be a factor in causing irritable bowel syndrome. Could this really be true? And if so, what does it mean for people affected by this condition?

Dr. James Prescribes

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic digestive disorder that affects an estimated 10% of the world’s population. It manifests in a wide variety of symptoms: abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, constipation and diarrhea.

Physicians typically arrive at this diagnosis by ruling out other culprits, and the cause of IBS is unknown. However, scientists have pointed to a number of potential culprits, including disordered communications between the gut and brain, excessive inflammation, and the microbes that populate the intestinal tract.

In a paper published last year in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, a scientist suggested a sort of grand theory of IBS. He argued that IBS stems from the body’s inability to manage gravity.

He said that as he thought about each possible explanation, from bacteria to nerve signaling, “I realized they might all point back to gravity as a unifying factor.”

While this theory is unsupported by clinical or experimental data, an earlier study published in the journal Gut lends a bit of weight to the idea. Specifically, it found that gas transit and evacuation were faster when research volunteers stood up versus when they rested in bed.

If IBS stems from the body’s inability to manage gravity properly, it could also help explain why exercise sometimes yields positive results for those with the condition.

Still, apart from the idea that standing up and moving around might help relieve symptoms, the gut-and-gravity theory doesn’t carry a lot of practical benefit to those living with IBS.

For those with IBS, physicians typically recommend dietary changes first. Often, they’ll have patients eliminate a category of foods known as FODMAPs, a type of carbohydrate the small intestine absorbs poorly. If this strategy proves unsuccessful, supplements and medications may follow.

James, a physician-scientist, is vice president of clinical affairs at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Cohen is a marathoner and OMRF’s senior vice president and general counsel. Submit your health questions to contact@omrf.org.

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