'Itchy Gut' Is A Real Thing: Here's How To Know If You Have It
If you're one of the 10 to 15% of adults affected by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), there's good news. Researchers at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute just discovered a group of receptors responsible for a symptom of IBS that has stumped doctors for years: itchy gut.
Itchy gut may seem like a funny name, but for those who have experienced it, it's not funny at all. Gut itch is characterized by a persistent and intense sensation—one that feels like a painful itch—that, until now, was a total mystery.
The research team from Flinders University was able to show the same receptors that cause itchy skin also exist in the human gut, where they activate neurons that lead to this chronic gut itch. People with IBS have more of these "itch" receptors in their gut than people without it, which means more neurons to activate and, thus, more painful itchiness.
As professor Stuart Brierley, lead researcher, and Matthew Flinders, research fellow in gastrointestinal neuroscience, explained, "We found receptors which bring about an itchy feeling on skin also do the same in the gut, so these patients are essentially suffering from a 'gut itch.'"
So what does that mean for patients with IBS? "We've translated these results to human tissue tests and now hope to help create a treatment where people can take an oral medication for IBS," he continued.
This is particularly hopeful news when you learn that the current treatments—mainly, opioids—for gut itch don't actually work very well, which means a lot of people are currently suffering without much relief. Targeting the receptors directly using the knowledge gained from this study would allow doctors to treat the underlying cause of gut itch instead of just masking the symptoms.
So how do these receptors work, exactly? According to Brierley, itchy gut occurs when itch receptors are coupled with a type of receptor in the nervous system—called a "wasabi receptor"—that creates a pain signal.
"If you think about what happens when you eat wasabi, it activates a receptor on the nerves and sends a pain signal—that's exactly what's happening within in their gut as they experience an itchy effect or wasabi effect in the gut," he said. (To learn more about exactly how this works, you can watch this video, created by the research team.)
This study, plus previous research on the wasabi receptor, suggests it could play a massive role in combating chronic pain and inflammation. Next on the agenda for this Australian research team is finding ways to block these receptors from sending signals from the gut to the brain. As Brierley said, "This will be a far better solution than the problems currently presented by opioid treatments."
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