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New Research Gets Closer To Understanding IBS & How To Treat It

Young pregnant woman sitting on the white bed, holding her stomach and toes.
Image by Nina Zivkovic / Stocksy
January 14, 2021

As anyone who struggles with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) knows all too well, certain foods can trigger a wave of abdominal cramping and discomfort. IBS affects millions of people worldwide, but the mechanisms behind it have always been somewhat of a mystery. But new research published in Nature by K.U. Leuven in Belgium is illuminating the possible reason behind these reactions1.

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How foods become intolerable.

For this study, the researchers wanted to pinpoint what causes the disruption in a person's ability to tolerate foods. IBS patients often report gastrointestinal infections at the start of their symptoms, so the team dug deeper. What if foods present during an infection wound up triggering the immune system afterward?

As it turns out, that may be exactly what's happening. And the research suggests it could be related to histamine. In their first study, the team infected mice with a bacterial infection and fed them a particular protein found in eggs—a common allergen.

After the infection was gone, that egg protein still caused an activation of mast cells (cells that release histamine) and poor digestion. And interestingly enough, the immune response was only present in the area of the intestines that had been infected.

Expanding on the findings.

Of course, the team wanted to see if these results translated to humans, and—long story short—they did.

When IBS patients had common food antigens injected into their intestines (gluten, soy, cow's milk, etc.), the researchers observed the same localized immune response as they saw in the mice. It's also worth noting that the research team had previously completed research that found blocking histamine improved symptoms for people with IBS.

Until now, these food intolerances haven't been well understood since they're not seen as a typical food allergy. As gastroenterologist and lead author of the study Guy Boeckxstaens, Ph.D., explains in a news release, "At one end of the spectrum, the immune response to a food antigen is very local, as in IBS. At the other end of the spectrum is food allergy, comprising a generalized condition of severe mast cell activation, with an impact on breathing, blood pressure, and so on."

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The takeaway.

As we get closer to understanding—and treating—IBS, more research is necessary to confirm the IBS-histamine link, but the findings seem promising.

"Knowing the mechanism that leads to mast cell activation is crucial and will lead to novel therapies for these patients," Boeckxstaens says. "Mast cells release many more compounds and mediators than just histamine, so if you can block the activation of these cells I believe you will have a much more efficient therapy."

And given how difficult it is to diagnose these intolerances since there isn't a typical allergic response, Boeckxstaens says these insights "provide further evidence that we are dealing with a real disease."

From here, a larger clinical trial on antihistamine treatment for IBS is in the works. Until we know more, it's still never a bad idea to keep an eye on which foods trigger pain and discomfort and try to avoid them for the sake of your gut and overall health.

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