Why stress is such a pain in the gut

Jun 9 2017

Jessica Bruce

New research from the University of Newcastle (UON) has shown a ground-breaking link between stress and functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGID), a vital piece of the puzzle for undiagnosed sufferers.

With more than 20 per cent of the Australian population suffering from a FGID, which includes Irritable Bowel Syndrome and symptoms such as constipation, bloating, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, researchers from the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI)* explored the impact of psychological stress on the gut.

The team studied biopsies from the gastrointestinal tract of patients, looking closely at the levels of a very specific immune protein. The results showed patients with FGID who were also suffering from stress had heightened levels of the protein, caused by alterations in the body’s response to stress.

“What we think is happening is this protein causes the immune system to be more activated. The heightened activation leads to subtle inflammation of the gut, which leads to FGID, pain and more alterations in gut function,” said Miss Jessica Bruce, whose research led to the discovery.

“It’s a really exciting finding, as it means there’s a connection between stress and the working of the gastrointestinal tract,” she explained.

Miss Bruce, a member of the Gastrointestinal Research Group and HMRI's VIVA program, said she sympathised with the hordes of sufferers going undiagnosed and desperately seeking answers from their health professionals.

“It’s incredible how many people have symptoms of a gastrointestinal disorder, but upon examination of the bowel, there’s nothing physically to see.

“No diagnosis means the symptoms are incredibly difficult to treat, which in turn leads to more stress for the patient – it’s a catch 22,” she said.

The results, which were recently presented in Brisbane as a poster at international Falk Symposium on Gut Microbiome, took out first prize in the research competition.

Despite making headway in the field, Miss Bruce said there is still a way to go.

“Although there are studies looking at the link between stress and IBS specifically, there really isn’t much research into the field of FGID more broadly.

“Up until only three or four years ago, it was thought these symptoms were all in the brain, whereas now we’re realising there are physiological changes at play, not just psychological,” she said.

A Hunter local, Miss Bruce said she was keen to keep exploring the area for her PhD, which she hopes to complete between Newcastle and Canada.

“The disease is just so poorly understood and before we can develop targeted treatment, we need to fully understand how it works. I hope to continue finding those answers.”

*HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.