Your Gut Appears to Itch in the Same Way Your Skin Does—And That May Cause IBS Stomach Pain

Scientists believe the mechanism which makes the skin itchy could be the cause of pain in those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Not to be confused with irritable bowel disease, more than 40 million people in the U.S. are thought to have IBS. Research suggests the muscles which line the intestines to push food through the digestive system are disturbed in those with the condition.

This can trigger symptoms such as stomach pain and cramps, as well as bloating, gas, stools containing mucus, as well as diarrhea and or constipation. There is no cure for the unpredictable disease. Symptoms, which can come and go for months at a time, can be managed by avoiding trigger foods, eating the correct amount of fiber, exercising regularly, and keeping stress at bay. Medication can also be prescribed to treat specific symptoms.

Now, researchers in Australia believe the pain could in fact be caused by what is essentially itching in the gut.

The authors of the study published in the journal JCI Insight studied mice and found receptors which make the skin itch are also activated in the gut, and could cause discomfort. Administering triggers of the receptors as an "itch cocktail" appeared to enlarge the colorectal area and change how the mice acted. Tests in human tissue samples led to similar results.

Professor Stuart Brierley, Matthew Flinders Research Fellow in Gastrointestinal Neuroscience and co-author of the study, told Newsweek that IBS patients essentially suffer from what is a "gut itch."

People with IBS could have more of these receptors than the general population. The study suggests gut nerves can be activated and become sensitized to signals of chronic gut pain, even when there is no pain stimuli, he explained.

Next, the team must carry out clinical trials to see how these mechanisms work in humans, he said.

He hopes the research could help to develop an oral medication for IBS that targets the receptors.

In the meantime, Brierley says: "There are studies showing that low FODMAP diets can be beneficial for some IBS patients. This may regulate the microbiome, which produce products that can activate these receptors."

The cause of IBS is unknown. Existing evidence suggests a person could suffer symptoms if their gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to gas and bloating, if their fecal bacteria is out of whack, or if they have an imbalance of chemicals or compounds in the body like the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Getting a diagnosis of IBS in the first place can be tricky, because the digestive system is relatively hard to access and examine. Last year, a separate team unveiled a sensor small enough to swallow which could diagnose gut disorders like IBS and colitis.

This article has been updated with comment from Professor Stuart Brierley.

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Researchers believe pain linked to IBS could be caused by "gut itch." A stock image shows a woman holding her stomach in pain. Getty