There is an unseen, unrelenting force acting on your gut right now, and it could cause serious irritation to some people.
Nobody really knows how or why irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) develops, but gastroenterologist Brennan Spiegel of Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles has sketched out a weighty new hypothesis.
In an article published in The American Journal of GastroenterologySpiegel argues that IBS is triggered by the body’s inability to deal with gravity.
Our intestines, Spiegel explains, are like a big sack of potatoes that we have to carry around all our lives.
If our body’s usual management of gravity fails for some reason, our diaphragm can slip and compress our intestines, eventually causing motility issues and bacterial overgrowth.
“Our nervous system also evolved in a world of gravity, and that could explain why many people experience abdominal ‘butterflies’ when they’re anxious,” Spiegel says.
“It is curious that these ‘visceral sensations’ also occur when falling to Earth, such as when falling on a roller coaster or in a turbulent plane. The nerves in the intestine are like an ancient detector of G-force that alerts us when we are experiencing—or about to experience—a dangerous fall.This is only speculation, but people with IBS may be prone to overestimating G-force threats that never occur .
The good part of the Spiegel hypothesis is that it is easily testable and does not rule out other IBS theories.
Currently, there is no definitive test for IBS, and its symptoms are extremely variable from patient to patient. As a result, the syndrome is usually made as a diagnosis of exclusion.
Once other conditions that can cause bowel symptoms — such as pain, bloating, cramping, constipation, or diarrhea — have been ruled out, patients are usually told they have IBS.
Today, around 10% of people worldwide are believed to suffer from the syndrome, and Spiegel is one of many scientists working to understand why.
Gravity, he argues, could be the fundamental force that brings all these different symptoms together.
According to Spiegel’s framework, a disordered response to gravity could also trigger a gut-brain interaction disorder. By crushing the intestines, it could even impact the gut microbiome, causing hypersensitivity, inflammation, or discomfort.
“There is such a variety of explanations that I wondered if they could all be true simultaneously,” says Spiegel.
“Thinking about every theory, from those involving motility to bacteria to the neuropsychology of IBS, I realized they could all point to gravity as a unifying factor. It seemed pretty strange at first, no doubt, but as I developed the idea and had it run by colleagues, it started to make sense.”
If IBS is caused by the body fighting against gravity, this could explain why physical therapy and exercise can prove so beneficial in relieving its symptoms.
This could also explain why serotonin tends to be elevated in IBS patients.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is primarily produced in the gut to regulate our bowel movements and also our mood, but too much of it can trigger diarrhea. It is also involved in regulating our blood pressure in response to gravity.
Without serotonin, Spiegel says, your body might not be able to stand upright, maintain balance, or keep blood flowing.
“Dysregulated serotonin can be a form of gravity failure,” says Spiegel.
“When serotonin biology is abnormal, people can develop IBS, anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue. These can be forms of gravity intolerance.”
Chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) is another chronic, debilitating condition with no cause or cure, and it is often confused with IBS. Many CFS/ME patients also have difficulty standing, which can lead to a sudden drop in blood pressure, fatigue, dizziness, and rapid heartbeat.
Other symptoms that intersect with IBS include lower back pain, headaches, dizziness, and postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which occurs when blood pressure drops after a person stands up.
All of these conditions could be explained by the body’s inability to properly manage the force of gravity.
Without direct research, Siegel says the gravity hypothesis is just a “thought experiment.” But he hopes it will encourage new ways to find and treat IBS in the future.
“Our relationship to gravity is not unlike the relationship of fish to water,” Siegel writes.
“We live in it all our lives, are shaped by it, but barely notice its ever-present influence on the nature of our existence.”
Maybe it’s time to think about it.
The study was published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology.
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