LOS ANGELES — The only way some people may be able to prevent irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is to literally change the laws of physics! Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center say the hidden cause of IBS could be gravity itself.
“As long as there’s been life on Earth, from the earliest organisms to Homo sapiens, gravity has relentlessly shaped everything on the planet,” says Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, director of Health Services Research at Cedars-Sinai, in a media release. “Our bodies are affected by gravity from the moment we’re born to the day we die. It’s a force so fundamental that we rarely note its constant influence on our health.”
1 in 10 people deal with IBS
The theory, developed by Spiegel, describes how the intestines, spine, heart, nerves, and brain evolved over time to adjust under the gravitational pull of the planet. Although IBS mechanisms entered scientific conversation over a century ago, researchers still haven’t been able to track down its root cause. Even as it affects close to 10 percent of the world population, researchers still aren’t sure of its etiology.
In the same breath, scientists have made significant progress in deepening their understanding of the condition. There are several theories related to how IBS presents itself clinically. One theorizes that IBS reflects a gut-brain imbalance, and there is evidence to support that neuromodulators and behavioral therapies are effective in treating symptoms.
Another says that IBS is driven by disruption to gut microbiome and can be managed with antibiotics or low FODMAP diet that focuses on reducing high-fiber, carbohydrate-rich foods that can irritate the gut lining. Others propose that motility issues, a hypersensitive gut, abnormal serotonin levels, or a dysregulated autonomic nervous system can also trigger the condition.
“There’s such a variety of explanations that I wondered if they could all be simultaneously true,” Spiegel says. “As I thought about each theory, from those involving motility, to bacteria, to the neuropsychology of IBS, I realized they might all point back to gravity as a unifying factor. It seemed pretty strange at first, no doubt, but as I developed the idea and ran it by colleagues, it started to make sense.”
How does gravity affect the body?
Gravity can cause the organs to pull downward, moving them from proper placement. Since the abdomen has such heavyweight components, their movement out of place can lead to musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal issues. Not everyone experiences this because they have a better capacity to handle the weight than others, anatomically.
The idea that gravity affects human health doesn’t just stop at the GI system, it may also extend to mood and nerves.
“Our nervous system also evolved in a world of gravity, and that might explain why many people feel abdominal ‘butterflies’ when anxious,” the professor of medicine adds. “It’s curious that these ‘gut feelings’ also occur when falling toward Earth, like when dropping on a roller coaster or in a turbulent airplane.”
This relationship to mood also connects to serotonin levels because they function largely to lift mood. When levels change, it could inhibit basic human ability to do activities like standing up, maintaining balance, circulating blood, and pumping intestinal contents against the force of gravity. With all these moving parts, Spiegel and other researchers agree that more research is necessary to put this theory to the test.
“This hypothesis is very provocative, but the best thing about is that it is testable,” concludes Shelly Lu, MD, the Women’s Guild Chair in Gastroenterology and director of the Division of Digestive and Liver Diseases at Cedars-Sinai.
The findings are published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology.