Is There an IBS–Food Allergy Connection?
By Maureen Williams, ND
Healthnotes Newswire (September 22, 2005)— People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are more likely to have positive antibody tests that suggest food sensitivities than people without IBS, according to the American Journal of Gastroenterology (2005;100:1550–7).
IBS is a common digestive ailment characterized by abdominal pain and bloating, gas, and loose bowel movements alternating with constipation. The cause is not known but may be different for different people. Fiber supplements are typically used to treat IBS, and several studies have found fiber supplements made with psyllium seed and husk to be effective. Stress management and relaxation practices can also be helpful.
Many IBS-sufferers believe that specific foods aggravate their symptoms, but the evidence linking diet and IBS is inconsistent. Some people with IBS have lactose intolerance (inability to digest the sugar from milk), which can mimic the symptoms of IBS. Difficulties digesting other sugars such as fructose (a sugar in fruit, soft drinks, and other sweetened foods) and sorbitol (a sugar often used in sweets for diabetics) have also been noted in people with IBS. Removing these sugars from the diet can be helpful when these intolerances exist.
A number of studies have found that food sensitivities play an important role in most people with IBS, but some studies have not. Most commonly used allergy tests (such as skin-prick tests) are not useful in identifying food sensitivities other than the most serious reactions, like severe asthma from eating peanuts. A test that is said to be more accurate, known as an ELISA test, looks for antibodies to foods in the blood. The most reliable way to identify food sensitivities is to follow an elimination diet, then systematically reintroduce individual foods.
In the current study, 108 people with IBS and 43 healthy people with no digestive problems answered three questionnaires about their symptoms, including frequency and severity of abdominal pain, frequency and quality of stools, and effects of IBS on mood and quality of life. ELISA tests were done to look for antibodies to 16 common foods: wheat, milk, egg white, egg yolk, cheese, yeast, potato, tomato, soybean, peanut, beef, chicken, pork, codfish, lamb, and rice.
Compared with the other group, people with IBS had significantly higher levels of antibodies to wheat, soybean, beef, pork, and lamb. They also had higher levels of antibodies to egg white and egg yolk, but this difference did not reach statistical significance. In general, people with IBS had elevated antibody levels to more foods than people without IBS did (8 vs. 5). The severity of symptoms was not related to the degree of elevation of food antibodies.
The results of this study show that people with IBS are more likely than healthy people to have elevated levels of antibodies to foods, suggesting that food sensitivity is a cause of IBS. Previous studies have found that eliminating wheat, beef, and dairy foods from the diet can alleviate symptoms in some people. Whether a person with IBS is likely to benefit from avoidance of specific foods based on the results of an antibody test requires more research.
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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