Drugs Counteract Irritable Bowel Syndrome

By Seppa, N. | Science News, December 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

Drugs Counteract Irritable Bowel Syndrome


Seppa, N., Science News


The holidays bring family and friends together for sumptuous feasts that make stomachs groan. For people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), however, even small meals can have extremely distressing consequences. The condition causes abdominal pain, cramps, diarrhea, constipation, and bloating.

Of unknown cause, IBS is the most frequently diagnosed gastrointestinal ailment in the United States. It affects up to 35 million people here. Physicians often arrive at a diagnosis by ruling out other ailments, such as intestinal blockage, colon cancer, and thyroid problems. Treatments, ranging from Chinese herbs to antidepressants, have been largely limited to symptomatic relief. Now, researchers report that antibiotics knock out--at least temporarily--many of the bacteria that seem to be responsible for this condition.

The finding builds on earlier research suggesting a role in IBS for bacteria. In 1997, for instance, scientists in Bombay found that people with the condition improved markedly when given the antibiotic metronidazole. Other recent work, by British scientists, suggests that an overabundance of bacteria in the large intestine leads to excess fermentation, gas production, and an irritated bowel.

Gastroenterologist Mark Pimentel and his colleagues at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the University of California, Los Angeles suggest a slightly different scenario. They suspect that bacterial culprits spread backwards from the large intestine into the small intestine--which normally hosts relatively few bacteria--to cause the troublesome fermentation.

To diagnose whether people with irritable bowel syndrome have this bacterial overload, the researchers gave patients a special sugar syrup. People can't digest the syrup, but bacteria in the intestines break it down. Hydrogen produced by this bacterial reaction in the small intestine readily enters the blood stream and can be detected by a breathalyrzer test.

Of 202 people examined, the breath test revealed that 157 had an overload of bacteria in the small intestine. …

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