Irritable Bowel Syndrome Shares Genetic Pathways With Mood and Anxiety Disorders


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By Tien Dong, MD, PhD

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common and distressing gastrointestinal disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. It is characterized by a symptom cluster of chronic abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. Common comorbid conditions include bloating, abdominal distension, and anxiety. Despite its prevalence and impact on the quality of life, and the progress in characterizing its pathophysiology, treatments remain unsatisfactory. A recent study, published in Nature Genetics entitled, “Genome-wide analysis of 53,400 people with irritable bowel syndrome highlights shared genetic pathways with mood and anxiety disorders,” aimed to identify shared genetic risk factors of IBS and disorders of mood and anxiety.

IBS is a complex brain gut disorder with various subtypes, the etiology and pathophysiology remain incompletely understood. Acknowledging the important role of the brain in its pathophysiology, there has been a growing recognition of the connection between IBS symptoms and and mental health issues, in particular anxiety disorders and to a lesser degree depression. Understanding the genetic basis of IBS and its links with psychological conditions is crucial for developing effective treatments and improving patient care.
The primary objective of the study was to identify risk genes that are shared by IBS and psychiatric symptoms. Researchers sought to identify specific genetic variants associated with IBS, shedding light on the syndrome’s heritability and its biological connections with mood and anxiety disorders. By addressing these questions, the study aimed to provide valuable insights into the mechanisms underlying IBS and inform future research and more effective treatment strategies.

Why This Study Matters

Despite decades of attempts by the pharmaceutical industry to develop effective medications without side effects, currently available pharmacological treatments are limited in their effectiveness. But scientists recently did a big study to see if genetics might help us understand why people get IBS and why it often occurs with mood and anxiety problems. They looked at the DNA of over 50,000 people with IBS to find any common genetic traits.

What Did They Do?

Researchers analyzed a large data base (UK database) which included questions about digestive health, psychiatric and pain disorders. Then they compared the DNA of people with IBS to those without it.

What Did They Find?

  1. Quantitatively, genes only play a small part in IBS – about 5.77% , with few differences between men and women in genetic factors.
  2. IBS has some of the same genetic markers as mood and anxiety disorders, meaning that similar biological mechanisms may contribute to symptoms of abdominal pain, altered bowel habits and anxiety.
  3. The genetic links to IBS didn’t point to the gut itself but more to the nerves in the brain and the gut (the “second brain”) that might affect both the gut and the brain and underlie gut and anxiety symptoms.


This study is the largest study to date that examines the genetic underpinning of IBS and how it relates to common psychiatric disorders which often overlap clinically with IBS. It reveals that IBS is partially influenced by genetic factors, with neuronal pathways in the enteric nervous system and in the brain playing a prominent role. The findings emphasize the need for a holistic approach to understanding and managing IBS, including psychological and psychiatric comorbidities. Consistent with this integrative view and the shared genetic risk, centrally active medications and behavioral therapies, such as gut directed hypnosis or cognitive behavioral therapy are some of the most effective treatment strategies.