Share on Pinterest
Your DNA might be as important as your diet when it comes to gastrointestinal illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome. Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images
  • About 10 to 15 percent of adults in the United States have symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Researchers say that genetics may play a role in the risk of developing IBS and other gastrointestinal ailments.
  • In a study, the researchers say some common DNA characteristics were found in people who have developed IBS.
  • Experts say that although it’s likely genetic plays a role in IBS, there are also dietary and other lifestyle factors that are important.

Genetics could play a role in gastrointestinal illnesses as well as predispose certain people to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

In a study published today in Cell Genomics, researchers reported there are specific DNA characteristics in people who have higher or lower stool frequency compared with their peers.

The study is the latest in a growing body of research suggesting that gut conditions like IBS may be tied to genetics.

“These results are very exciting and warrant follow-up studies: once more stool frequency genes are unequivocally identified, we may have a battery of new drug targets to be exploited for the treatment of constipation, diarrhoea and common dysmotility syndromes like IBS,” said Mauro D’Amato, PhD, a research professor at CIC nioGUNE in Spain and coordinator of the team of researchers, in a press release.

The researchers used data from 167,875 people in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, and the United States.

They compared the participants’ genetic makeup with their responses to queries regarding how frequently they had bowel movements.

The researchers say that they found evidence of a common genetic background related to both stool frequency and the development of IBS.

The researchers gave a numerical value to their genetic findings called a polygenic score. This is a value that explains the likelihood of having an altered stool frequency.

They found that people with a high polygenic score were up to 5 times more likely to have IBS with diarrhea than the remainder of the population.

The researchers argue this could pave the way for better treatments for people living with IBS.

“The genetic information and the polygenic scores obtained in this study can be refined and eventually contribute to the classification of patients into different treatment groups, hopefully leading to improved therapeutic precision when aiming to bring gut dysmotility and altered bowel habits back to normal,” Dr. D’Amato said.

“This would be a major step forward in IBS, a common condition for which there is currently no effective treatment that works for all.”

Dr. Rudolph A. Bedford, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, said that gaining a better understanding of the association between genetics and IBS could pave the way for precision medicine, in which people are offered treatments based on their genetic makeup.

“What it allows you to do is potentially be able to target with pharmaceutical therapy those patients that have these various genetic changes. In the future… these things will be much more accessible to our patients,” Dr. Bedford told Healthline.

“Right now, there is no specific drug for irritable bowel syndrome at all and we’re just really treating symptoms more than anything else,” he added. “I suspect that as we move forward with the genetic makeup of many of these patients we’ll be able to target much more precisely in terms of how to go about treating these people.”

Dr. Florence M. Hosseini-Aslinia, a gastroenterologist at The University of Kansas Health System, says that while it makes sense genetics could influence bowel habits, there could also be other factors.

“I can see in real life practice that certain types of bowel habits ‘runs in the family.’ However, it could also be the food that they share or the similarities in their gut microbiome,” she told Healthline.

“Genetics in IBS is just one aspect of this debilitating condition and there are many other factors that need to be taken into consideration such as diet and gut microbiome.”

In the United States, about 10 to 15 percent of adults have IBS symptoms. It is the most common disorder diagnosed by gastroenterologists.

While genetics may play some role in the development of IBS, Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine at the UCLA Brain Gut Microbiome Center and author of the “Mind Gut Connection,” says that those living with IBS shouldn’t fear their genes have doomed them to a lifetime of uncomfortable symptoms.

“Patients should be aware that even though genetics may play a very small role in the overall disorder, there are many behavioral and lifestyle factors that are more important and that can be modified,” he told Healthline.

“While in rodent models there is a significant genetic influence on gut microbiome composition and on transit times, I believe the importance in humans is much less than other non-genetic factors such as diet (fiber content for example), emotionality, exercise which were not taken in consideration in the current study,” Dr. Mayer said.