It’s the most common disease diagnosed by gastroenterologists and it affects approximately 10 to 15 percent of the adult population in the United States.
But there is no known cause and no cure for those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Treatment for the condition is focused on alleviating symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, bloating, and diarrhea.
Now, researchers from the University of Sheffield in England have found a new way to possibly manage IBS — vitamin D supplements.
The inspiration for the study came simply from speaking with a patient with IBS.
“The vitamin D/IBS link wasn’t spotted by medics or scientists. It came from patients,” Bernard Corfe, PhD, lead author of the study and principal investigator in molecular gastroenterology at the University of Sheffield, told Healthline.
“Vitamin D is an important factor in multiple diseases and areas of health, including musculoskeletal, immune, mental health, and other gut health conditions, including colorectal cancer and IBD (irritable bowel disease),” he added. “The latter two suggested to us that there might be a plausible role for vitamin D in other colon conditions.”
What the study uncovered
Corfe and his team reviewed and integrated all research available on vitamin D and IBS, and also assessed the potential benefits of vitamin D supplements for those with IBS symptoms.
They found a high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in IBS patients around the world.
“This study looked at all research reported throughout the world and found the deficiency was consistent irrespective of latitude or geography,” Corfe said.
It is unclear why those with IBS seem to have vitamin D deficiency. One theory is that diet plays a role. Another is that the impact of IBS on a person’s daily habits may prevent them from getting enough vitamin D.
“It’s unclear which is the chicken and which is the egg,” Dr. Jeffrey Baumgardner, an assistant professor of medicine in gastroenterology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), told Healthline.
“Certain behaviors in IBS… that you’re not feeling well so you don’t go outside as much, would lead to people having vitamin D deficiency based on the consequences of the disease,” he said.
A disease that affects many
Although only 5 to 7 percent of the estimated 10 to 15 percent of adults living with IBS have been formally diagnosed, it is estimated in the United States there are between 2.4 and 3.5 million physician visits for IBS annually.
About 40 percent of patients who report having IBS are male, while about 60 percent are female.
For those living with the condition, the impact goes far beyond physical discomfort.
“It can lead to people being fearful of leaving the home, unable to go to work, and a significant use of the medical system. The difficult part of IBS is there is no good test to officially diagnose IBS… so often people are stuck being told it’s all in their head and there’s nothing wrong,” Baumgardner said.
Checking patients for vitamin D deficiency is becoming a common practice for gastroenterologists. It only requires a simple blood test.
Dr. Arnold Wald, a professor of gastroenterology at the University of Wisconsin, is one of many who regularly request tests of patients’ vitamin D levels.
“I do check vitamin D deficiency in many of my GI patients and I’m often rewarded by finding it,” he told Healthline. “It’s very inexpensive to order and very inexpensive to treat.”
Vitamin D solution
Wald argues that the link between IBS and vitamin D calls for further exploration and may become a regular test requested by physicians.
“It’s so easy to detect, it’s so easy to treat that you might be remiss in not thinking about vitamin D deficiency in almost any patient you see, particularly those with GI symptoms,” he said.
“It makes a lot of sense from a public health standpoint, as long as we don’t overdo the treatment and call people vitamin D deficient who may simply have marginally low levels. If we do that, we’re just making expensive urine,” Wald added.
Corfe and his colleagues concluded that the large majority of patients with IBS were likely to benefit from vitamin D supplements.
“Even if the vitamin D doesn’t benefit the IBS, there are multiple health reasons to maintain good levels of vitamin D,” he said.
Vitamin D also promotes bone health, immune function, general well-being, mental health, and gut health.
Baumgardner says patients with IBS should be cautiously optimistic about vitamin D supplements.
“If I were someone with IBS, I would want this to be the easy, simple silver bullet because vitamin D is cheap and has a low side-effect protocol. So, it could be useful,” he said.
However, he says, it is important people understand that as everyone’s symptoms of IBS vary, so too will their response to possible treatments.
“There is nothing that is 100 percent effective because everyone’s symptoms are somewhat different, so not everyone is going to respond to the same thing,” he noted.
“It will help people, but it won’t help everybody. If you are someone with IBS, I think you should talk to your doctor about vitamin D, but don’t be discouraged if it won’t work,” Baumgardner said.