Does Your Gut “Itch?”
Last updated: January 2020
I’m always on the lookout for new research findings that could help people like us with IBS. My current regimen is holding symptoms at bay, but there’s always the lingering fear of flare-ups. Plus, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were simply a cure someday? Or even a pill we could take once a day?
Research about "itchy gut"
Any new findings feel like progress, though. Some Australian researchers have apparently identified a link between itchy skin and gut pain.1 They discovered those same receptors that cause itchy skin exists in the human gut as well. These receptors activate neurons, which in the skin, causing us to feel an itchy sensation. In the gut, this translates essentially into a serious and painful “gut itch” that we experience as pain.
Those of us who experience pain as a major IBS symptom may have more of these “itch” receptors in the gut than other people – and the more neurons to be activated, the greater the painful feeling transmitted to our brains.
By the way, the long-standing notion that an itch is really a mild form of pain has been discredited. The two sensations are related, but it’s more complicated than that. A study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that itch and pain are completely distinct, but both are linked to serotonin.2 I mention this because of the suspected brain-gut connection relative to serotonin and IBS. Antidepressants are a key pillar of my IBS regimen. Nothing is simple when it comes to IBS!
Scratching the surface on IBS pain
Why this is important: Targeting the gut-itch receptors could lead to a new way of treating chronic abdominal pain: addressing the underlying cause rather than the symptom. Traditional pain treatments such as opioids don’t work well and are associated with many other issues, as we now know. A future IBS medication could “block” these receptors and keep them from activating the “gut itch” signal – or at least keep it from reaching our brains.
Taking a "gut itch" more seriously
I’m very sensitive to the minimization of IBS and its symptoms. Calling something an “itch” may not make it sound very serious. But most of us have had itches that were more than a minor nuisance – they were absolutely maddening. A bout of eczema in my early 20s plagued me so much that I regularly scratched it until bled. And what studies have shown is that Mom was right: Scratching the itch DOES make it worse, as the receptors activate the neurons all over again.
So, we should think of “itch” as a description of the body’s reaction, not its impact.
I’m grateful for studies like these and for researchers who take IBS seriously. They’re absolutely critical. Healthcare professionals base their treatment decisions in part on the scientific literature and clinical evidence. In order to be taken seriously as patients, we need that evidence to be available. Looking forward to the next big leap in IBS knowledge!
Do you suffer from IBS-C, IBS-D, or IBS-Mixed/Alternating?