Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. Despite extensive research, the cause and mechanism of IBS are still not fully understood. However, gastroenterologist Brennan Spiegel of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has put forth a new hypothesis in his paper published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology. According to Spiegel, the body’s inability to manage gravity could be the cause of IBS.
Spiegel explains that our bowels are like a big sack of potatoes that we carry around our whole lives. When our body’s usual management of gravity fails for whatever reason, our diaphragm can slip down and compress our intestines, possibly causing motility issues and bacterial overgrowth. Spiegel suggests that our nervous system evolved in a world of gravity, which may explain why many people feel abdominal “butterflies” when anxious. The nerves in the gut are like an ancient G-force detector that warns us when we’re experiencing or about to experience a dangerous fall.
Spiegel’s hypothesis is easily testable and doesn’t exclude other theories of IBS. IBS is usually diagnosed after other disorders that can cause gut symptoms have been ruled out. The symptoms of IBS are extremely variable from patient to patient, and currently, there is no definitive test for IBS.
Today, about 10 percent of people worldwide are thought to suffer from IBS, and Spiegel is one of many scientists working to figure out why. Under Spiegel’s framework, a disordered response to gravity might also trigger a gut-to-brain interaction disorder. By squashing the intestines, it might even impact the gut microbiome, causing hypersensitivity, inflammation, or discomfort.
Spiegel argues that if IBS is caused by the body struggling to grapple with gravity, then it could explain why physical therapy and exercise can prove so beneficial in relieving its symptoms. It could also explain why serotonin tends to be elevated in IBS patients. Serotonin is primarily produced in the gut to regulate our bowel movements and also our mood, but too much of it can trigger diarrhea. It is also involved in the regulation of our blood pressure in response to gravity.
Without serotonin, Spiegel says, your body might not be able to stand up, maintain balance, or continue circulating blood. Dysregulated serotonin may be a form of gravity failure. When serotonin biology is abnormal, people can develop IBS, anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue. These may be forms of gravity intolerance.
Chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) is another chronic and debilitating sickness without a cause or cure, and it often crosses over with IBS. Many CFS/ME patients also struggle with standing up, which can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure, fatigue, dizziness, and a racing heart. Other symptoms that cross over with IBS include lower back pain, headaches, dizziness, and postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which is when blood pressure plummets after a person rises. All of these conditions could be explained by the body’s inability to properly manage the force of gravity.
Spiegel acknowledges that without direct research, the gravity hypothesis is just a “thought experiment.” However, he hopes it encourages new ways of researching and treating IBS in the future. Our relationship to gravity is not unlike the relationship of fish to water. We live our entire life in it, are shaped by it, yet hardly notice its ever-present influence on the nature of our existence. Perhaps it’s about time we considered it.