COVID-19 May Trigger Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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COVID-19 can cause disorders of gut-brain interaction, including postinfection irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), researchers say.

Gastrointestinal symptoms are common with long COVID, also known as post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, according to Walter Chan, MD, MPH, and Madhusudan Grover, MBBS.

Chan, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Grover, an associate professor of medicine and physiology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, conducted a review of the literature on COVID-19’s long-term gastrointestinal effects. Their review was published August 6 in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Estimates of the prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms with COVID-19 have ranged as high as 60%, Chan and Grover report, and the symptoms may be present in patients with long COVID, a syndrome that continues 4 weeks or longer.

In one survey of 749 COVID-19 survivors, 29% reported at least one new chronic gastrointestinal symptom. The most common were heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Of those with abdominal pain, 39% had symptoms that met Rome IV criteria for irritable bowel syndrome.

People who have gastrointestinal symptoms after their initial SARS-CoV-2 infection are more likely to have them with long COVID. Psychiatric diagnoses, hospitalization, and the loss of smell and taste are predictors of gastrointestinal symptoms.

Infectious gastroenteritis can increase the risk for disorders of gut-brain interaction, especially postinfection IBS, Chan and Grover write.

COVID-19 likely causes gastrointestinal symptoms through multiple mechanisms. It may suppress angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, which protects intestinal cells. It can alter the microbiome. It can cause or worsen weight gain and diabetes. It may disrupt the immune system and trigger an autoimmune reaction. It can cause depression and anxiety, and it can alter dietary habits.

No specific treatments for gastrointestinal symptoms associated with long COVID have emerged, so clinicians should make use of established therapies for disorders of gut-brain interaction, Chan and Grover recommend.

Beyond adequate sleep and exercise, these may include high-fiber, low FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols), gluten-free, low-carbohydrate, or elimination diets.

For diarrhea, they list loperamide, ondansetron, alosetron, eluxadoline, antispasmodics, rifaximin, and bile acid sequestrants.

For constipation, they mention fiber supplements, polyethylene glycol, linaclotide, plecanatide, lubiprostone, tenapanor, tegaserod, and prucalopride.

For modulating intestinal permeability, they recommend glutamine.

Neuromodulation may be achieved with tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, azaperones, and delta ligands, they write.

For psychological therapy, they recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy and gut-directed hypnotherapy.

A handful of studies have suggested benefits from Lactiplantibacillus plantarum and Pediococcus acidilactici as probiotic therapies. Additionally, one study showed positive results with a high-fiber formula, perhaps by nourishing short-chain fatty acid-producing bacteria, Chan and Grover write.

Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. Published online August 6, 2022. Full text

Chan reported financial relationships with Ironwood, Takeda, and Phathom Pharmaceuticals. Grover reported financial relationships with Takeda, Donga, Alexza Pharmaceuticals, and Alfasigma.

Laird Harrison writes about science, health, and culture. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, on public radio, and on websites. He is at work on a novel about alternate realities in physics. Harrison teaches writing at the Writers Grotto. Visit him at or follow him on Twitter: @LairdH.

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