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A growing body of evidence suggests an interesting overlap between the gut, the brain and emotional state. Chronic digestive disorders such as IBS are thought to occur when the enteric nervous system (gut) and the central nervous system (brain) do not ‘communicate’ properly with each other. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) which impacts mood, sleep and appetite. Interestingly, almost all of the body’s serotonin can be found in the gut and the rest is found in the brain. Emotional state is therefore connected in some way to the gut.

A recent study found that a majority of patients with functional Gut conditions also had coexisting psychological conditions (eg anxiety and depression). Another found that patients with chronic digestive disorders (such as IBS) have higher levels of psychological distress and experience a lower quality of life than the general population. 

Individuals with IBS may become particularly anxious about Gut-related events (eg bowel movements, abdominal cramps and mealtimes), also known as Gut symptom-specific anxiety. Because an individual may become hypervigilant to their symptoms, they may experience increased fear and arousal in relation to them. Thinking about symptoms becomes a trigger for anxiety, and the body’s resulting stress response can either make symptoms appear or make them worse. This thought cycle therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, gastroenterologists might aim to manage IBS by using psychological therapies in an attempt to reduce symptoms by lowering the body’s stress response.

Psychogastroenterology is the term used to describe the science of applying psychological principles, techniques and therapies to help manage chronic digestive disorders, such as IBS. Its aim is to help patients better manage their symptoms, and may be used in combination with other treatments, such as medication. The main techniques used are cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), relaxation therapy and hypnosis. 

CBT aims to modify certain thoughts and behaviours so that they are more conducive towards achieving a positive psychological state. Sessions are carried out with a qualified healthcare professional and typically require a regular commitment over a set period of time. New data suggests that remote CBT using video or telephone consultation may be superior to office-based therapy in patients with moderate-severe IBS.

Relaxation therapy involves diaphragmatic breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation to help calm the body’s stress response. If the body’s stress response can be reduced then hopefully this can decrease the severity of symptoms an individual experiences and therefore decrease Gut symptom-specific anxiety. 

Hypnosis, despite being a controversial subject in the medical community (due to an historical lack of controlled evidence), has shown to be an effective treatment for IBS for some individuals. Sessions challenge patients to progressively relax their thoughts on IBS symptoms by using calming imagery and sensations. It can bring about improvements in physical and mental wellbeing. 

Although we do not know whether psychological distress is the cause of IBS or indeed a symptom of IBS, it is clear that there is good reason for gastroenterologists to address the psychological aspect of IBS when considering a patient’s treatment plan. 

For more information, please contact Dr Adam Harris. 



Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition where the small intestine is chronically inflamed, and nutrients from food may not be absorbed properly. This is due to a permanent allergy to gluten in the diet (present in wheat, barley and rye), which activates an abnormal mucosal immune response. Coeliac disease is treated effectively in the majority of patients by sticking to a 100% gluten-free diet indefinitely. Although a gluten-free diet is an effective treatment in most patients, a significant minority develop persistent or recurrent symptoms. Difficulties sticking to such a diet have led to the development of non-dietary therapies, several of which are undergoing trials in human beings.

Coeliac disease is common: in the UK, 1 in 100 people have it, and numbers are rising. It is more common in individuals with a first-degree relative (ie a parent or sibling) with the condition and in people from or with close relatives from Ireland and Finland. Patients with conditions such as type 1 diabetes, microscopic colitis, autoimmune thyroid disease, Down’s syndrome and Turner syndrome are at a higher risk of having coeliac disease.

The diagnosis may be considered in people with iron deficiency anaemia, low folate or vitamin D, chronic fatigue, in pre-menopausal women with osteoporosis, or in those with recurrent abdominal bloating, loose stools, constipation or weight loss. 

In patients with symptoms suggestive of coeliac disease a blood sample may be taken to look for special proteins or antibodies (anti-transglutaminase) that develop in patients with untreated coeliac disease. These are accurate in most cases (about 90%) but the “gold standard” diagnosis requires taking small samples (biopsies) from the small intestine at upper gi endoscopy and looking at these under a microscope to look for the characteristic signs of villous atrophy and an excess of inflammatory cells (lymphocytes). This test may be needed in patients who do respond to a gluten-free diet.

Coeliac disease is not to be confused with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, which may present with similar symptoms but in the presence of normal blood tests and small intestine, and may improve on a gluten-free diet. Interestingly, a recent study found a subset of individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome may have sensitivity to wheat and related cereals in the absence of coeliac disease and may respond to dietary restrictions. There is still research to be done.

Advice on gluten free diet and what alternative foods can be eaten to maintain a balanced diet is best obtained from a state-registered dietician with experience in coeliac disease. Your GP (or a consultant gastroenterologist) will be able to make a referral for this advice if required.

For more information, please contact Dr Adam Harris.



Following a month of indulgence, many decide to make lifestyle changes in January. Some try dietary restriction (eg ’Veganuary’) or reduce their total caloric intake, while others abstain from alcohol (eg ‘Dry January’) or jumpstart new exercise regimes. There are even some heroes among us making several changes at once. While it is advised that individuals take proper care of themselves year round, it is appreciated that this does not always happen.

Of topical interest therefore is that intermittent fasting proves beneficial for weight loss in both animal and human studies. As humans, we have not evolved to consume three large evenly-spaced meals throughout the day (plus snacks). This is a symptom of modern life and is due to an abundance of resources. Rather, we went for short stretches of time without food. We still needed to perform, to hunt prey and escape predators, but we did so in a fasted state.

Two methods of intermittent fasting in humans provide evidence-based weight loss, specifically the 5:2 regime (fasting 2 days per week), and daily time-restricted feeding (leaving, for example 18 hours between dinner and breakfast the next day, ie a 6-hour eating period). Comparatively, intermittent fasting seems to provide greater health benefits than a simple reduction in daily caloric intake, and might be considered the method of choice for effective weight control, metabolism of energy, and improved health across the lifespan.

Healthcare professionals may not understand how to prescribe intermittent fasting regimes. Patients may also be unwilling to start one. This may be due to several unpleasant short-term effects, such as increased levels of hunger and irritability, and decreased concentration. Ideally, a patient would ease into the plan over a number of months, in order to minimise any unpleasant effects. This allows time for the body to adjust. The following plans can be considered for 5:2 intermittent fasting and daily time-restricted feeding, respectively:

5:2 Intermittent Fasting

    • For month 1: 1000 calories 1 day per week
    • For month 2: 1000 calories 2 days per week
    • For month 3: 750 calories 2 days per week
    • For month 4: 500 calories 2 days per week

Daily Time-Restricted Feeding

    • For month 1: 10 hour feeding period 5 days per week
    • For month 2: 8 hour feeding period 5 days per week
    • For month 3: 6 hour feeding period 5 days per week
    • For month 4: 6 hour feeding period 7 days per week

A new year provides a convenient opportunity for a fresh start, and widespread participation and media coverage provides a sense of camaraderie between friends, family and colleagues. This may increase the odds of success, and if nothing else, at least everyone is miserable together. If you still find yourself feeling unsatisfied with any lifestyle changes you may have made in January, then what about trying ‘Fasting February’?

For more information, please contact Dr Adam Harris.



At West Kent Gastroenterology, we work hard to provide our patients with top-class care. You will enjoy friendly, fast and modern treatment by a highly experienced gastroenterologist. We carefully review patient satisfaction and feedback, and at West Kent Gastroenterology we are continuously making improvements to our services, ensuring the highest level of care possible.

Clinic Locations

Nuffield Hospital
Kingswood Road, Tunbridge Wells, TN2 4UL

Spire Hospital
Fordcombe Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN3 0RD

Sevenoaks Medical Centre
London Road, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN13 2JD

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