People with bowel disorders including gastroparesis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and functional dyspepsia had more symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic than before it, according to a new study published in the journal Gastroenterology & Motility.
Gastrointestinal problems involving motility (how well things move through your digestive system) and irritation are common throughout the population, including in people with diabetes. Diabetes, in particular, can cause nerve damage that leads to gastroparesis, or delayed stomach emptying. Gastroparesis can often be managed with certain dietary changes. Dietary choices may also contribute to — or help relieve — other gastrointestinal problems like stomach or intestinal irritation, but these symptoms may not always have a clear link to something you ate.
For the latest study, researchers at Stanford University compared self-reported symptoms in people with functional gastrointestinal and motility disorders — a group that includes several different conditions — during the six months prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and during the first six months of the pandemic. The researchers were interested not only in changes in symptoms that may have been associated with developing COVID-19, but also in any changes seen in people who didn’t develop the viral infection, which may have been linked to stress or other changes brought on by the pandemic.
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Increase in gastrointestinal symptoms seen across the board
Among all 2,592 study participants with functional gastrointestinal and motility disorders, 83 (3.2%) developed COVID-19 between March and September 2020. This rate of COVID-19 was fairly consistent across different disorders, with 3.6% of those with IBS, 3.1% of those with gastroparesis, and 2.4% of those with functional dyspepsia developing the viral infection. Across the board, people with these disorders experienced more symptoms during the pandemic period than during the previous six months — including greater abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and unplanned weight loss. They were also more likely to use drugs to manage symptoms, such as proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers to reduce stomach acid, and opioids to manage pain. (Opioids are known to contribute to constipation and other bowel problems, but it’s unclear to what degree that may have taken place in this study.) The study group also saw a greater rate of both hospitalization and outpatient doctor visits during the pandemic period, and had more diagnostic tests performed such as cross-sectional imaging and endoscopies.
Only one disorder — diarrhea-predominant IBS — was directly associated with greater symptoms in people who developed COVID-19, with those who tested positive reporting an average of 2.37 times the frequency of symptoms. People with functional dyspepsia who developed COVID-19, on the other hand, were only 0.46 times as likely to experience symptoms as those who didn’t develop the viral infection.
The researchers concluded that while COVID-19 may have directly contributed to changes in symptoms in some cases, an increase in symptoms was seen across the board in people with functional gastrointestinal and motility disorders — regardless of whether they developed COVID-19 — during the first six months of the pandemic. This finding underscores that if you’ve experienced greater digestive difficulties since the pandemic began, you’ve got plenty of company.
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