Psychological stress is widely believed to play a major role in functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, especially irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), by precipitating exacerbation of symptoms. The available data clearly demonstrate that inhibition of gastric emptying and stimulation of colonic transit is the most consistent pattern in the motility response of the GI tract to acute or short-term stress. Thus, one might propose that these alterations might play a pathophysiological role in dyspeptic symptoms and alterations in stool frequency and consistency in patients with stress-related functional GI disorders. Taken together, the above-mentioned studies suggest that the colonic motor response to stress is exaggerated in IBS. There is evidence that an increased emotional response is associated with this difference in colonic, and perhaps also gastric motor responses to certain stressors. However, almost no valid data are available so far from human studies addressing the question if differences in motility responses to stress between patients with functional GI disorders and healthy subjects are due to an altered stress response associated with an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system or increased stress susceptibility. We can summarize that in experimental animals the most consistent pattern of GI motor alterations induced by various psychological and physical stressors is that of delaying gastric emptying and accelerating colonic transit. Endogenous corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) in the brain plays a significant role in the central nervous system mediation of stress-induced inhibition of upper GI and stimulation of lower GI motor function through activation of brain CRF receptors. The inhibition of gastric emptying by CRF may be mediated by interaction with the CRF-2 receptor, while CRF-1 receptors are involved in the colonic and anxiogenic responses to stress. Endogenous serotonin, peripherally released in response to stress, seems to be involved in stress- and central CRF-induced stimulation of colonic motility by acting on 5HT-3 receptors. Taken together, the limited data available from investigations in healthy subjects and patients with functional GI disorders provide some evidence that stress affects visceral sensitivity in humans. Acute psychological stress seems to facilitate increased sensitivity to experimental visceral stimuli, if the stressor induces a significant emotional change. In summary, studies in experimental animals suggest that stress-induced visceral hypersensitivity is centrally mediated by endogenous CRF and involvement of structures of the emotional motor system, e.g. the amygdala. Stress-induced activation or sensitization of mucosal mast cells in the GI tract seem to be involved in stress-associated alterations of visceral sensitivity.

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