What Is the Gastrocolic Reflex?

Large breakfast
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The gastrocolic reflex is a reflex in which the simple act of eating stimulates movement in the gastrointestinal tract. Specifically, the gastrocolic reflex stimulates contractions in the large intestine - contractions that may lead to a bowel movement a short time after eating. Any new mother has seen this reflex in action as this is why infants often need their diapers changed soon after nursing!

An abnormally strong gastrocolic reflex has been implicated as playing a part in some of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Let's take a look at what factors increase the strength of the gastrocolic reflex, what this means for a person for IBS, and how you can use this information to address your own digestive symptoms.

What Increases the Strength of the Gastrocolic Reflex?

The reflex is triggered by the act of eating, but there are other factors that play a part as to how strong  the intestinal contractions are as a result. The following things can cause these contractions to increase in intensity:

  • Eating a large meal
  • Eating a meal that contains unhealthy forms of fat, such as fried foods, fatty meats, and rich gravies
  • Drinking large amounts of cold liquid at one time

The Gastrocolic Reflex and IBS

Research has indicated that a high number of people who have IBS have an exaggerated gastrocolic reflex action in response to meals.

This reactivity appears to be the result, at least in part, to abnormal levels of two hormones - cholecystokinin (CCK) and motilin, both of which are responsible for regulating the motility of the digestive system. This exaggerated response can manifest itself in worsened symptoms occurring soon after eating (the fancy term for this is postprandial symptoms).

The Gastrocolic Reflex and IBS-D

If you have diarrhea-predominant IBS, you can use your new knowledge about the gastrocolic reflex to try to reduce its effect on your symptoms. Try to eat smaller meals, avoiding foods that contain unhealthy types of fat. Before eating, you can sip some peppermint tea or take a peppermint oil supplement, both of which have antispasmodic effects. If your doctor has prescribed you an antispasmodic medication, you may find that taking the medication approximately 20 minutes before eating can help to reduce any postprandial cramping and pain.

For more information about diarrhea after eating, click on the following link:

The Gastrocolic Reflex and Constipation

Conversely, if you find that you experience chronic constipation, you can perhaps use the gastrocolic reflex to your advantage. For most people, natural body rhythms are such that the urge to have a bowel movement is strongest in the morning. Making sure to eat a large breakfast, with some foods with healthy fat, may strengthen your gastrocolic reflex and help to initiate a morning bowel movement.

Source:

Palsson, O. & Whitehead, W. "Hormones and IBS" UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders Accessed January 7, 2016.

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