If you suffer with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), you know it’s not just a little bellyache. It’s a chronic problem that involves the whole digestive tract, particularly the large intestine.

The condition affects more than 1.6 million people in our country causing abdominal discomfort that includes bloating, cramping and a change in bowel habits. Now a new study shows that IBD may cause something else — depression. And not only for the person who is dealing directly with IBD — it may also give siblings who don’t have IBD a case of the blues.

Gut bacteria have been found to be the probable culprits in IBD, but there appear to be family connections as well. Siblings of patients with depression are also more likely to be diagnosed with IBD.

The pendulum swings the other way as well. Patients with depression are two times as likely to develop IBD and their siblings without depression are more than one and half times as likely to develop IBD. Gut bacteria have been found to be the probable culprits in IBD, but this study suggests there are family connections as well.

“This research reveals a clinical overlap between both conditions, and is the first study to investigate the two-way association between IBD and depression in siblings,” Bing Zhang, a gastroenterologist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine (USC) and co-lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Zhang and a team of Keck Medicine researchers analyzed the data of more than 20 million people from Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Research Database, which contains comprehensive medical information on more than 99 percent of the Taiwanese population. The work took place over the course of 11 years, tracking patients who suffered with either IBD or depression and their siblings with either condition. As a control, they compared the onset of either depression or IBD with people who were of a similar age, sex and socioeconomic status, but who didn’t suffer from either IBD or depression.

“The finding that people with IBD are more prone to depression makes sense because IBD causes constant gastrointestinal symptoms that can be very disruptive to a patient’s life,” Zhang said. “And the elevated depression among siblings of IBD patients may reflect caregiver fatigue if the siblings have a role in caring for the patient.”

What did surprise the researchers was the finding that patients with depression are more prone to IBD. Zhang hypothesizes that the connection may be a result of something called the “brain-gut axis.” This is a known link between our gastrointestinal system and our central nervous system, consisting of the spinal cord and the brain.

Try keeping a food journal to help you identify foods that might trigger an episode.

It still isn’t proven why the siblings of patients with depression are also more likely to be diagnosed with IBD, but Zhang suggests there may be a shared genetic susceptibility for either disease. More research is needed, but Zhang hopes that the findings will lead healthcare professionals treating patients with either IBD or depression to consider family history and its relationship between gastrointestinal and mood disorders.

IBD is usually not a continual condition but reacts with periodic flare-ups. When you suffer a flare-up, you can try to calm your digestive tract by:

  • Limiting your fiber intake
  • Eating smaller meals
  • Exercising
  • Reducing stress
  • Keeping a food journal which might help you identify foods that trigger an episode
  • Talking to your healthcare provider about treatments, including medications

The study is published in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.