Of gyppy stomachs and group singing

Irritable bowel syndrome is a widespread condition which blights the lives of many, mostly in relatively affluent communities. Technically speaking, irritable bowel syndrome is defined as a diagnosis of exclusion, or medical condition the presence of which cannot be established with complete confidence through examination. It is instead diagnosed by the elimination of other possible causes, and has a clearly identified psychosomatic component.

Given that irritable bowel syndrome is associated with psychological disorders such as stress and anxiety, one might investigate treatments that focus on reducing such negative feelings. And that is what a team of researchers led by Stockholm University environmental health specialist Töres Theorell has done. Writing in the journal Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, Theorell, study lead author Christina Grape and others look at levels of the hormone testosterone, and its role in physiological regeneration processes adversely affected by stress.

What Theorell and his colleagues found is that the stress-reducing practice of choir singing – a popular Scandinavian leisure activity – induces a state of stimulated regeneration in irritable bowel syndrome sufferers, However, the effect lasts only for the first half year after taking up singing.

In their study the authors highlight a number of weaknesses in the research, and call for the approach to be repeated in larger-scale experiments. Despite this note of caution, the researchers are confident that choir singing has a positive effect in irritable bowel syndrome patients.

Group singing may not cure irritable bowel syndrome, but it certainly beats antacid popping.

Further reading: Grape et al., “Comparison between choir singing and group discussion in irritable bowel syndrome patients over one year: saliva testosterone increases in new choir singers”, Psychother. Psychosom. 79, 196 (2010)