Evolutionary medicine approaches to chronic disease: The case of irritable bowel syndrome

Evol Anthropol. 2023 Nov 1. doi: 10.1002/evan.22010. Online ahead of print.


Makenna B Lenover 1Mary K Shenk 1


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1Department of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania, USA.


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a gastrointestinal disease, is a global phenomenon correlated with industrialization. We propose that an evolutionary medicine approach is useful to understand this disease from an ultimate perspective and conducted a scoping literature review to synthesize the IBS literature within this framework. Our review suggests five potential evolutionary hypotheses for the cause of IBS, including (a) a dietary mismatch accompanying a nutritional transition, (b) an early hygienic life environment leading to the immune system and microbiotic changes, (c) an outcome of decreased physical activity, (d) a response to changes in environmental light-dark cycles, and (e) an artifact of an evolved fight or flight response. We find key limitations in the available data needed to understand early life, nutritional, and socioeconomic experiences that would allow us to understand evolutionarily relevant risk factors and identify a need for further empirical research to distinguish potential causes and test evolutionary hypotheses.

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