Psychological stress and corticotropin-releasing hormone increase intestinal permeability in humans by a mast cell-dependent mechanism

Gut. 2014 Aug;63(8):1293-9. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2013-305690. Epub 2013 Oct 23.


Objective: Intestinal permeability and psychological stress have been implicated in the pathophysiology of IBD and IBS. Studies in animals suggest that stress increases permeability via corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)-mediated mast cell activation. Our aim was to investigate the effect of stress on intestinal permeability in humans and its underlying mechanisms.

Design: Small intestinal permeability was quantified by a 2 h lactulose-mannitol urinary excretion test. In a first study, 23 healthy volunteers were subjected to four different conditions: control; indomethacin; public speech and anticipation of electroshocks. In a second study, five test conditions were investigated in 13 volunteers: control; after pretreatment with disodium cromoglycate (DSCG); administration of CRH; DSCG+CRH and DSCG+public speech.

Results: Indomethacin, as a positive comparator (0.071±0.040 vs 0.030±0.022; p<0.0001), and public speech (0.059±0.040; p<0.01), but not the shock protocol increased intestinal permeability. Similarly, salivary cortisol was only increased after public speech. Subgroup analysis demonstrated that the effect of public speech on permeability was only present in subjects with a significant elevation of cortisol. CRH increased the lactulose-mannitol ratio (0.042±0.021 vs 0.028±0.009; p=0.02), which was inhibited by the mast cell stabiliser DSCG. Finally, intestinal permeability was unaltered by public speech with DSCG pretreatment.

Conclusions: Acute psychological stress increases small intestinal permeability in humans. Peripheral CRH reproduces the effect of stress and DSCG blocks the effect of both stress and CRH, suggesting the involvement of mast cells. These findings provide new insight into the complex interplay between the central nervous system and GI function in man.

Keywords: Epithelial Barrier; Inflammatory Bowel Disease; Irritable Bowel Syndrome; Mast Cells; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / metabolism*
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / pharmacology*
  • Cromolyn Sodium / pharmacology
  • Electroshock / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Indomethacin
  • Intestine, Small / physiopathology*
  • Lactulose / urine
  • Male
  • Mannitol / urine
  • Mast Cells / drug effects
  • Mast Cells / physiology*
  • Permeability / drug effects
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Speech / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / urine
  • Young Adult


  • Mannitol
  • Lactulose
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Cromolyn Sodium
  • Hydrocortisone
  • Indomethacin