Selye's general adaptation syndrome: stress-induced gastro-duodenal ulceration and inflammatory bowel disease

J Endocrinol. 2017 Mar;232(3):F1-F5. doi: 10.1530/JOE-16-0547. Epub 2016 Dec 20.


Hans Selye in a note to Nature in 1936 initiated the field of stress research by showing that rats exposed to nocuous stimuli responded by way of a 'general adaptation syndrome' (GAS). One of the main features of the GAS was the 'formation of acute erosions in the digestive tract, particularly in the stomach, small intestine and appendix'. This provided experimental evidence for the view based on clinical data that gastro-duodenal (peptic) ulcers could be caused by stress. This hypothesis was challenged by Marshall and Warren's Nobel Prize (2005)-winning discovery of a causal association between Helicobacter pylori and peptic ulcers. However, clinical and experimental studies suggest that stress can cause peptic ulceration in the absence of H. pylori Predictably, the etiological pendulum of gastric and duodenal ulceration has swung from 'all stress' to 'all bacteria' followed by a sober realization that both factors play a role, separately as well as together. This raises the question as to whether stress and H. pylori interact, and if so, how? Stress has also been implicated in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and related disorders; however, there is no proof yet that stress is the primary etiological trigger for IBD. Central dopamine mechanisms seem to be involved in the stress induction of peptic ulceration, whereas activation of the sympathetic nervous system and central and peripheral corticotrophin-releasing factor appears to mediate stress-induced IBD.

Keywords: Helicobacter pylori; brain-gut axis; inflammatory bowel disease; peptic ulcers; stress.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Helicobacter Infections / complications*
  • Helicobacter pylori
  • Humans
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / etiology*
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / microbiology
  • Peptic Ulcer / etiology*
  • Peptic Ulcer / microbiology
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Syndrome