Background: Antidepressants are used in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome but it is unclear whether any symptomatic improvement is due solely to correction of an associated affective disorder, or whether these drugs have effects on bowel function which may be of therapeutic benefit. Intestinal transit is known to be abnormal in some irritable bowel syndrome patients.
Methods: We have studied the effects of imipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant with mixed pharmacological properties, and paroxetine, a selective 5-hydroxytryptamine re-uptake inhibitor, on intestinal transit times.
Results: Median (range) whole gut transit time was lower in 10 diarrhoea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome patients, 22.2 (3.6-51.6) h, compared to 28 control subjects 39.6 (7.2-68.4) h, (P < 0.05). Similarly, orocaecal transit time was shorter at 55 (30-90) min in diarrhoea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome patients compared to 75 (40-150) min in controls, (P < 0.05). Four days' administration of imipramine increasing to a daily dose of 100 mg prolonged both orocaecal and whole gut transit times in 12 control subjects and six diarrhoea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome patients. In contrast, 30 mg paroxetine daily for 4 days reduced orocaecal transit time in ten controls and eight irritable bowel syndrome patients, but had no effect on whole gut transit time.
Conclusion: Short-term administration of antidepressants alters intestinal transit, but the selective 5-hydroxytryptamine re-uptake inhibitor, paroxetine, has different effects to the tricyclic drug, imipramine. These effects on transit precede any effects on mood. Although there is a high prevalence of affective disorder in irritable bowel syndrome clinic patients, these drugs may have additional therapeutic actions on the gut. These actions might be taken into account when prescribing antidepressants in irritable bowel syndrome.