Inflammatory Bowel Disease (+ 7 Natural Ways to Help Relieve IBD Symptoms)
Inflammatory bowel disease is chronic inflammation (swelling and irritation) of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The two main diseases that fall in this category are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both of these conditions are caused by an abnormal response from your body’s immune system, where your system attacks your own tissue.
Inflammatory bowel disease shares symptoms with many other conditions, such as celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, those two diagnoses are not considered inflammatory bowel diseases.
Lifestyle strategies and natural therapies may help relieve symptoms for people with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Together with conventional medicine, many people can find relief for their symptoms and even get into remission — time periods without symptoms.
What Is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is used to describe conditions that cause long-term inflammation in the digestive tract. The two main diseases that fall in this category are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis: (1)
- Crohn’s disease involves inflammation throughout the digestive tract, including the large and small intestines. The damage often happens in patches rather than affecting the entire tract. However, it can impact multiple layers of tissue in the intestines.
- Ulcerative colitis impacts just the large intestine called the colon. The damaged tissue usually affects the entire colon in a continuous stretch, causing colon pain and inflammation of the colon. In most cases, it only causes inflammation in the innermost lining of the colon. It can also cause symptoms in the rectum.
Other less common diseases also fall under the umbrella term of inflammatory bowel diseases. These include: (2)
- Microscopic colitis
- Behcet’s disease
- Lymphocyte colitis
- Collagenous colitis
- Diverticulosis-associated colitis. Inflammatory bowel diseases affect about 1.6 million Americans. (3) Unfortunately, there is no cure for IBD. The condition will flare up at times and at other times have no symptoms (remission). However, with treatment, most people can keep the disease under control so that they do not develop complications. Complications of IBD can include: (2)
- Skin, eye and joint inflammation
- Medication side effects
- Colon cancer
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis (scarring of the bile ducts that causes liver damage)
Is IBD a disability? Depending on the severity of your symptoms and the impact of the disease on your ability to work, IBD may qualify as a disability. This may mean you can get disability income from the government. For some people, this can replace income lost by not being able to work full-time or at all. However, you will need the support of your physician and it requires time and paperwork to obtain approval. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America offers a sample disability appeal letter that you can submit with the support of your doctor. (4)
IBD Signs & Symptoms
Inflammatory bowel disease causes a wide range of symptoms. These may vary by the exact diagnosis and the severity of your disease. In general, inflammatory bowel disease symptoms include: (1, 5)
- Diarrhea for a long period of time
- Belly pain
- Bleeding from the rectum or blood in your stools
- Poor appetite
- Unintended weight loss
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Urgency for bowel movements For a diagnosis, physicians will look for some key IBD signs, including the location and degree of tissue inflammation. Inflammatory bowel disease diagnosis will be done through endoscopy, colonoscopy and imaging tests, such as MRI, computed tomography (CT), or contrast radiography. Together with blood tests and stool samples, these imaging tests should help you get an accurate diagnosis. People with inflammatory bowel disease may also have other symptoms or complications specific to their disease. IBD symptoms for people with complicated Crohn’s disease can include: (5)
- Bowel obstruction (swelling that causes a blockage in the bowels, which may need surgery to fix)
- Anal fissures (a tear in the skin of the anus)
- Fistulas (when an ulcer goes through the wall of the intestine)
People with ulcerative colitis may also experience complications. Some of these include:
- Toxic megacolon (when the colon suddenly swells and gets wider)
- Holes in the colon
- Extreme dehydration from excessive diarrhea
- Colon cancer
Causes & Risk Factors
Although the exact cause of most inflammatory bowel diseases is unknown, it is believed to be due to a problem with the immune system. This may be triggered when your body tries to fight off bacteria or a virus in the gastrointestinal tract. Something goes wrong and your immune system doesn’t stop — it keeps attacking healthy tissue.
In some cases, there is a genetic component to IBD. This means you may be more likely to develop IBD if you have certain genes or family members with the condition.
Risk factors for IBD include
- Age younger than 30 (you can get it at any age though)
- Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
- White race
- Having a close relative with IBD
- Smoking (it is a risk factor for Crohn’s, though it may provide some protection against ulcerative colitis)
- Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs); these also make symptoms worse if you already have IBD
- Living in developed countries or in urban areas
- Living in northern climates
- Higher socioeconomic status
- Diets high in fat or refined foods may also be a risk factor. Some people theorize that IBD has become more common in developed countries due to a lack of exposure to germs. However, there doesn’t appear to be any single cause for the condition.