What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic disorder that causes inflammation and swelling in the digestive tract or intestinal wall. When the digestive tract becomes chronically inflamed or irritated, bleeding sores called ulcers develop. These ulcers can cause abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, blood in the stool, fatigue, reduced appetite, weight loss, or fever.
There are two common forms of inflammatory bowel disease – ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease (CD). Both conditions may appear to be clinically very similar, and often diagnosing which type of IBD a person has can be difficult.
Ulcerative colitis involves inflammation of the colon and rectum. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive tract and can spark off mal-absorption, as well as chronic vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Other inflammatory bowel diseases include collagenous colitis, lymphocytic colitis, and diversion colitis.
Diagnosing Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Inflammatory bowel disease is difficult to diagnose and is often mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome. The inflammation that is typical of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis is not present in irritable bowel syndrome. The diagnosis is based on the person’s symptoms, medical history, as well as a physical examination.
Tests Used to Help Make a Diagnosis
Several tests may be performed to rule out any other possible conditions, which include:
- Blood tests
- Stool samples
- Barium enema to check for Crohn’s disease
- A flexible sigmoidoscopy may be performed using a thin tube with a light into the rectum to check the lower part of the colon and rectum for signs of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Colonoscopy involves inserting a thin tube with a light through the rectum and into the colon
- CT or CAT scan
Symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases can range from mild to severe and what may initially be a mildly uncomfortable condition can gradually develop into an intensely painful condition. These symptoms include:
- Chronic diarrhea
- Abdominal cramps or pain
- Blood or mucus in stool
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Inflammation in joints, eyes or skin
What Causes Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
The causes of inflammatory bowel disease are unknown. Research suggests that the following factors may play a role:
Compromised immune system: Normally, the immune system protects the body and fights off viral infections or bacterial infections. However, in people with IBD, the immune system overreacts to something in the digestive system and causes ongoing inflammation, ulcers, and other problems. Researchers believe that a virus or bacterium may be the trigger causing the immune system to react this way.
Hereditary factors: IBD tends to run in families, and at least 10 percent of people with either Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis can identify a family member who has their condition. Women who have family members with IBD have more chance of developing IBD compared to other people. An inherited gene also plays a role with IBD and it is especially common amongst people of Jewish descent.
Environmental factors: Environmental factors that are linked to IBD include:
- A lifestyle that includes little physical activity
- Higher socioeconomic status
- Living in a developed country
In addition, stress, smoking, and certain foods can also exacerbate the symptoms of IBD.
Help for Inflammatory Bowel Disease
The treatment of IBD usually involves reducing and controlling the symptoms with medication, adjusting dietary requirements, and incorporating exercise into your lifestyle. The primary aim of treatment is to get rid of inflammation. Medications that may be prescribed include anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, steroids, and immune-system modulators. Over-the-counter medications such as anti-diarrheals, laxatives, and pain relievers for mild episodes are also available.
In some cases, symptoms that are limited to the bowel near the rectum may require an enema. More severe cases of ulcerative colitis may require surgery, where part or sometimes even the entire colon is removed. With Crohn’s disease, colon surgery would not be able to cure the disease, but only be able to correct the complications.
Dietary changes are also very important. Eating healthily, including plenty of fiber into your diet, and excluding dairy products will all help you to control the symptoms of IBD.
Exercising regularly will also help to relieve muscle tension and joint pain often brought about by this condition. In addition, it may also be helpful to consult with a counselor or therapist to manage stress and depression often associated with this disease.
Natural and holistic treatments can also help to reduce symptoms and prevent the flare-ups of inflammatory bowel disease. Treatments such as herbal and homeopathic remedies are gentle to use without the harsh side effects of conventional medicines.
Therapeutic herbs such as Matricaria recutita (German Chamomile) have anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic and calming properties, while Filipendula ulmaria (Meadowsweet) can help to protect the digestive tract and reduce stomach acid secretions. In addition, Ulmus fulva (Slippery Elm) reduces digestive pain and irritation, while Sutherlandia frutescens ('Cancer Bush') is a medicinal herb used as a powerful tonic to treat chronic and acute digestive complaints, as well as internal cancers.
More Information on Inflammatory Bowel Disease
How to Prevent IBD Flare-ups
- Eat a high-fiber diet of whole grain bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, fruit, vegetables, dried fruit and nuts (NOTE: Some individuals find that wheat products worsen their symptoms).
- Include protein such as lean meats and fish in your diet to relieve symptoms of IBD.
- Try to eat small, frequent meals even during a flare-up.
- Exercise regularly to reduce stiffness, maintain joint motion, and strengthen the muscles around the joints.
- Drink lots of fluid and at least 8-10 glasses of water daily to keep the body hydrated and prevent constipation.
- Avoid foods containing lactose if you are lactose intolerant.
- Reduce your intake of caffeine and alcohol, as these may aggravate IBD symptoms.
- Increase your intake of multivitamins and fish oil capsules to replace lost nutrients.
- Limit gas-producing foods such as broccoli, dried peas and lentils, chives, onions, and carbonated drinks.
- Practice deep breathing exercises to encourage motion of the ribs.
- Stop smoking in a natural manner, as smoking has been known to worsen IBD.