Inflammatory bowel disease is a chronic, progressive condition that leads to issues with the digestive system, specifically the intestines. This makes it difficult for these organs to absorb nutrients and fluids from your diet so your body can meet its needs. It is not entirely known what causes inflammatory bowel disease, but factors include diet and genetics. Unfortunately, there is no cure.
People at higher risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease are generally diagnosed before they’re 30 years old, but some don’t develop it until their late 50s and 60s. It’s a condition that can affect any race and/or ethnicity, though people who are white have the highest risk. If you’re white and have a close relative with inflammatory bowel disease, your risk is even higher. Cigarette smoking has also been shown to increase the risk of inflammatory bowel disease.
There are two primary types of inflammatory bowel disease that affect different parts of the intestines:
- Ulcerative colitis involves inflammation and sores along the large intestine.
- Crohn’s disease involves inflammation along the entire lining of the digestive tract.
Signs and symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease include diarrhea, fatigue, abdominal pain and cramping, blood in the stool, reduced appetite and/or unintended weight loss.
There are some procedures that can help diagnose inflammatory bowel disease, including:
- tests for anemia or infection;
- stool studies;
- endoscopic procedures—such as a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy, etc.—to see the inside of the intestines; and
- Imaging, such as an X-ray or CT scan.
People with inflammatory bowel disease often need to make lifestyle modifications to prevent their condition from getting worse. This can include quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, following a healthier diet without alcohol or caffeine, and exercising. Anti-inflammatory drugs, immune system suppressors and antibiotics may also play a part in treating inflammatory bowel disease. In some people, if symptoms worsen significantly, nutritional support such as a feeding tube or surgery, may be required.
One of the main points to remember about inflammatory bowel disease is that it is manageable. Taking steps to prevent symptoms from getting worse can improve your overall health and way of life.
Anand “Sunny” Narayanan, PhD, is a research professor at Florida A&M University-Florida State University. As a first-generation, immigrant Indian American, Narayanan has held a lifelong interest in encouraging diversity through educational outreach and interdisciplinary projects. His research includes studying the gastrointestinal system in various contexts, including spaceflight, medical conditions, dietary adaptations, public health and exercise.