Any area of the body can be affected by inflammation—including the gut. When the gut is inflamed, it can interfere with digestion and gut health and can lead to numerous health issues. When inflammation persists in the gut, it can damage the lining of the intestines and other parts of the digestive system. In this article, we are going to discuss gut inflammation in depth.
What Is Gut Inflammation?
Gut inflammation is inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The GI tract is the passageway of the digestive system that leads from the mouth to the anus. It contains all the major organs of the digestive system, such as the esophagus, stomach, and intestines.
Inflammation is a process of the immune system in which your body's white blood cells and the things they make protect you from infection from pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and toxic chemicals. When your body encounters any of these invaders, or when it suffers an injury, it activates your immune system to send out inflammatory cells and cytokines—substances that stimulate more inflammatory cells.
Inflammation is an essential process of the immune system that is designed to help protect us and keep us healthy and safe. Chronic inflammation, however, is when the inflammatory response of the immune system is activated for extended periods of time. Short-term inflammation may be helpful for healing, but long-term, or chronic, inflammation can be debilitating and lead to health issues.
In fact, research suggests that chronic, low-grade inflammation is the root cause of many major diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and more.
Chronic inflammation in the gut is known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and is actually a term for two inflammatory gut conditions—Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—both of which are characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
The only real difference between the two conditions is that ulcerative colitis is limited to the colon, or large intestine, while Chron’s disease can occur anywhere in the GI tract. With Chron’s disease, there are usually healthy parts of the intestine that exist in between inflamed intestinal tissue.
Regardless of whether we call it inflammatory bowel disease, Chron’s disease, or ulcerative colitis, the fact is that prolonged inflammation results in damage to the GI tract.
What Causes Gut Inflammation?
The exact cause of Inflammatory Bowel Disease is unknown, but health professionals claim that it is the result of a defective immune system. An immune system that is functioning effectively should attack invading pathogens and protect the body. But with IBD, the immune system responds incorrectly to environmental triggers, causing inflammation in the digestive tract.
Doctors suspect that gastrointestinal inflammation could be caused by a combination of factors, such as:
- Lifestyle factors. Certain dietary and lifestyle factors have been linked to IBD. For example, diets high in processed foods, red meat, and saturated fat, have been shown to contribute to gut inflammation. Smoking, lack of exercise, poor sleep quality, and stress have also been associated with an increased risk of developing IBD.
- Leaky gut. Leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, is a condition in which the gut lining develops small gaps or hole in it that allow toxins to pass through into the bloodstream. It is considered to be at the root of many autoimmune conditions, and may also be at the root of IBD.
- Genetics. There also appears to be a genetic component in some cases of IBD. According to the CDC, “someone with a family history of IBD is more likely to develop this inappropriate immune response.”
- Medication. Certain medications may also put one at a greater risk of developing IBD, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics and birth control.
- Dysbiosis. Our gut bacteria play critical roles in our digestive health and immune function. An imbalance in the gut microbiome, known as dysbiosis, may trigger inflammation and contribute to IBD. In fact, according to research in the National Library of Medicine, “Intestinal inflammation and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are commonly associated with dysbiosis of the gut microbiota. “
Interestingly, many of the factors associated with IBD—such as diet, lifestyle, smoking, stress, medications—have a direct effect on the gut microbiota. Even leaky gut is linked to dysbiosis. This suggests that the balance (or imbalance) of gut bacteria play a crucial role in our gut health and in inflammatory bowel diseases.
Further research published in the National Library of Medicine states that: “Recent studies have found that many factors may alter the gut microbiota, with the effects of diet being commonly-studied. Extrinsic stressors, including environmental stressors, antibiotic exposure, sleep disturbance, physical activity, and psychological stress, may also play important roles in altering the composition of the gut microbiota.”
So, it appears that a major cause of gut inflammation, and therefore a major focus for treatment, is the state of the gut microbiome. Research on the gut microbiome also points to links between gut health and inflammation throughout the body, not just in the GI tract.
Gut Inflammation Symptoms
The symptoms of gut inflammation, whether it be mild inflammation in the gut or an Inflammatory Bowel Disease like Chron’s disease or ulcerative colitis, are typically one or more of the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal cramps
- Persistent bloating, especially after eating
- Persistent diarrhea
- Bloody stool/rectal bleeding
- Severe urgency to have a bowel movement
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Iron deficiency anemia caused by blood loss
How to Reduce Gut Inflammation
Looking into the causes of gut inflammation can give us insight into how to heal gut inflammation. The mistake that many people make, and unfortunately many health professionals, is to only address the symptoms of an illness and not its underlying cause. Often drugs like amino salicylates are prescribed for IBD to reduce inflammation in the lining of the intestines. While prescription drugs have their place, what good does suppressing the inflammation do if we do eliminate the factors that are causing inflammation in the first place?
If we want to get rid of inflammation in the body, including the gut, we need to remove the factors that contribute to inflammation and reduce inflammation holistically through diet and lifestyle, and if appropriate, the use of compounds like amino salicylates.
Taking a look at the factors that contribute to gut inflammation we find:
- Lifestyle factors—such as diet, smoking, levels of exercise, quality of sleep, stress levels, and exposure to toxins.
- Leaky gut— a condition in which the gut lining develops small gaps or hole in it that allow toxins to pass through into the bloodstream.
- Genetics—such as someone with a family history of IBD being more likely to develop this condition.
- Medication—certain medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics and birth control.
- Dysbiosis—an imbalance in the gut microbiome, known as dysbiosis, may trigger inflammation and contribute to IBD. In fact, according to research in the National Library.
Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.
Diet & Lifestyle
Dietary and lifestyle factors are by far the biggest contributor to inflammation, as they are the greatest determining factor in the amount of toxins we are exposed to, the state of our gut microbiome, and the nutrition that we receive from our food. It is also the area where we have the most control over our health.
Certain factors are known to contribute to inflammation, such as: processed foods, high amounts of saturated fats or red meat in the diet, toxic chemicals in food, chemicals in beauty or hygiene products, toxic cleaning agents, smoking, alcohol, stress, lack of physical activity, low-fiber diets.
On the other hand, certain factors can help reduce inflammation in the body, and therefore help reduce gut inflammation, such as: anti-inflammatory foods (berries, tomatoes, leafy greens, olive oil, grapes, almonds, etc.), foods high in antioxidants (berries, fruits, melons, cabbage, beets, squash, kale, yams, etc.), low stress levels, avoiding toxic substances in food or other products, moderate physical activity, moderate amounts of fiber in the diet.
In the factors of diet and lifestyle alone we already see a significant number of things that contribute to inflammation and things that help reduce it. Let’s try a mental exercise together to really illustrate how important these two factors are.
Imagine you have two people, one named Sam and the other named Sarah.
Sam only eats hot dogs, chips, burgers, french fries, and candy, and only drinks soda, coffee, fruit punch and beer. He likes to smoke a few cigarettes a day, he doesn’t exercise much, and he spends his nights sitting on the couch watching television. He has a stressful work life and he often loses sleep over it. He also doesn’t get outside much or spend much time in the sun.
Sarah, on the other hand, has a very different lifestyle. She eats a diet that is high in organic fruits and vegetables. She drinks a lot of water and herbal tea. She loves to be active, sweat, and move her body. She goes on hikes often and plays sports on the weekends with her friends. She understands the importance of a healthy work-life balance and treats her sleep, stress levels, and mental health as a priority, and she is very adamant about not consuming toxic foods or substances.
Who do you think is going to be healthier? Who do you think will be more likely to have an issue with inflammation or gut health? The answer should be obvious.
Yet, far too many people ignore the role that diet and lifestyle plays in their health. They treat their bodies like garbage cans and put anything into them with no concern for how their body will process it or how it will impact their health. Then, when they fall ill, they are clueless as to what could have caused their illness, and they look for a pill or some other quick fix to suppress their symptoms, instead of making a fundamental change in their lifestyle habits.
While it is true other factors can contribute to gut inflammation, diet and lifestyle are huge, and addressing any other factors without addressing these two is counterproductive. No medication or surgical procedure will fix your condition if you do not also take responsibility for the dietary and lifestyle choices you make each day, and how they impact your health.
Leaky Gut & Dysbiosis
We mentioned that leaky gut may cause inflammation, and that leaky gut—also known as intestinal permeability—is a condition in which the gut lining develops small gaps or hole in it that allow toxins to pass through into the bloodstream. We also mentioned that there is a big connection to leaky gut and dysbiosis, but let’s explore this in greater depth.
When the good bacteria in your gut are killed off—mainly by dietary and lifestyle factors like processed foods, low fiber diets, toxins, alcohol, cigarettes, antibiotics, poor sleep, and stress—it allows for other organisms in the gut to grow out of control. One of the organisms that good bacteria help to control is a type of fungi called Candida (link article). In small amounts, Candida are harmless, and may even play a role in a healthy gut microbiome. When allowed to grow beyond healthy levels, however, they can lead to a Candida infection known as candidiasis.
As Candida grow up the intestinal wall, their hyphae (the long, branching, filamentous structure of fungi) can penetrate the gut wall, creating small holes, and causing leaky gut. If you want to read more about this, check out our article “How to Heal Leaky Gut & Candida Overgrowth”.
Therefore, to address gut inflammation, one may have to address their leaky gut, meaning they may need to address their Candida infection—all of which come back to the health of the gut microbiome, and to one’s diet and lifestyle.
We created our Complete GI Protocol to help address dysbiosis and leaky gut, using 4 clinically-studied nutrients for optimizing gut health, along with an educational protocol guide.
Now, genetics is typically seen as the area that we have the least control of, and there is certainly some truth to this, as genetic factors can make us more prone to certain conditions that our parents, grandparents, or ancestors had. However, our genetics are not a death sentence that seals your fate.
There is a field of study known as epigenetics that, according to the CDC, studies “how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.”
The study of epigenetics has changed the way that we understand genetics, and suggests that your diet and lifestyle (there goes those two factors again), as well as your environment, can change the way that your genes function or how your genes are expressed.
Some research suggests certain medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics and birth control can contribute to IBD. You might wonder, how can anti-inflammatory drugs contribute to gut inflammation?
Anti-inflammatory drugs are different than anti-inflammatory foods. Anti-inflammatory foods reduce inflammation naturally through processes like antioxidants that fight inflammation forming free-radicals. Anti-inflammatory drugs work by blocking prostaglandins, which are substances that sensitize your nerve endings and enhance pain during inflammation.
NSAIDs are effective for treating pain caused by slow tissue damage, such as arthritis pain, back pain, menstrual cramps and headaches, but they actually drive inflammation to the lungs, heart, gastrointestinal system, liver, and kidneys. New research is showing that patients with chronic use of NSAIDs prevent the body's normal response to healing, and can lead to joint replacement surgeries.
Though they suppress pain and inflammation short-term, they actually increase pain and inflammation long-term, making them even worse! They are certainly not something to be used long term, yet many people do use pain relievers daily, and it is a grave mistake.
Antibiotics, as we’ve already mentioned, can affect the good bacteria in the gut, which can lead to dysbiosis, Candida overgrowth, leaky gut, and gut inflammation. They may be necessary at times to clear an infection, but should always be followed with a round of probiotics (link product) to replenish beneficial gut bacteria.
Birth control pills may also contribute to inflammation by effecting the way that hormones function. Research suggests that excess estrogen hormones, in particular, may increase inflammation.
Gut inflammation can be a serious health issue. It can be minor, or it can be chronic, and develop into an Inflammatory Bowel Disease like Chron’s disease or ulcerative colitis. An estimated 3.1 million adults in the United States alone have been diagnosed with IBD.
While most health professionals state that the exact causes of IBD are unknown, it has been linked to one or more of the following factors:
- Diet & lifestyle
- Leaky gut
Understanding these factors that contribute to gut inflammation can help one understand how to reduce gut inflammation and how to heal gut inflammation. Of course, if you have IBD, it is recommended to talk to your doctor about how to best go about treatment based on your unique situation. However, understanding the causes that are at the root of IBD can help you have insight into better ways to manage and reduce gut inflammation, and to live a happier, healthier life overall.