Intestinal inflammation can occur for a variety of reasons, but it is often caused by an immune response to something your body doesn’t recognize as “itself.” This could be a food you are allergic to, a bacteria or virus, or even stress.
“Inflammation in the gut isn’t always a bad thing, as it can be the body’s natural response to fighting off harmful bacteria or healing,” says Sarah Robbins, MD, a gastroenterologist and founder of Well Sunday. However, chronic intestinal inflammation is associated with more serious conditions, such as irritable bowel disease.
That said, it’s important to note the difference between “true” intestinal inflammation and symptoms that can mimic it.
“True intestinal inflammation involves the immune system responding to noxious stimuli, such as pathogens or irritants, and results in swelling, redness, and often pain in the lining of the gut,” adds Dr. Robbins. “However, some people experience symptoms similar to intestinal inflammation, such as bloating, gas and abdominal pain, without actual inflammation – this can occur with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).”
If you think you have intestinal inflammation, it’s important to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. Failure to address your triggers and symptoms can lead to the development of certain inflammatory conditions.
What Causes Intestinal Inflammation?
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria, and when these bacteria are in balance, your gut is healthy. But sometimes things can go wrong and it can get inflamed.
Intestinal inflammation can be acute or chronic:
- Acute intestinal inflammation comes on suddenly and usually passes on its own. This can be caused by a specific event, such as a bacterial infection or a food allergy or intolerance.
- Chronic intestinal inflammation lasts for a long time or comes and goes over time. It is often caused by an underlying condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, the main difference between IBS and IBD is that IBD can cause destructive inflammation, can be seen during diagnostic imaging, and can increase the risk of colon cancer. So IBS is not inflammatory; it simply mimics symptoms of intestinal inflammation.
While it’s possible to have occasional bowel inflammation without having IBD, chronic intestinal inflammation is more likely to be a sign of IBD or another gastrointestinal condition.
Here are some causes of true intestinal inflammation, broken down into acute and chronic:
Acute (short-term) intestinal inflammation
Possible causes of acute intestinal inflammation are:
- Stress and Depression: Research shows that stress and depression can damage the gut lining, making it more prone to inflammation. Common gastrointestinal symptoms caused by stress include heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and lower abdominal pain. According to the UNC Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders, these symptoms are often caused by the release of stress hormones, which can disrupt the natural balance of the gut.
- medicines: Studies show that medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can cause intestinal inflammation. NSAIDs reduce inflammation throughout the body, but they can also irritate the intestinal lining and lead to symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea and nausea.
- infections: Bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter (a type of stomach flu) can cause acute intestinal inflammation, specifically in the form of bacterial gastroenteritis, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Symptoms may include fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
- Viral Infections: According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, viral infections, such as rotavirus and norovirus, can also cause intestinal inflammation known as viral gastroenteritis. These infections are often spread through person-to-person contact. Symptoms of viral intestinal infections can be similar to those of bacterial infections, but are usually less severe.
- Food Intolerances: Food intolerances can trigger an immune response in the gut. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this reaction can cause inflammation, leading to symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloating.
Chronic (long-term) intestinal inflammation
Possible causes of chronic intestinal inflammation are:
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): As mentioned, IBD is an acronym for two chronic inflammatory conditions of the gastrointestinal tract: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both conditions can lead to permanent damage to the gastrointestinal tract, according to the CDC.
- celiac disease: According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to react to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. This reaction can damage the small intestine, leading to nutrient malabsorption. Beyond Celiac lists diarrhea, dermatitis, abdominal pain, and fatigue as some of the most common symptoms of celiac disease.
- scleroderma: Scleroderma, or systemic sclerosis, is defined by the National Scleroderma Foundation as a “chronic connective tissue disease.” It is an incurable disease that can cause inflammation and scarring throughout the body, including the gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms of scleroderma-related intestinal inflammation can include diarrhea and constipation.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the causes of intestinal inflammation. As Michael Roizen, MD, and Chief Wellness Officer Emeritus of the Cleveland Clinic, says, intestinal inflammation is a “non-specific condition with many causes.”
Intestinal Inflammation Symptoms
According to dr. Robbins, intestinal inflammation is usually due to conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or infections, which can cause a variety of symptoms. These symptoms can be similar to non-inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish them without medical evaluation.
However, there are some distinguishing features that Dr. Robbins lists below.
Some common symptoms of true intestinal inflammation include:
- severe and persistent abdominal pain and cramps
- severe or frequent diarrhea
- significant unexplained weight loss
- decreased appetite
- joint pain and rash
- anemia due to chronic blood loss in the stool or malabsorption of nutrients
Symptoms common with non-inflammatory conditions such as IBS include:
- abdominal pain that disappears after bowel movements
- bloating and gas
- diarrhea or constipation
- mucus in the stool without the presence of blood
- sensitivity to certain foods, such as those high in FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols)
- normal blood tests
When to see a doctor about intestinal inflammation
Bowel inflammation can indicate a serious medical condition, such as IBD or celiac disease. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent complications and improve your quality of life.
The researchers at NYU Langone’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center recommend seeing a doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms, as they could lead to a more serious medical problem, such as colon cancer:
- persistent diarrhoea
- severe abdominal pain
- bloody stools
- unexplained weight loss
- nausea and vomiting
- rash and joint pain
If you have a family history of IBD or other intestinal conditions, Sara Mesilhy, MRCP, a gastroenterologist and member of the Probiotic Review Girl medical team, recommends being proactive and consulting with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to discuss preventive measures which can help reduce your risk of intestinal inflammation.
Foods that reduce intestinal inflammation
Certain foods can also help reduce inflammation and promote gut health. For example, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, walnuts and flaxseed, have been shown to reduce inflammation in the gut.
According to Harvard Health, other foods that help reduce intestinal inflammation include:
- leafy greens such as kale and spinach
- green beans
- whole grain
- fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
Dr. Mesilhy recommends avoiding pro-inflammatory foods, such as:
- fried food
- Soft drink
- refined carbohydrates
- Red meat
In addition, says Dr. Mesilhy that meals after the torch should include:
- diluted juices
- Apple sauce
- canned fruits
- regular chicken, turkey or fish
- Cooked eggs
- mashed potatoes
- rice or noodles
It’s important to note that everyone’s body is different, so what works for one person may not work for another. If you suffer from intestinal inflammation, it is best to consult a healthcare provider to find the best treatment plan for you.
Dealing with intestinal inflammation can be difficult, but knowing the signs to watch for and making lifestyle changes can make a big difference.