What causes Crohn's disease feature
IBD and Autoimmune Illness

What Causes Crohn’s Disease

What causes Crohns diseaseWhat causes Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis?

You just got diagnosed with IBD. It can be scary, overwhelming, and confusing. You aren’t sure what to do or what causes Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis to even develop? Where did it come from?

This question isn’t easily answered. The true cause of any form of IBD is still unknown. There are many factors that can contribute to these diseases developing. But, some of those factors can be explained and will hopefully ease your mind. I know when I was first diagnosed, I wanted to learn as much as I could…and now I want to help others learn!

Most common factors contributing to the development of IBD:

  1. Genetics
  2. Environment
  3. Immune system issues

It was once thought that diet and stress could cause IBD, but those theories have since been “debunked”. Researchers have found that they aren’t the cause but can definitely make symptoms much worse. You know I feel strongly about about how your diet and lifestyle can effect your IBD. They definitely play a role in your quality of life while navigating through your IBD journey.

My genetic makeup can cause Crohn’s Disease?

It sure can. I recently wrote an article for Autoimmune Sisters about how autoimmune diseases can be genetic or hereditary. I highly recommend you check it out. But genetics can definitely play a role in disease development. Understanding that diseases can be genetic and/or hereditary is confusing. So here is a very quick breakdown of how it works…you know I love my science!!

What causes Crohn's DiseaseHereditary vs. Genetic

The two terms are used interchangeably which causes some confusion. Something that is hereditary means that it runs in the family. One or both parents pass it down to the child. Whereas genetic is a term which refers to anything that has to do with our gene sequence or DNA.

What gets passed to you from your parents are genes. So you can see, it is easy to get everything confused. You also have to understand that there are 2 types of diseases. Genetic diseases, caused by a mutation in someone’s gene sequence. These are not necessarily hereditary. Then there are hereditary diseases. There may be a genetic component that is passed on from one or both parents to the child.

It is not uncommon for IBD, or any autoimmune disease (AD), to run in families. And just because one AD is present in a family, another one can develop due to mutated genes. Take my family for example: my maternal grandmother had Multiple Sclerosis, my mother has Crohn’s Disease, and now I have Crohn’s Disease. There is clearly some genetic marker in our family that causes some form of AD.

You might have to sit and think about whether or not AD runs in your family. Even a few decades ago, most IBD and AD went undiagnosed. Due to advancements in the medical field, we are able to make these diagnoses easier. Think if grandparents, or even great grandparents suffered from an undiagnosed condition.

So what does my Environment got to do with it?

There is an interesting article that talks about many different environmental factors that can contribute to the development of IBD. Diet and stress would fall under this category though we are now seeing that they aren’t necessarily causing disease, but can definitely contribute. Other environmental factors include:

  1. Decreased exposure to microbial agents in the environment – meaning, we aren’t getting exposed to enough good bacterial and fungi from outdoors because as a society we are more “sanitary”. Typically patients with IBD have lower amounts of good bacteria in their guts or an influx of bad bacteria causing inflammation.
  2. Air pollution – this is also irritating out digestive systems therefore increasing our likelihood of disease.
  3. Lifestyle factors like smoking, diet, stress, exercise, and lack of sleep. Depending on your lifestyle, you could be creating the perfect storm for disease development. The use of certain medicines known as NSAIDS (think Aleve, Ibuprofen, etc) can also contribute to disease.
  4. Viruses and other illness – these tend to be what triggers the disease in many people.

It seems that one sole environmental factor is not going to cause disease. But, many of these environmental triggers can contribute to it’s development.

What causes Crohn's diseaseImmune System Issues…

Autoimmune diseases occur because the immune system attacks itself thinking it is fighting off an invader. That is what is happening in IBD. Our immune cells are mistaking healthy tissue in our digestive tracks as invaders. That leads to inflammation and disease. But how does it just start? One theory is that your immune system is fighting off an actual virus at first, like a norovirus. But once your immune system has prevailed in warding off the virus, it fails to shut off. This causes chronic inflammation due to the heightened immune response.

Another theory is that the intestinal lining is abnormal due to excess inflammation from any of the environmental factors listed above. The inflammation can interfere with how our immune systems respond therefore creating disease. The common denominator when it comes to our immune system’s ability to fight is inflammation.

The Takeaway

Researchers still don’t fully understand the cause of Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis. Understanding that there are many different factors that play a role in disease development may ease your mind (it did for me). Continuing to learn about IBD and reading the current science is fascinating. And you best believe that once they figure out the cause, I’ll be the first to let you know!

-Kelsey

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