Air Pollution and Bowel Disease—Is There a Link?

The rate of bowel disease—most notably ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease—is increasing in different areas around the world, emerging as a global disease. Researchers are looking for clues about what causes these diseases so that one day they might be prevented. Researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada (the country with the highest rate of bowel disease in the world) are investigating the link between air pollution and bowel disease.

“We tend to think about air pollution in terms of lung health, but the GI tract is also being bathed in it continuously. Fine pollution particles are cleared from the respiratory tract by mucous that makes its way to the gut,” stated Karen Madsen, a gastroenterological scientist.

Evidence suggests that inhaling fine particles may disrupt immune function and trigger inflammation in the gut, making it more permeable and altering the gut bacterial balance. “Those changes can lead to inflammation and may set up someone who is genetically predisposed to inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD),” noted Madsen. “In the gut, you have a barrier between the immune system and the bacteria that live there. It’s important that barrier gets maintained.”

“The interplay between the gut microbiome and the immune system is really on the forefront of IBD research. The air pollution research looks promising, but right now it’s still too soon to know for sure whether the link is real,” said Melissa Rosen, MD, a gastroenterologist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

I believe the link between air pollution—and other toxins, for that matter—and bowel disease will become clear as research extends into this field. Toxins trigger an inflammatory response in the body that can lead to a host of chronic diseases. Toxins are just one trigger of inflammation. Reducing our toxin exposure and increasing our body’s ability to remove toxins is an important part of achieving vibrant health.

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