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Do Air Pollutants Play a Role in Bowel Disease?

Air Pollution

Story at-a-glance -

  • Exposure to air pollution may play role in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, by triggering inflammation, making your gut more permeable and altering its normal balance of bacteria
  • IBD did not emerge until after industrialization, so a strong role for environmental factors appears likely
  • High air emissions of pollutants has been linked to a 40 percent increase in the rate of IBD hospitalizations
  • If you have IBD, you’ll need to focus on suppressing the underlying inflammation; the greatest contributors to chronic inflammation are lifestyle factors such as smoking, a diet high in sugar, fried foods and trans fats, inadequate exercise, stress and vitamin D deficiency

By Dr. Mercola

Air pollution has long been implicated as a cause of heart and lung disease, in part because it triggers inflammation in your body. Now, researchers are beginning to explore its potential role in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

This isn't such a stretch when you consider that pollution particles that enter your lungs may reside in mucous that eventually finds its way to your gut. There, it's thought that the pollutants may trigger inflammation, make your gut more permeable and alter its normal balance of bacteria.1

Air Pollution and Gastrointestinal Disorders: What Does the Research Say?

While research into the role of air pollution on gastrointestinal diseases is still in its early stages, a link has already been established. One study revealed that short-term exposure to air pollution may trigger abdominal pain in young adults.2

Research has also shown that younger individuals were more likely to be diagnosed with Crohn's disease if they lived in regions with higher ambient concentrations of the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide, while young ulcerative colitis patients were more likely to live in regions with higher sulfur dioxide pollution in the air.3

IBD did not emerge until after industrialization, so while environmental factors like air pollution may not explain its cause entirely, a strong role appears likely. Writing in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, researchers noted:4

"Known genetic loci account for less than 25% of the risk for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), suggesting a potential role for environmental triggers."

Short-term exposure to air pollution has even been found to trigger some cases of appendicitis,5 and high air emissions of pollutants has been linked to a 40 percent increase in the rate of IBD hospitalizations.6

Air Pollution Might Increase IBD Risk by Altering Gut Bacteria

One theory for how air pollution might contribute to gastrointestinal tract disease is that it may alter the make up of bacteria in your gut – a factor that's being increasingly linked to chronic diseases of all kinds. As reported in Scientific American:7

"Many of the 160 gene regions implicated in the development of bowel diseases also regulate how the immune system recognizes and interacts with the trillions of bacteria that exist in the human gut.

'In the gut, you have a barrier between the immune system and the bacteria that live there. It's important that barrier gets maintained,' [Karen] Madsen [a gastroenterological scientist from the University of Alberta in Edmonton] said.

Air pollution particles may disrupt the barrier by making the gut more permeable to bacteria and possibly altering the composition of the bacteria. Studies with mice show that pollution particles make the gut more permeable.

'Those changes can lead to inflammation and may set up someone who is genetically predisposed to inflammatory bowel diseases,' [Dr. Gilaad] Kaplan [a gastroenterologist at the University of Calgary in Alberta], said."

There's also an inflammation connection, as some research suggests that exposure to air pollution may increase inflammatory particles in your gut, which may increase your risk of bowel diseases.

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How to Lower Your Health Risks from Air Pollution

Even as the link between air pollution and IBD continues to be explored, there's no doubt that this environmental pollution presents a major health risk. If you happen to live in a heavily polluted area, the best option is to move, but I realize that isn't always a practical option.

For most people, it's better to focus your attention on your immediate environment (i.e. your home and/or office), which you have more, if not full, control over. The most effective way to improve your indoor air quality, for instance, is to control or eliminate as many sources of pollution as you can first, before using any type of air purifier.

This includes accounting for molds, tobacco smoke, volatile organic compounds from paints, aerosol sprays and household cleaners, pesticides, phthalates from vinyl flooring and personal care products, pollutants from pressure-treated wood products, radon gas and more (see tips below).

The next step to take is free—open some windows. Of course, this can only take you so far, but it's an important and simple step. Next, since it is impossible to eliminate ALL air contaminants, one of the best things you can do is incorporate a high-quality air purifier. At present, and after much careful review and study,

I believe air purifiers using Photo Catalytic Oxidation (PCO) seem to be the best technology available. Aside from using an air purification system, there are a number of other steps you can take to take charge of your air quality and greatly reduce the amount of air pollutants generated in your home:

  • Vacuum your floors regularly using a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner or, even better, a central vacuum cleaner that can be retrofitted to your existing house if you don't currently have one. Standard bag or bagless vacuum cleaners are another primary contributor to poor indoor air quality. A regular vacuum cleaner typically has about a 20-micron tolerance.
  • Although that's tiny, far more microscopic particles flow right through the vacuum cleaner than it actually picks up! Beware of cheaper knock-offs that profess to have "HEPA-like" filters—get the real deal.

  • Increase ventilation by opening a few windows every day for 5 to 10 minutes, preferably on opposite sides of the house. (Although outdoor air quality may be poor, stale indoor air is typically even worse by a wide margin.)
  • Get some houseplants. Even NASA has found that plants markedly improve the air! For tips and guidelines, see my previous article The 10 Best Pollution-Busting Houseplants.
  • Take your shoes off as soon as you enter the house, and leave them by the door to prevent tracking in of toxic particles.
  • Discourage or even better, forbid, tobacco smoking in or around your home.
  • Switch to non-toxic cleaning products (such as baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and vinegar) and safer personal care products. Avoid aerosols. Look for VOC-free cleaners. Avoid commercial air fresheners and scented candles, which can out gas literally thousands of different chemicals into your breathing space.
  • Avoid powders. Talcum and other personal care powders can be problematic as they float and linger in the air after each use. Many powders are allergens due to their tiny size, and can cause respiratory problems.
  • Don't hang dry-cleaned clothing in your closet immediately. Hang them outside for a day or two. Better yet, see if there's an eco-friendly dry cleaner in your city that uses some of the newer dry cleaning technologies, such as liquid CO2.
  • Upgrade your furnace filters. Today, there are more elaborate filters that trap more of the particulates. Have your furnace and air conditioning ductwork and chimney cleaned regularly.
  • Avoid storing paints, adhesives, solvents, and other harsh chemicals in your house or in an attached garage.
  • Avoid using nonstick cookware, which can release toxins into the air when heated.
  • Ensure your combustion appliances are properly vented.
  • Make sure your house has proper drainage and its foundation is sealed properly to avoid mold formation.
  • The same principles apply to ventilation inside your car—especially if your car is new—and chemicals from plastics, solvents, carpet and audio equipment add to the toxic mix in your car's cabin. That "new car smell" can contain up to 35 times the health limit for VOCs, "making its enjoyment akin to glue-sniffing."8

7 Natural Options for Improving Inflammatory Bowel Disease

More than 1.5 million Americans suffer from IBD, which is an autoimmune condition that involves inflammation in your digestive tract that can cause cramps, bloody diarrhea, weight loss and other potentially serious complications in your intestines, along with increasing your risk of colon cancer. Because IBD can be extremely painful, debilitating and even life threatening, many IBD patients wind up having extensive sections of their colon removed to address the problem when conventional therapies fail -- and this can result in devastating and life-threatening complications.

The goal of most IBD treatment, whether conventional or holistic, is to suppress the inflammation that is leading to the damaging symptoms, and exposure to environmental pollutants is only one contributing factor. Some of the greatest contributors to chronic inflammation are lifestyle factors like smoking, a diet high in sugar, fried foods and synthetic trans fats, inadequate exercise, stress, and vitamin D deficiency. So, if you have IBD the first place to start getting the disease under control lies in addressing these underlying factors. If you have IBD, I urge you to:

  1. Take a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat supplement like krill oil, for the anti-inflammatory benefits. If you're already taking a plant-based omega-3 such as flax, know that it will not work as well, as your body needs the preformed omega-3 fat DHA to have a serious impact on this disease -- not the omega-3 ALA found in flax.
  2. Avoid all types of sugars and processed foods, particularly fructose, as these will increase inflammation by increasing your insulin levels.
  3. Also avoid grains until your symptoms are under control. Many with inflammatory bowel disease have gluten sensitivities. Additionally, the grains tend to increase insulin levels, promoting inflammation.
  4. Avoid artificial sweeteners. Inflammatory bowel disease may be caused or exacerbated by the regular consumption of the popular artificial sweetener Splenda, as it inactivates digestive enzymes and alters gut barrier function.
  5. Optimize your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D appears to be nearly as effective as animal-based omega-3 fats in countering IBD. One of the reasons that vitamin D may work is that it helps your body produce over 200 anti-microbial peptides that help fight all sorts of infections, and there are many experts who believe inflammatory bowel disease has an infectious component.
  6. Get plenty of beneficial bacteria either through fermented foods or probiotics in your diet, as this will help to heal your intestinal tract. You can do this by regularly consuming traditionally fermented foods, or taking a high-quality probiotic supplement. This is another extremely important strategy, as research presented at the American College of Gastroenterology annual meeting, by researchers at the University College Cork in Ireland, showed that people with inflammatory conditions such as ulcerative colitis who took the probiotic bacteria Bifidobacterium infantis for eight weeks had lower levels of inflammation than those taking a placebo.
  7. Consider using an herbal anti-inflammatory. A solid body of clinical research indicates that the spice turmeric, and its primary golden-hued polyphenol known as curcumin, as well as the Ayurvedic herb boswellia, may provide far superior therapeutic outcomes and safety profiles, as compared to conventional drugs, in the treatment of IBD.9