8 Causes of Gut Inflammation and What to Do About Them
Gut inflammation can happen for a number of reasons, but it's often caused by an immune response to something that your body doesn't recognize as "self." This could be a food you're allergic to, a bacteria or virus, or even stress.
"Inflammation in the gut is not 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. Chronic gut inflammation, however, is associated with more serious conditions, like irritable bowel disease.
That said, it's important to note the difference between "true" gut inflammation and symptoms that may mimic it.
"True gut inflammation involves the immune system responding to harmful stimuli, such as pathogens or irritants, and results in swelling, redness, and often pain in the lining of the intestines," Dr. Robbins adds. "However, some individuals experience symptoms similar to gut inflammation, such as bloating, gas, and abdominal pain, without actual inflammation — this can occur in conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)."
If you think you may have gut inflammation, it's important to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. If you don't address your triggers and symptoms, it could lead to the development of certain inflammatory conditions.
What Causes Gut 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 become inflamed.
Gut inflammation can be acute or chronic:
- Acute gut inflammation comes on suddenly and usually goes away on its own. This can be triggered by a specific event, such as a bacterial infection or a food allergy or intolerance.
- Chronic gut inflammation lasts for a prolonged period or comes and goes over time. It's often caused by an underlying condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes 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, be seen during diagnostic imaging, and increase the risk of colon cancer. So IBS is not inflammatory; it just mimics gut inflammation symptoms.
While it's possible to have occasional gut inflammation without having IBD, chronic gut inflammation is more likely to be a sign of IBD or another gastrointestinal condition.
Here are some of the causes of true gut inflammation, broken down by acute and chronic:
Acute (Short-Term) Gut Inflammation
Potential causes of acute gut inflammation include:
- Stress and depression: Research shows that stress and depression can damage the gut lining, making it more susceptible to inflammation. Common gastrointestinal symptoms caused by stress can 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 gut's natural balance.
- Medications: Studies show that medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can cause gut inflammation. NSAIDs reduce inflammation throughout the body, but they can also irritate the gut 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 gut inflammation, particularly in the form of bacterial gastroenteritis, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Symptoms can 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 gut inflammation known as viral gastroenteritis. These infections are often spread through person-to-person contact. Symptoms of viral gut 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 response can cause inflammation, leading to symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloating.
Chronic (Long-Term) Gut Inflammation
Potential causes of chronic gut inflammation include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): As mentioned, IBD is an acronym for two chronic inflammatory conditions of the GI tract: Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Both conditions can lead to permanent damage to the GI tract, per the CDC.
- Celiac disease: According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder 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's an incurable disease that can cause inflammation and scarring throughout the body, including the GI tract. Symptoms of scleroderma-related gut inflammation can include diarrhea and constipation, among other symptoms.
Of course, this isn't an exhaustive list of the causes of gut inflammation. As Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer emeritus at the Cleveland Clinic, says, gut inflammation is a "non-specific condition with many causes."
Gut Inflammation Symptoms
According to Dr. Robbins, gut inflammation most often results from conditions like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or infections, which can cause various symptoms. These symptoms can be similar to noninflammatory gastrointestinal disorders like IBS, making it sometimes difficult to distinguish between them without medical evaluation.
However, there are some distinguishing features, which Dr. Robbins lists below.
Some common symptoms of true gut inflammation include:
- severe and persistent abdominal pain and cramping
- severe or frequent diarrhea
- significant unexplained weight loss
- reduced appetite
- joint pain and skin rashes
- anemia due to chronic blood loss in the stool or malabsorption of nutrients
Symptoms common in noninflammatory conditions like IBS include:
- abdominal pain that disappears following a bowel movement
- bloating and gas
- diarrhea or constipation
- mucus in the stool without the presence of blood
- sensitivity to certain foods, like those high in FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols)
- normal blood tests
When to See a Doctor About Gut Inflammation
Gut inflammation can indicate a serious medical condition, such as IBD or celiac disease. Early diagnosis and treatment can help to prevent complications and improve your quality of life.
The researchers at NYU Langone's Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center recommend seeing a doctor if you're experiencing any of the following symptoms, as they can lead to a more serious medical issue, such as colon cancer:
- persistent diarrhea
- severe abdominal pain
- bloody stool
- unexplained weight loss
- nausea and vomiting
- rashes and joint pain
If you have a family history of IBD or other gut conditions, Sara Mesilhy, MRCP, a gastroenterologist and a member of the medical team at Probiotic Review Girl, recommends being proactive and seeing a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to discuss preventative measures that can help reduce your risk for gut 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, like salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds, have been shown to decrease inflammation in the gut.
According to Harvard Health, other foods that help reduce intestinal inflammation include:
- leafy greens like kale and spinach
- green beans
- whole grains
- fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
Dr. Mesilhy recommends avoiding pro-inflammatory foods like:
- fried foods
- refined carbohydrates
- red meat
Additionally, Dr. Mesilhy says post-flare meals should include the following:
- diluted juices
- canned fruit
- plain 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're experiencing intestinal inflammation, it's best to consult a healthcare professional to find the best treatment plan for you.
Dealing with gut inflammation can be difficult, but knowing the signs to look out for and making lifestyle changes can make a big difference.