10 Facts about Crohn’s Disease

According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, Crohn’s is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. Read on to learn 10 interesting facts about this autoimmune condition.

1. It’s more common than you think

An estimated 3 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases of the digestive tract, referred to as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). These conditions include Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease and Ulcerative Colitis. Women and men are equally likely to be affected by Crohn’s disease, unlike many other autoimmune conditions which are more prevalent among females.

2. Crohn’s affects patients early in life

Unlike some autoimmune diseases, such as Sjogren’s Syndrome, which are more likely to develop during middle-age, Crohn’s tends to develop early in a patient’s life. Most commonly, the disease will occur in one’s teens or twenties, though some patients can experience symptoms even earlier. According to WebMD, while most people are diagnosed before age 30, the disease can still occur in people in their 60s and beyond.

3. The gastrointestinal symptoms can be debilitating

The most common symptoms of Crohn’s are gastrointestinal in nature. These symptoms include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia and delayed growth (especially in younger children). There are actually different types of Crohn’s disease depending on which part of the gastrointestinal tract is affected, and each subtype has its own specific symptoms.

4. Non-Gastrointestinal symptoms are also problematic

Crohn’s patients sometimes experience symptoms that aren’t gastrointestinal in nature, and which are often more problematic than their bowel issues. These symptoms include: fever, colitic arthritis (which migrates along the body and affects one’s knees, ankles, hips, wrists and elbows), pericholangitis (an inflammation of the tissues around the bile ducts), kidney stones, urinary tract complications, and fistulas (abnormal connections between body parts, such as organs and blood vessels).

5. It can greatly impact one’s quality of life

According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, autoimmune conditions of the digestive tract can highly impact one’s quality of life. For example, the Foundation shared the story of Paige, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 20. Paige had lost 40 lbs on her already petite frame as a result of the disease, and she even had difficulty standing up, since her muscles had become accustomed to her being doubled over in pain. Thankfully, by participating in clinical trials, Paige’s condition is now improving, and she’s regaining her quality of life.

6. The condition can impact one’s mental health too

The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation states that rates of depression are higher among patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis as compared to other diseases and the general population. Furthermore, anxiety is also common among patients who have IBD. Dr. Megan Riehl, a clinical psychologist with the University of Michigan’s Department of Gastroenterology, explains that stress and anxiety can contribute to ‘flares’ of the disease. She also says it’s imperative for patients to find ways to cope with living with a chronic illness, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

7. A comprehensive physical exam is necessary for a Crohn’s diagnosis

A number of advanced diagnostic tools are used to determine if a patient has Crohn’s disease. These diagnostic procedures include: imaging scans and endoscopic procedures. Imaging scans involve CT scans or specialized X-rays to view your colon and ileum (a portion of the small intestine). Endoscopic procedures, such as a flexible sigmoidoscopy or a colonoscopy, involve the insertion of a tube into one’s rectum, lower colon or entire colon to examine the area in detail.

8. Crohn’s may be genetic in nature

According to John Hopkins Medicine, Crohn’s may be genetic, especially considering it’s more prevalent among people of certain ethnic groups. For example, people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are at a greater risk of having the disease compared to the general population. In addition, a genetic cause is suspected, since studies have shown that between 1.5% and 28% of people with IBD have a first-degree relative, such as a parent, child or sibling who also has the disease.

9. Environmental triggers for Crohn’s may also be responsible

According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, the lack of complete gene penetrance and the rapid rise of IBD incidence in certain geographic regions suggests that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to this condition. Several environmental triggers currently being studied include: diet, smoking, viruses and psychological stress.

10. There is hope

If you or someone you know has Crohn’s disease, it is important to get support for your condition. In addition to working closely alongside a team of medical professionals to get the right treatment, patients are encouraged to find a local support group where they can connect with others who are living with the condition. Moreover, patients should consider taking advantage of the many patient resources out there, such as the Crohn’s and Colitis online community, the IBDVisible blog and the patient stories center. Remember, you’re not alone in the fight against Crohn’s!

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Could the secret to chronic pain relief lie in the memories stored in your body and mind?

A woman undergoes EMDR therapy by a licensed practitioner.

It is clear that stress can have a direct impact on autoimmune, chronic pain and other health conditions. Autoimmune Warrior shares research on the role of chronic stress in autoimmune disorders in this blog post. However, the nuances regarding the types of stress and how to deal with them are not often something we talk about with a medical physician, or to anyone in general.

The body and mind are inherently connected and emotional stressors can and do impact our physical functioning. Beyond everyday stressors, traumatic events, whether they occurred long, long ago in your early childhood, or something you experienced this year can get stored in your body and can manifest in the form of stomachaches, back and joint pain, or chronic migraines, to name a few. Everyday stressors may refer to issues with setting boundaries with a family member, difficulty speaking up for your needs, or putting your needs last ahead of everyone else.

The effects of emotional stress and trauma on the body’s hormonal functioning and immune system are well researched. Dr. Gabor Mate, a Hungarian physician who has investigated for many years the potential psychological attributes to his patients’ physical illnesses, including breast cancer, ALS and intestinal issues, has found commonalities in his patients dealing with similar health issues. He found links between those who experienced childhood abuse, neglect and/or maintaining unhelpful relational roles and those who had chronic health issues. These connections are described in his book, When the Body Says No.

Stress and trauma impact hormone functioning. Specifically, research has found that cortisol, a critical hormone implicated in managing stress responses, is impacted by traumatic experiences. For example, decreased cortisol levels have been found in women who have a history of childhood sexual abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This change in cortisol level functioning can impact the immune system (Kloet et al., 2006), as healthy levels of cortisol help to regulate inflammatory response and glucose levels. When too much cortisol is released from the body, it constantly feels as if it is in fight or flight mode (whether it’s a real or perceived threat), which can inhibit the regulation of glucose levels and responses to attacks on the immune system. Click here for more information.

Furthermore, the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study conducted by Kaiser, found that the more adverse childhood events you have had, the higher at risk you may be for certain health conditions such as heart disease, breast cancer and diabetes. For more information on ACEs, read Autoimmune Warrior’s blog post. Additionally, click here to find out what your ACE score is.

So what does this all mean? It means that help in the form of psychological healing may positively impact your physical health and decrease the chronic pain. Addressing long-avoided emotional pain from past trauma can (and does!) help. If you are thinking to yourself “I didn’t experience trauma!” but you wonder why those boundaries are so hard to set, you feel guilty if you don’t take care of your parents’ emotional or physical needs, or you’re avoiding social situations (just a few examples), chances are there’s something from your past that may be keeping you from living an emotionally and physically healthier life today. There are many options for helping you in this area, particularly forms of body-based psychotherapy models that can be effective with chronic pain, including EMDR therapy.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) therapy uses bilateral stimulation in the form of eye movements or alternative tapping to activate memory networks which are linked to maladaptive functioning; in other words, it activates the traumatic memories that are linked to negative feelings and beliefs that we have about ourselves now (for example, having low self-esteem, triggers to not feeling safe when you know logically that you are). During a REM sleep cycle your eyes move back and forth as you process the day’s events. In the same way, bringing up those past memories with eye movements in a safe, controlled environment with a skilled EMDR therapist helps the brain process through the memory and come to a more adaptive resolution. It allows the brain the space and time to do what it couldn’t do at the time that event occurred—process. And that can help remove self-blame or other negative beliefs, and in turn, relieves symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD, to name a few. With the relief of mental health symptoms, there is less stress on your immune system and this can improve overall pain symptoms and your energy level. To learn more about EMDR therapy, visit www.EMDRIA.org.

As Bessel van der Kolk suggests, The Body Keeps the Score, so let’s not forget to consider what has happened (or is happening!) in your life which may be contributing to your autoimmune symptoms.

Brooke Bender is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Board Certified Art Therapist, as well as an EMDR certified therapist practicing near Los Angeles, California. For more about Brooke, please visit: www.brookebender.com

The Role of Chronic Stress in Autoimmune Disease

Is there a link between chronic stress and autoimmune disease? Can being chronically stressed cause an autoimmune condition?

What the Research Says

A 32-year long study conducted by researchers in Sweden revealed that chronic stress may be the culprit behind many autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers behind the study analyzed over 100,000 people diagnosed with stress-related disorders, such as acute stress reactions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and compared them with their siblings, and with over a million unrelated individuals who did not have stress-related disorders.

The study found that participants who were previously diagnosed with a stress-related disorder developed autoimmune conditions at a higher rate than those who did not have a stress-related disorder.

In addition, the study also found that those who suffered from stress-related disorders were more likely to develop multiple autoimmune diseases (as opposed to just one), and had a higher rate of autoimmune disease the younger that they were.

Impact of Stress on the Immune System

Although this study doesn’t necessarily prove that chronic stress triggers autoimmunity, it is proven that stress can negatively impact your body’s immune system.

For example, when stressed, the hormone-producing glands in your body release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. This, in turn, activates immune cells, which leads to the production of inflammatory proteins called cytokines. While cytokines play an important role in the body’s immune system, the overproduction of cytokines can result in painful and inflammatory conditions, including autoimmune disease.

How to Combat Stress

To combat stress, Dr. Vedrana Tabor, a Hashimoto’s patient herself, suggests getting a good night’s rest, as sleep has a restorative impact on your body and can help maintain a lower stress level. Reducing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking, as well as improving one’s diet, are important, as malnutrition will amplify the negative effects of stress.

Getting regular exercise can also reduce stress by boosting your body’s production of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters called endorphins. Practicing mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, have also shown to work well for the majority of people.

In addition, the Swedish study referenced above found that in patients with stress-related disorders that were being actively treated using an SSRI (a type of anti-depressant), the increased chance of developing an autoimmune disease was less dramatic, suggesting that seeking treatment for mental health issues could have a protective benefit.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re going through stress at work, school, home, or other aspects of your life, don’t just accept chronic stress as part of your life—actively take steps to combat it. Doing so can not only protect you from developing an autoimmune disease (or developing more, if you already have one), but also have a huge positive impact on your overall health and well being.

 

If you enjoyed this article, check out my last article, 10 Facts about Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE).