Stress may be the culprit behind Crohn’s disease, study finds

Over half a million Americans are living with the inflammatory gut disease known as Crohn’s disease. Previous research suggests stress as a factor, however, researchers have not been able to pinpoint the exact mechanism by which anxiety triggers inflammation. New research reveals the important role of stress hormones on immune cells, shedding light on the origin of Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disorder that results in painful swelling of the intestines and occasional ulcers. Those with the disease usually have higher amounts of disease-causing microbes, such as the bacterium E. coli, according to earlier studies. Researchers from McMaster University examined populations of E.coli in the digestive tracts of mice to investigate the source behind the intestinal inflammation.

Stress, Immunity, and the Gut

Skin cells that line digestive organs are critical to gut immunity because they maintain structure, generate mucus, and prevent pathogens like harmful bacteria from damaging the gut. In healthy individuals, the skin cells are signaled by cells of the immune system to help guard against invading pathogens. However, in the case of Crohn’s disease, stress hormones disable the immune cells to protect digestive organs from harmful microbes, according to the results. 

McMaster post-doctoral researcher Ryan Shaler, left, and professor Brian Coombes
Former McMaster post-doctoral researcher Ryan Shaler, left, and professor Brian Coombes work together in the lab. (Credit: McMaster University)

“The main takeaway is that psychological stress impedes the body’s ability to fight off gut bacteria that may be implicated in Crohn’s disease. Innate immunity is designed to protect us from microbes that do not belong in the gut, like harmful bacteria,” says senior author Brian Coombes, in a statement. Coombes is a professor and chair of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster.

E. coli and other harmful microbes dominate the gut, causing painful swelling.

“When our innate immune system functions properly, it prevents harmful bacteria from colonizing us, but when it breaks down, it leaves an opening for pathogens to colonize locations they normally cannot and cause illness,” Coombes adds.

When the stress hormones were eliminated, immune cells prevented pathogens from entering the gut, says Coombes. “The more we know about what triggers Crohn’s disease, the closer we come to new treatments and potentially even disease prevention,” adds Coombes.

It is possible that this research might lead to novel therapies for Crohn’s disease, however, Coombes stresses the need for further research. The next step is to test the effects of stress hormones on gut and immune functions in human clinical trials. 

This study is published in Nature Communications.

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25 Replies to “Stress may be the culprit behind Crohn’s disease, study finds”

    1. Crohn’s is actually an autoimmune disease that may be triggered by stress … just thought the title was catchier!

      1. I can say from personal experience that I experienced an extreme amount of stress 25 years over a period of 4 or so years. Throughout my career that has continued due to employment insecurity. About two years ago my position changed and the stress diminished somewhat and about 12 mon. ago my doctor told me he couldn’t tell I had iit, though I continue to take Remicade because going off could prevent me from resuming the treatment.

        1. I am so glad to hear that! I hope this study and similar research help to shift the focus on stress as a major factor for Crohn’s. There is the possibility here for more holistic approaches as well! I hope the stress continues to diminish for you!

        1. Though stress may not be the only factor in Crohn’s disease, the article itself is not “inexact information”. If this study can help those with Crohn’s, all the better for the study to be out there.

  1. Stress is known to be an underlying and root cause of many conditions and syndromes without clear & direct causation, such as IBS, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, etc. It is also a complicating factor in many other conditions such as hypertension, heart disease and other gut issues. Stress is not a new or emergent phenomenon…I imagine cromagnons found being chased by jaguars to be stressful. We are just living long enough now with so many other life-saving medications, therapies and immunization to encounter these late-onset chronic conditions.

  2. I have post traumatic neuralgia from the shingles virus. And Lucky me probably not going to go away. Stress is the factor in it. The bowel movement does relieve the pain a bit. Just saying. Could be related.

  3. Humira warning label.
    “HUMIRA is a TNF blocker medicine that can lower the ability of your immune system to fight infections.”

    If Crohn’s disease is triggered by harmful pathogens that sneak past the immune system during periods of stress maybe Humira and Infliximab are counterproductive over the long run. Somebody should look into this.

  4. This makes sense. If the body is under stress and cortisol is released among other hormones, etc. why wouldn’t it make your gut a toxic biome? Also your nerve endings, gastrointestinal lining, etc. becomes inflamed and more sensitive during stressful periods making normal digestion and excretion spastic. Not all persons handle and process stress situations similarly. And not all situations are alike. This study seems to have some good foundation to research and would have a good cohort of people from which to study.

  5. My lifetime experience with Crohn’s: Crohn’s flareups cause stress. Stress does not cause Crohn’s flareups.

  6. Has anyone looked into excess sugars in our diet at the root cause? I have Chron’s, reducing dietary sugars makes my symptoms not present. Eating concentrated sugars causes flare ups. I understand everybody’s gut is different, but through all the testing I could do for diet, allergies and Chron’s, no sugar sensitivity test besides Lactose in milk is performed and I’m not aware of any sugar sensitivity or allergy test besides elimination diet. Food for thought I guess.

    1. How far do you need to go when eliminating sugars? Are fruits still okay, for example? Is it just added sugar and sugar based things like cookies, chocolate and cakes?

  7. Each individual has their own ability to process stress. When one does not have skills/tools to process effectively disease, such as Crohn’s, can manifest. Psychotherapy should be on the forefront of treatment.

  8. S. Boulardi (a specific type of probiotic) and glutamine (leaky gut powder off Amazon) have helped me tremendously! Sharing this info here for those with similar auto-immune issues that are looking to feel better.

  9. When will there be a product developed that can help the intestines stay healthy and not allow it to allow Crohns to develop?

  10. The #1 major stressor in my life is now gone, and my Crohn’s has improved tenfold. I have always felt very strongly that stress induced and exasperated my symptoms. I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible the stress initiated it too. I’d be willing to find out more about the human clinical trials…

  11. I suffered from Crohn’s Disease from 1979 – 1986. I was blessed to be treated in Houston my Dr. George Whelan, 1981 – 1986.

    I nearly died from Crohn’s Disease. In 1980, I had seven blood transfusions over a period of 48 days in a U.S. Air Force Hospital.

    Based on discussions with Dr. Whelan and his research, I believe it is caused by an organism that is smaller than a bacterium but larger than a virus.

    Stress can definitely aggravate the illness.

    Knowledge, nutrition, positive mental attitude, prayer, and lifestyle are the most weapons to fight this illness.

    Note: Many are cruel, as were my superiors in the U.S. Air Force, and my wife at the time. The illness is complex, serious, and greatly misunderstood. If anyone wants to discuss, pleas contact me.

  12. The stress of having antibiotics may be a causitve factor in creating mutant strains of E. Coli, and other bacteria that go vogue will be proven to be the cause of this malady. Stress is always is the flammable that ignites the fire…. Stress is a symptom, not a cause. H. Pylori was proven to be a major cause of ulcers. In
    the past scientists who prove this point were castigated. The patient was told if you worry you will get an ulcer — Maybe, worrying is the cause
    of Crohn’s. Research from as early as 1998 points to mutant E. Coli as being a causitive agent; It might not be the only one. The real question is
    what is causing commensal bacteria that 6%+ of the population has to become mutants. (food additives, heavy metals, antibiotics in food, pathogenic
    processes, etc).

  13. Treating the underlying cause of chronic inflammation in the body is the only way to defeat these kinds of disorders. To reduce the inflammation, your cells must be able to identify the problem and then formulate a coordinated response to neutralize it. Cells rely on bio-electricity to communicate. When the PH levels in the body are balanced, the cells can eradicate the free radicals that the stress has unleashed. Free radicals are quantum particles with a negative electrical charge, otherwise known as Electrons. Inflammation results from an electrical imbalance in the body. The same physical laws that must be observed in order to safely distribute electricity to our homes also govern our biology. We use an Earth ground to stabilize and balance voltage systems. An amazing thing happens when our skin is in direct physical contact with the ground, the electrical imbalance in our body disappears. Infinite Electrons in the ground neutralize the free radical Electrons that are causing the inflammation in our body. With the imbalance corrected, the intercellular electrical network is restored. In case you’re wondering why stress is more difficult for the body to deal with now, the reason may actually surprise you. After 1960, we began putting synthetic rubber soles on shoes. We effectively cut our bodies off from the Earth ground. Without this connection, there’s no way to balance the electrical charge. An inflammatory chain reaction occurs and our cells can’t execute their coordinated response. You can address this problem yourself by eliminating the root cause of the inflammation. Stop treating the symptoms and make a commitment to stabilize your bio-electricity. Start by using a simple grounding mat on your mattress. The grounding mat is connected with a copper wire to the case ground in your wall receptacle. In this way, you’re essentially bringing the Earth to your bed. It’s very sad that such a simple solution exists to fix this imbalance in the body; yet very few understand why it works.

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