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Is IBD an Autoimmune Condition?

Many of us might have heard that IBD, including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, has autoimmune roots, but what exactly does this mean?

While the definitive causes of IBD haven’t been pinpointed directly, there is much research being done right now to enlighten us on exactly what’s going on with these conditions. One thing that keeps popping up time and time again is the idea that IBD is immune-related.

What's the difference between immune-mediated and autoimmune conditions?

IBD has characteristics of both immune-mediated and autoimmune conditions.

Immune-mediated conditions can arise when our immune system is working, but working overtime.

Autoimmune conditions arise when our immune system is faulty and starts attacking normal, healthy tissues.

While the specific mechanisms of both of these aren’t completely understood in terms of IBD, there is evidence of both in Crohn’s and UC, with Crohn’s showing more of the immune-mediated side, and UC showing more autoimmune properties.

Our body is a complex balance of cells, bacteria, and organ structures, among many other components. Our bodies are inhabited by thousands of bacteria, and these bacteria actually help us function normally. Occasionally, however, our body might misinterpret some of these good bacteria for bad, invading pathogens, and can cause a heightened immune response that can destroy helpful cells, such as gut flora in IBD.

How does the immune system impact Crohn's or UC?

Autoimmune conditions are very complex, and not perfectly understood...but they involve the immune system falsely mistaking our own indigenous cells for foreign invaders. In IBD, this can come in the form of the body making certain antibodies against normal colonic proteins, such as the protein p40, which aids in normal colon function. When these proteins get destroyed, the intricate balance we need is thrown off, leading to the discomfort and distress we know as IBD.

Another mechanism under investigation right now is the body’s intolerance to an important colonic auto-antigen called hTM5. It has been theorized that with IBD, the body develops an intolerance to the crucial colonic cell and initiates an expansive immune response in healthy tissues. This response can ultimately destroy parts of our colonic epithelial cells and cause them to lose their function.

What causes autoimmune conditions?

Autoimmune conditions can often come about with no real cause. It is hypothesized that they can develop as a result of a medication, an imbalance of specific cell types, genetics, or even environmental factors, but ultimately, the specific cause of many autoimmune conditions, including IBD, is unknown.

Autoimmune conditions are often treated with medications that slow or lessen the body’s immune response, in order to halt or decrease destruction of crucial, healthy tissues.

Although it is widely accepted that IBD is autoimmune and immune-mediated, more research needs to be done to pinpoint the exact mechanisms causing the faulty bodily response. Hopefully, if this mechanism is found, we will be able to create more effective treatments!

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