Crohn's disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC) are chronic immunologically mediated diseases that often have a relapsing-remitting course in young persons. Genetic-risk polymorphisms explain less than one third of the heritability of disease. Epidemiologic and laboratory data suggest that environmental factors play a significant role in influencing the risk and natural history of disease. Smoking is the most widely and consistently described risk factor. It, however, increases the risk of CD while conferring protection against UC. The gut microbiome is a key component in the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Several external factors potentially exert an effect by influencing the composition of the gut microbiome or disrupting the intestinal barrier. These external influences include the use of antibiotics or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the presence of enteric infections. Data on diet have been inconsistent, but high fiber intake, particularly of soluble fiber, appears to protect against CD, whereas protein intake may increase disease risk. Vitamin D may also play an important protective role, particularly in patients with CD. Neurobehavioral factors, such as stress and depression, also influence the risk of IBD. Systematic and rigorous studies of environmental exposures in the management of IBD are needed. In particular, studies of whether environmental factors can be modified to reduce the likelihood of relapse or improve patient outcomes would be valuable.
Keywords: Crohn’s disease; cigarette smoking; diet; environmental factors; ulcerative colitis; vitamin D.