Environmental Risk Factors for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases: An Umbrella Review of Meta-analyses

Gastroenterology. 2019 Sep;157(3):647-659.e4. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2019.04.016. Epub 2019 Apr 20.


Background & aims: Multiple environmental factors have been associated with the development of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs). We performed an umbrella review of meta-analyses to summarize available epidemiologic evidence and assess its credibility.

Methods: We systematically identified and appraised meta-analyses of observational studies examining environmental factors and risk of IBD (Crohn's disease [CD] or ulcerative colitis [UC]). For each meta-analysis, we considered the random effects estimate, its 95% confidence interval, the estimates of heterogeneity, and small-study effects, and we graded the evidence according to prespecified criteria. Methodologic quality was assessed with AMSTAR (ie, A Measurement Tool to Assess Systematic Reviews) 2.

Results: We examined 183 estimates in 53 meta-analyses of 71 environmental factors related to lifestyles and hygiene, surgeries, drug exposures, diet, microorganisms, and vaccinations. We identified 9 factors that increase risk of IBD: smoking (CD), urban living (CD and IBD), appendectomy (CD), tonsillectomy (CD), antibiotic exposure (IBD), oral contraceptive use (IBD), consumption of soft drinks (UC), vitamin D deficiency (IBD), and non-Helicobacter pylori-like enterohepatic Helicobacter species (IBD). We identified 7 factors that reduce risk of IBD: physical activity (CD), breastfeeding (IBD), bed sharing (CD), tea consumption (UC), high levels of folate (IBD), high levels of vitamin D (CD), and H pylori infection (CD, UC, and IBD). Epidemiologic evidence for all of these associations was of high to moderate strength; we identified another 11 factors associated with increased risk and 16 factors associated with reduced risk with weak credibility. Methodologic quality varied considerably among meta-analyses. Several associations were based on findings from retrospective studies, so it is not possible to determine if these are effects of IBD or the results of recall bias.

Conclusions: In an umbrella review of meta-analyses, we found varying levels of evidence for associations of different environmental factors with risk of IBD. High-quality prospective studies with analyses of samples from patients with recent diagnoses of IBD are needed to determine whether these factors cause or are results of IBD and their pathogenic mechanisms.

Keywords: Inflammation; Intestine; Pathogenesis; Summary.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Colitis, Ulcerative / diagnosis
  • Colitis, Ulcerative / epidemiology*
  • Crohn Disease / diagnosis
  • Crohn Disease / epidemiology*
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions / epidemiology
  • Environment*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Hygiene
  • Life Style
  • Protective Factors
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / adverse effects
  • Vaccination / adverse effects