Exploring the Connection Between Your Gut and Your Lungs

guts and lungs, healthy lungs and gut, ibdResearch suggests that there’s an apparent, yet undefined link between your gut and your lungs. How are these two separate organ systems connected? That’s a good question but one that as of yet, has not been clearly answered. What scientists have come to realize is that there are increased rates of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in people with asthma and COPD. How are the dots connected? Let’s explore this further.

What is IBD?

IBD is an umbrella term for a group of disorders in which the intestines become red and swollen. This “inflammatory” condition is thought to be the result of an immune reaction of the body against its own intestinal tissue.

There are two main types of IBD:

  • Ulcerative colitis – limited to the large intestine
  • Crohn’s disease – most commonly found in the small or large intestine, but may be found anywhere along the digestive tract

Symptoms of IBD include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fever and fatigue
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Bloody stools
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintentional weight loss

IBD (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease) typically follows a course that’s characterized by waxing and waning, whereas, when inflammation is intense and severe, the disease is considered to be in its active stage and symptoms worsen; when there is no inflammation at all, or the degree of inflammation is less severe, the condition is said to be in remission and usually produces no symptoms.[1]

IBD Statistics

In a recent study published in the European Respiratory Journal, researchers found an increased rate of inflammatory bowel disease among people with asthma and COPD. The study, which used data collected from the health records of 136,178 people with asthma and 143,904 people with COPD, found that, compared to the general population, people with asthma had a 27% higher rate of ulcerative colitis, and people with COPD, a 55% higher rate of Crohn’s disease. Although a link between the two conditions has been previously established, this study was the first to discover just how significant that link was.[2]

What the Connection Between Guts and Lungs?

Although there is not a well-defined understanding of why the lungs and gut share cross-talk, scientists believe the connection to be driven by a number of factors that may include:

  • Shared risk factors – including smoking and family history
  • Prolonged inflammation – believed to be at the root of many long-term illnesses, including COPD and IBD
  • An abnormal immune system reaction to bacteria – in both the respiratory and digestive tracts
  • Similarities in the mucus-secreting membrane – lining the gut and the lungs

Despite current research, however, the lung-gut connection remains somewhat elusive. More research is needed to clearly identify the associations and mechanisms involved in why the two conditions, at times, co-exist.[3]

Lowering Your Risk for IBD in COPD

Although you can’t change your family history, the following preventative steps may help lower your risk of IBD, or at least reduce the frequency of flare-ups:

  • Quit smoking – not only will kicking the habit help reduce your risk of IBD, it may also, over time, improve lung function in COPD[4]
  • Eat a nutritious diet – a diet plan high in fiber and fruits has been associated with a decreased risk of Crohn’s disease, while a diet rich in vegetables has been associated with a lowered risk of ulcerative colitis[5]
  • Get plenty of exercise – although more research is needed to confirm a relationship between exercise and IBD, there is some evidence that it plays a protective role in the development of IBD, especially Crohn’s disease[6]

For more information about COPD and/or IBD, consult with your health care provider.


[1] “What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?” WebMD. Reviewed August 1, 2014.

[2] Brassard, Paul, et. al.  “Increased incidence of inflammatory bowel disease in Québec residents with airway diseases.European Respiratory Journal.  November 18, 2014 erj00794-2014.

[3]Keely, Simon, Nicholas J. Talley, and Philip M. Hansbro. “Pulmonary-Intestinal Cross-Talk in Mucosal Inflammatory Disease.” Mucosal immunology 5.1 (2012): 7–18. PMC. Web. 31 Jan. 2015.

[4]B.W.M. Willemse, D.S., et. al. “The impact of smoking cessation on respiratory symptoms, lung function, airway hyper-responsiveness and inflammation.European Respiratory Journal. RJ March 1, 2004 Vol. 23 No. 3 464-476.

[5] Jason K Hou, Bincy Abraham and Hashem El-Serag. “Dietary Intake and Risk of Developing Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” The American Journal of Gastroenterology 106, 563-573 (April 2011) | doi:10.1038/ajg.2011.44.

[6] H. Khalili, A. N. Ananthakrishnan, G. G. Konijeti, et al., “Physical activity and risk of inflammatory bowel disease: prospective study from the Nurses’ Health Study cohorts.” British Medical Journal, vol. 347, 2013.


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