April 10, 2001 -- Abdominal pain. Bloating. Gas. Diarrhea. Those are the unpleasant companions of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, which affect up to 1 million Americans, according to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.
Although the exact cause of inflammatory bowel disease is unknown, research suggests that the body's own immune system contributes to the chronic intestinal inflammation that marks the disease. Historically, doctors have had a tough time treating the condition -- most recently, drugs called cytokines have been used to try to reduce some of the inflammation.
Emerging research, however, holds out hope that antioxidant substances could help in the battle to reduce this inflammation. Antioxidants work by neutralizing oxidative agents that stress and injure parts of the body. They occur naturally in the body and can also be found in foods like green, leafy vegetables or in vitamins such as C and E.
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If future research is positive, scientists say a combination of antioxidants and drugs may help suppress the inflammation more than either approach could alone.
Matthew Grisham, PhD, professor of biochemistry at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, presented his research on antioxidants and inflammatory bowel disease at the recent Experimental Biology 2001 meeting.
For his study, Grisham and colleagues gave a powerful antioxidant to mice with inflammatory bowel disease. The antioxidant, which was put in the animals' water, helped raise the level of a naturally occurring antioxidant called glutathione, he says. The amount of inflammation was significantly reduced after the mice drank the antioxidant-spiked water.
"Patients with inflammatory bowel disease have some sort of problem that initiates this inflammation," Grisham says. "During the inflammatory process, their antioxidant levels are depressed compared with a healthy person. We suspect that the byproducts [of inflammation] are lowering them. The animal studies suggest that if you increase the antioxidant levels, you will reduce the disease."
The idea has merit because antioxidants are useful for fighting inflammation in a variety of other diseases and are considered relatively safe, says Claudio Fiocchi, MD. Although antioxidants haven't been studied in humans with inflammatory bowel disease to see how well they work alone or in combination with other drugs, he says it is a promising avenue of exploration.
"I don't think it's likely that [antioxidants] alone can be a cure," says Fiocchi, a professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "It's more likely that combined with additional therapies they may be very effective. Sometimes a little contribution from different angles is very helpful."
The particular antioxidant used in the study has some drawbacks to its use. Chief among these is that it smells and tastes pretty nasty. Currently, doctors in emergency departments use it to treat people who have overdosed on Tylenol. It is also useful for treating bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease because it helps breaks up mucus.
But Fiocchi says not to worry about the offending odor and taste since there are plenty of antioxidants from which to choose if further research shows that the strategy is useful in humans as well as mice.