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Dig Dis. 2016;34(1-2):78-83. doi: 10.1159/000442932. Epub 2016 Mar 16.

High Altitude Journeys, Flights and Hypoxia: Any Role for Disease Flares in IBD Patients?

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Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Triemli Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland.


The importance of environmental factors in the pathogenesis including their disease-modifying potential are increasingly recognized in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) patients, largely driven by the perception that the prevalence and incidence of IBD are on the rise within the last few years, especially in non-western countries. One of those factors is believed to be hypoxia. The role of hypoxia as a modifying or even causative factor in the genesis and maintenance of inflammation has been increasingly elucidated in recent years. Hypoxia is believed to be a main inducing factor of inflammation. This has been studied in different animal experiments as well as in humans exposed to hypoxia. In several studies - mainly in mice - animals exposed to short-term hypoxia accumulated inflammatory cells in multiple organs and showed elevated cytokines in the blood. Comparable studies were performed in humans, mainly in healthy mountaineers. Recently, we reported on the association between IBD flare-up episodes and antecedent journeys to high-altitude region and aircraft travels. According to these findings, we concluded that flights and stays at high altitudes of >2,000 mg are a risk factor for increased disease activity in IBD. To evaluate the potential influence of hypoxia on the course of IBD on a biomolecular level and to test the effects of hypoxia under standardized conditions, we initiated a prospective and controlled investigation in both healthy controls and IBD patients in stable remission. The study participants underwent a 3-hour exposure to hypoxic conditions simulating an altitude of 4,000 m above sea level in a hyperbaric pressure chamber and clinical parameters as well as blood and stool samples were collected at several time points. The first results of this study are expected in the near future.

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