Crohn’s disease affects the body’s gastrointestinal tract, usually but not always in the intestines. All along the GI tract, countless bacteria and microorganisms live and thrive from the time that a person turns one or two years of age. The relationship between this community of microorganisms—often referred to as gut flora—and the rest of the body is usually mutually beneficial, although the relationship is still to be fully understood.
Gut flora are incredibly useful to the body. Certain microorganisms can process and synthesize certain dietary fibers, vitamins, and acids that people receive in their everyday diets, making nutrients and compounds that can then be absorbed into the body. The composition of gut flora is incredibly complex, as there are many different bacteria that all have different functions. Through recent research, it is clear that some of these bacteria play an important role in the body’s functionality.
However, when the gut flora falls out of balance, inflammatory and autoimmune conditions can arise. It is unclear whether or not gut flora has any specific role to play in the development of Crohn’s disease, as the cause of Crohn’s disease is still a mystery, but it is widely understood that a dysregulated gut flora can be harmful to individuals who live with Crohn’s.
Individuals with Crohn’s disease have an overactive immune system that targets harmless gut bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, causing inflammation and severe discomfort. Rather than attempting to redirect the immune system, recent studies have been conducted in an attempt to understand how dietary measures can be taken to alter the gut flora for individuals living with Crohn’s disease, thus combatting inflammation along the GI tract.
High-Fat Diet Trials on Mice
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine (CWRU-M) recently conducted dietary research on mice that carry a disease similar to Crohn’s. The goal of the research was to focus on how high-fat diets might alter the overall composition of bacteria in the gut. By reducing the diversity of bacteria in the gut and changing the overall composition of the gut flora, scientists hope to limit the inflammatory symptoms of the mice with the Crohn’s-like disease.
When compared to mice who were fed normal diets, mice under the high-fat diet were found to have significantly fewer different types of gut bacteria. This decrease in bacteria diversity was found to be as high as thirty percent overall. The change in gut bacteria even changed the composition of feces in some mice; others displayed improvements in the cecum, where Crohn’s disease is often the most detrimental.
Although the study was limited to mice, it is one of the first to associate the composition of gut flora with Crohn’s disease. The fact that the studies were successful in altering gut flora composition and combatting inflammation means that more studies may be undertaken to further understand the relationship between gut flora and other inflammatory bowel diseases.
The results found in the mice did not seem to differ considerably when it came to portions. Even mice that were fed a small concentration of high-fat oils and butter displayed reduced inflammation in the small intestine. The mice also indicated that people might respond differently to different types of fats, though the study did primarily seek the benefits of “good” fats.
Alexander Rodriguez-Palacios, DVM, DVSc, PhD, believes that "the finding is remarkable because it means that a Crohn's patient could also have a beneficial effect on their gut bacteria and inflammation by only switching the type of fat in their diet.” Rodriguez-Palacios is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at CWRU-M, and the first author on the study.
He suggests: "Patients would only need to replace a 'bad' fat with a 'good' fat, and eat normal amounts." But what determines whether or not a fat is good or bad?
Good Fat and Bad Fat
Coconut oil and cocoa butter were two of the primary ingredients in the beneficial fatty diet used on mice in the CWRU-M study, and are commonly referred to as “good” fats. These substances are derived from plants, and have been linked to a variety of health benefits, including protection against heart disease.
The difference between these fats and the types of fats that are generally classified as “bad” fats is the chemical composition that affects the way that the fats are processed by the body. Fats that are better for you are generally less saturated, meaning that they have less hydrogen atoms connected to shorter carbon chains.
There are two primary groups of good fats: polyunsaturated fats, and monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are essential to everyday bodily functions, and monounsaturated fats are generally considered the most desirable dietary fat. Both forms of dietary fat come from all manner of plant bases, including avocados, olive oil, salmon, and most nuts and seeds. As a general rule, these dietary fats are liquid at room temperature.
The next level of fats are saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature. They are common in the American diet, and can be found in red meat, cheese, and whole milk or whole-milk dairy products. Saturated fats have been tentatively linked to heart disease, and as with anything, the amount of saturated fat in one’s diet has a large role to play.
Coconut oil and cocoa butter fall somewhere between outright saturated and partially unsaturated. Although coconut oil is 90% saturated fats, it promotes good cholesterol in a way which is unusual for a primarily saturated fat. Cocoa butter is a bit more obvious, being approximately 30% monounsaturated fat. Both coconut oil and cocoa butter are unique in that their melting point is close to room temperature, and well below the human temperature, meaning that if you were to hold a stick of coconut oil in your hand, it would melt. Cocoa butter, which is found in most commercial chocolates, is the reason that chocolate will melt in your hand or pocket.
Dietary Fats and Crohn’s Disease
Rodriguez-Palacios hopes to continue the study in humans and discover what fats are particularly effective or detrimental to patients with Crohn’s Disease. A beneficial dietary treatment would be incredible for people suffering from Crohn’s, as changing diet carries none of the risk or side effects of medical treatment.
In the constantly evolving field of gut flora, probiotic supplements have been implemented for everything from irritable bowel syndrome to anxiety. The relationship between gut flora and the rest of the body has yet to be fully explored, but for patients suffering from Crohn’s disease, probiotic supplements may lead to the similar results as the dietary change. This is provided that the bacteria introduced into the body promote the same gut flora composition as that combats inflammation in the GI tract.
For those currently suffering from Crohn’s, simply experimenting with different types of fat could lead to a slight alleviation in symptoms. As Rodriguez-Palacios writes: “The trick now is to really discover what makes a fat 'good' or 'bad' for Crohn's disease."