There is a common myth that an individual’s diet can cause Crohn’s disease. This rumor is popular because on the surface it seems to make sense: Diet is often the culprit when it comes to stomach-related illness. However, medical research has proven that a person’s diet will not cause them to develop Crohn’s.
Although diet won’t generate the disease, it can have a huge impact on long-term management of Crohn’s related symptoms. Medical professionals are still researching what foods are good for individuals living with Crohn’s and what foods are more likely to cause flare-ups.
While there is a significant body of research with tips on how to manage your diet if you live with this disease, ongoing research such as a study recently published in the Journal of Functional Foods may indicate some changes to conventional wisdom.
Impact of diet on Crohn's
Understanding the role that diet plays in an individual’s Crohn’s disease starts at understanding how the digestive system works. Typically, when someone eats food, it is broken down primarily in the small intestine. The liver and pancreas both secrete bile that help to break the food down so it can be digested and eventually expelled as well as allowing the body to absorb the nutrients from these foods. With Crohn’s disease, the small intestine is inflamed. The inflammation of the small intestine will determine how much the digestive process is affected.
If the small intestine is extremely inflamed, then food and bile will be pushed back up into the large intestine which can cause discomfort and interfere with the body’s ability to process water. Additionally, when the small intestine is inflamed and food and bile is pushed into the large intestine, the nutrients from that food will not be completely absorbed. This can often result in malnutrition and weight loss in Crohn’s patients which can have a variety of far-reaching effects.
At this point, the medical community hasn’t discovered any kind of cure-all diet plan that Crohn’s patients can follow to keep their symptoms in check. Since the inflammation of the small intestine isn’t caused by food, it can’t be regulated by food, either. But, researchers have noted that if certain foods tend to cause stomach pain or discomfort, individuals should work hard to avoid them. While some individuals may experience this kind of discomfort from food related allergies, they can also be due to food intolerances. An intolerance to a certain food means that the body will have a hard or impossible time processing it, which, when combined with Crohn’s disease, is a recipe for disaster.
Aside from paying attention to foods that cause stomach discomfort and making sure to avoid these foods, Crohn’s patients should also pay extra attention to the amount of nutrients they get from their diets. Since Crohn’s patients will be at a risk of malnutrition due to the inflammation of the small intestine, patients should be sure to eat meals that are rich in the vitamins and types of calories they need to be healthy. While eating a nutrient-dense diet won’t mitigate all of the symptoms of Crohn’s, it can help ensure that patients don’t experience malnutrition.
Finally, although researchers have yet to agree on any kind of diet to fight the symptoms of Crohn’s, there is one thing they agree on: Water. Crohn’s disease will cause chronic diarrhea in most patients which increases the risk of dehydration. If a person’s fluid intake doesn’t keep pace with diarrhea, then he or she will be at a higher risk of developing dehydration. Crohn’s disease also increases a patient’s risk of developing kidney stones. Drinking plenty of water is one way to keep both dehydration and kidney stones at bay.
As a general rule, individuals should drink one half ounce of water for every pound of body weight. So, for example, if you weigh 150 pounds, then you should drink 75 ounces of water per day. Doctors recommend drinking water consistently and slowly throughout the day as opposed to chugging large amounts of it at one time because this will introduce air into the digestive system which can cause further abdominal discomfort.
New findings on broccoli
While much of the advice from the medical community about the impact of dieting on Crohn’s disease has been more general to this point, some researchers are working to try and pinpoint the positive or negative effects that specific foods could have on Crohn’s disease. According to a new study recently published in the Journal of Functional Foods, eating broccoli may be extremely beneficial for patients with Crohn’s.
The study conducted by professors at Pennsylvania State University Gary Perdew and other team members charted the effects of broccoli on mice that had digestive disorders similar to Crohn’s disease. The study found that the mice that ate broccoli handled digestive intolerances better than mice that did not eat broccoli. While this study’s results are limited at this point, Perdew and his team believe that the effects would be similar in humans and hope to replicate the study on humans in the near future.
The study explains that broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable which activates the Ah receptor in a person’s gut. The activation of the Ah receptor will help individuals to maintain healthy gut homeostasis. When cruciferous vegetables are broken down in the intestines they release an organic compound that then attaches to the gut and activates these receptors. While the study just used broccoli, the results note that other cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower and brussels sprouts would have a similar effect. The researchers also indicated that in order to secure the protective benefits of the vegetables, individuals would need to eat about three and a half cups of these vegetables per day.
While the results of this study sound promising, and at this point they certainly are, they’re not without their share of controversy. In contrast to the findings of this study, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America has long indicated that cruciferous vegetables like broccoli should be avoided by Crohn’s patients. The Foundation’s recommendation was based on the belief that these vegetables are difficult to break down because they are very high in fiber which could in turn upset the digestive process and cause increased inflammation. Vegetables like broccoli certainly are high in fiber which can be difficult for the body to digest, but Perdew and the rest of the research team believe that their findings present a compelling counterargument. Despite the high fiber, the unique abilities of cruciferous vegetables to set off Ah receptors means that these vegetables actually do have a positive effect.
Crohn’s disease can sometimes feel difficult to manage. With many stomach related illnesses such as allergies or intolerance, the link between diet and symptoms is incredibly clear. With Crohn’s, however, that link is still quite murky.
Researchers know that diet doesn’t cause Crohn’s disease, and while a specific diet can’t cure Crohn’s disease, there is significant information that indicates it does play a role. Some general principles such as avoiding foods that your body is intolerant to and drinking plenty of water can help in the long-term management of the disease. Additionally, as further research is devoted to the subject, we may learn about more foods like broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables that can actually have a positive impact on Crohn’s.
You can read more about this recent study at Newsweek.com.