Crohn's disease

Crohn’s disease is a condition in which parts of the gut and digestive system become inflamed.

Crohn’s disease is one of the most common forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It is a long-term illness and according to Crohn's and Colitis UK, Crohn’s disease affects more than 100,000 people in the UK, and millions more worldwide.

Symptoms can include:

  • diarrhoea
  • abdominal pain
  • fatigue
  • weight-loss
  • blood/mucus in the faeces

On this page we will explore the causes and symptoms of Crohn’s disease. We will highlight the treatment available, whether a ‘Crohn’s diet’ can affect the symptoms and look at any natural remedies believed to help treat the illness. We will also explain how a nutritionist can help you.

What is Crohn’s disease?

Crohn’s disease is one of two conditions known as IBD, the other being ulcerative colitis. While the inflammation caused by Crohn’s can often be mild, many cases experience severe pain. People suffering the more severe symptoms will often need strong medication or an operation to remove the affected part of the intestine.

How Crohn’s disease affects the body

Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the gut, the most common areas being the lower part of the small intestine or the top of the colon. While some people find that only the colon is affected (similarly to ulcerative colitis), others may find Crohn’s has affected multiple parts of the gut.

In terms of the intestine, the mildest form of Crohn’s can result in small ulcers and patches of inflammation within the intestine lining. In more severe cases of Crohn’s disease, the ulcers grow to a larger size, becoming much deeper. The inflammation can thicken the intestine, making it difficult for digested food to pass through.

Sometimes, these large ulcers break through the intestine wall. This can cause an abscess outside of the bowel, known as a fistula - this can increase the risk of the infection spreading to nearby parts of the body, most commonly occurring around the anus.

Crohn’s diagnosis

Your GP may suspect you have Crohn’s disease if you have a family history of IBD. They may also suspect the condition if you are a young adult and have been experiencing symptoms such as unintended weight-loss, abdominal pain and diarrhoea lasting several weeks. To confirm a diagnosis, tests and physical examinations will need to be carried out, these may include:

Blood and stool tests

A blood test can show whether you are experiencing internal inflammation and whether you are anaemic. In a similar way, your stools can be tested for any blood or signs of infection or inflammation. If any inflammation is discovered, you may have to undergo an endoscopy, scan or x-ray.

Endoscopy

There are various types of endoscopy, all holding different names depending on the type of scope and where the examination is taking place. For example:

  • Upper GI endoscopy - This is to examine the upper part of your gut. A doctor will insert a thin, flexible tube with a camera down your throat so your oesophagus and stomach can be examined.
  • Sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy - These are to examine symptoms of Crohn’s disease in the colon. A sigmoidoscope is a short tube, while a colonoscope is longer and more flexible. Both of these are to examine the colon and rectum, and inserted through the anus.
  • Capsule endoscopy - This is not a tube, but a small capsule. You will be asked to swallow this grape-sized camera for a gut examination. The capsule contains a camera, light-source and transmitter, it takes images of the gut and transmits them to a data recorder worn at the waist. It is a disposable capsule and is not offered to everyone.

Barium x-ray

In this case, you may be offered a drink that contains barium sulphate - a harmless white substance that can coat the gut lining. It will make it clearer to see any stomach or intestine problems.

Symptoms of Crohn’s disease

The symptoms of Crohn’s disease vary depending on which part of the digestive system is affected, but abdominal pain and diarrhoea tend to be the most common side effects of the illness.

Abdominal pain typically results from the blockage of digestive food or faeces in the narrowed passages of the intestines due to the lining inflammation. This often occurs between 30 and 60 minutes after eating - sometimes the blockage is very tight, causing excruciating pain. If a person is suffering this severe blockage, they may experience a swollen abdomen and vomiting.

Other symptoms of Crohn’s disease can include:

  • night sweats
  • high temperature
  • unintended weight-loss
  • blood in mucus and/or faeces.

Individuals may experience all or just a few symptoms of Crohn’s disease, and it is likely that there will be times where sufferers will experience none at all. Unfortunately, these ‘remission’ periods are often followed by a flare-up of symptoms.

What causes Crohn’s disease?

It is still not known what causes Crohn’s disease, although there are various factors thought to influence the development of the condition. Such factors include smoking, previous infection, genetics and environmental factors like lifestyle and diet.

Smoking

People who smoke are twice as likely to develop Crohn’s compared to non-smokers. Smokers with the illness may also experience more severe symptoms.

Previous infection

In some cases, childhood infection can lead to abnormalities in the immune system. These abnormalities can result in the development of symptoms of Crohn’s disease.

Genetics

According to the NHS, around three in 20 people with the condition have a family member also suffering. Research has identified more than 200 different genes that are more common in people with Crohn’s than the rest of the population. The prominence of the condition in some ethnic groups and not others also suggests a genetic link.

Immune system

A popular theory is that Crohn’s develops as a result of the immune system in the intestine reacting abnormally to the gut bacteria. In Crohn’s disease, a protein called TNF-alpha is released, disrupting the immune system. This protein destroys both the good and bad bacteria in the gut, resulting in inflammation.

Crohn’s treatment

As there is no cure, treatment for Crohn’s disease is essential for keeping symptoms under control and maintaining a remission period for as long as possible. Crohn’s treatment aims to reduce the inflammation in the intestine and to help manage the symptoms of Crohn’s disease, such as weight-loss and abdominal pain.

Medication

Individuals with moderate or severe symptoms of Crohn’s disease will typically receive steroid medication to reduce inflammation. Steroids can produce side effects, so the dosage may be reduced if and when symptoms start to improve.

In some cases, sufferers may experience a flare-up of symptoms over the course of steroid treatment or after the medication has been reduced. If this happens, extra medication may be needed to suppress the immune system.

Surgery

An important part of Crohn’s treatment is surgery. According to Core charity, as many as eight out of 10 patients will need an operation at some stage. Surgery for Crohn’s is designed to remove any blockages in the intestine caused by inflammation. Surgery is essential when badly affected parts of the intestine have caused abscesses and any other related problems.  

Diet for Crohn’s disease

While there is little research to support the notion that a change in diet or lifestyle can treat the symptoms of Crohn’s disease, there are some studies that suggest nutrition is important and as with any ongoing illness, it is vital to keep the body nourished.

Some patients undergoing treatment are advised to create a Crohn’s diet and make lifestyle changes to help reduce abdominal pain - especially if the inflammation has caused a narrowing of the intestines. In these cases, patients are recommended to reduce their fibre intake, avoiding indigestible foods and instead sticking to a ‘low residue’ Crohn’s diet.

The NHS suggests that individuals with Crohn’s disease find their symptoms are improved when eating six small meals a day, rather than three larger meals.

Specific carbohydrate diet (SCD)

This diet for Crohn’s disease has grown in popularity as a means of nutritional support. Avoiding specific carbohydrates such as starch and disaccharide (double) sugar molecules are the basic rules in this Crohn’s diet - these forms of carbohydrates are difficult for individuals with inflammatory bowel disease to digest.

This diet for Crohn’s disease may also eliminate grains due to their inflammatory potential on the gut wall.

Fibre

Fibre, a type of carbohydrate found in plants, plays an important role in our diets. It encourages the growth of friendly bacteria, helping the digestive system to function smoothly and bulking up stools to help them pass through the gut. However, while the digestive system can break down soluble fibre, insoluble fibre is not so easily digested - this can cause bloating and sometimes abdominal pain.

Many people with Crohn’s are advised to be careful about the amount of insoluble fibre consumed within their Crohn’s diet to avoid symptom flare-ups. This is particularly important when there is evidence of narrowing or strictures. Foods high in insoluble fibre include:

  • nuts and seeds
  • brown rice
  • dried fruit
  • whole grain breads and cereals
  • beans and lentils
  • broccoli.

Liquid diet

Alternatively, a specialised liquid formula diet (‘elemental’ or ‘polymeric’ diet) may be recommended to some patients as a diet for Crohn’s disease - this can help treat the condition when it has affected the small intestine. This type of Crohn’s diet is typically referred to as ‘nutritional therapy’. The liquid formula is made up of very small molecules that can be easily digested; it can help to improve nourishment while reducing inflammation and resting the bowel.

Food reintroduction diet

Many patients who are undertaking nutritional therapy - which usually lasts around two to eight weeks - will be encouraged to slowly reintroduce foods into their diet. This diet for Crohn’s disease helps individuals to pinpoint any foods that may be causing their symptoms to flare up. Examples of this Crohn’s diet can include the general elimination of foods and the LOFFLEX diet - the low fibre, fat limited, exclusion diet.

Natural remedies for Crohn’s

While there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, there are supplements and foods that are encouraged due to their tendency to reduce symptoms of Crohn’s disease. It is advised that you consult your doctor before introducing anything into your Crohn’s diet, as some of them may react with any medical treatment you are prescribed.

Below are some of the supplements believed to help ease Crohn’s symptoms:

Fish oil - This has been used to promote cholesterol health for a long time and it has suggested benefits for Crohn’s patients. According to the Cochrane Database of System Reviews, fish oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties; therefore it is thought that introducing fish oil into your diet for Crohn’s disease may reduce symptoms.

Probiotics - The gastrointestinal tract contains ‘good’ bacteria, these help digestion and offer protection against the bad bacteria. When the body falls ill or has taken antibiotics, the body’s supply of good bacteria is reduced. Probiotics are recommended as they provide the gut with microorganisms that act similarly to the ‘good’ bacteria it requires.

Prebiotics - Prebiotics (indigestible carbohydrates) can be found in honey, whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic and artichoke. They are food for the intestinal bacteria - adding these to your diet for Crohn’s disease may improve the normal intestinal bacteria function.

Aloe Vera juice, chamomile and peppermint are also believed to help reduce Crohn’s symptoms, try adding them into your diet as a warm tea.

How can a nutrition professional help you?

In addition to medical support and advice, many people with Crohn’s disease find it beneficial contacting a nutritionist. A nutrition professional will understand the importance of eating a balanced diet to ensure optimum health and well-being.

More importantly, they can use their expert knowledge to design a personalised diet for Crohn’s disease sufferers, tailored to each individual’s needs. As symptoms of Crohn’s disease vary, receiving a specialised Crohn’s diet plan and personal advice can help you regain a sense of control over the condition. A suitably qualified nutrition professional will be able to guide and support you through the symptom remission periods and flare-ups, recommending what dietary changes can be made.

Furthermore, becoming educated in all things food may be able to help you to keep your symptoms at bay for the long-term. Consulting a nutrition professional will also help alleviate some of the pressure and responsibility involved in monitoring what you eat.

Further help

Content reviewed by registered nutritional therapist, Caroline Keighley. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional. 

Related topics

Looking for help?
Find a nutritionist
Share this page with a friend
Would you like to provide feedback on our content?

Related Articles

More articles