Can a Plant-Based Diet Put Crohns Disease in Remission?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Health experts have long touted the benefits of adhering to a diet filled with vegetables and other plants.

Research has shown that plant-based diets can reduce your risk of heart disease and curb cognitive decline as well as prevent diabetes and certain cancers.

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It can also lower your risk of high blood pressure and obesity.

Now, new evidence suggests that a plant-based diet could relieve — and possibly cure — Crohn’s disease, a form of chronic inflammatory bowel disease that affects as many as 780,000 adults in the United States.

The report adds to the growing body of evidence that a plant-based diet can help you be live healthier and longer.

Plant-based diet heals gut

The patient, who was in his late 20s, received a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease after suffering from severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and ulcers for years.

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More than a year of intravenous treatment didn’t seem to do the trick.

Although the man’s symptoms did improve a bit from medications, he continued to experience fatigue, bloating, and abdominal pain.

However, after swapping out meat, dairy, and processed foods and eating a plant- based diet rich in grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits, his symptoms began to improve and he eventually achieved clinical remission.

Within six months of following a plant-based diet, the mucosa in his gut had healed and there was no longer any evidence of Crohn’s disease.

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By about 18 months, the man had not experienced any relapses and was able to stop taking drugs.

Crohn’s is difficult to treat

The exact cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown, which may be why it’s one of the more difficult conditions to treat.

It’s thought to be triggered by a handful of factors: genetics, diet, environmental exposures, immune issues, and an abnormal balance of bacteria in the gut.

Only 10 percent of people with Crohn’s disease are able to achieve full remission using standard medications.

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About half of patients will need surgery — such as small bowel resection, ileostomy, or subtotal colectomy — within 10 years of a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease.

Eating fiber improves gut health

Some health experts suspect the reason plant-based diets may clear up digestive problems is because they’re high in fiber — and fiber does wonders for our gut health.

For one, eating fiber promotes a more diverse microbial system through the process of fermentation, which is how the healthy bacteria in our guts eat fiber, according to Neha Shah, a clinical dietitian with the Stanford Digestive Health Center.

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“The fermentation of fiber results in production of short-chain fatty acids that is proposed to enhance the growth and diversity of the gut microbiome in a way that may have a protective role towards other strains that may promote intestinal injury and inflammation,” Shah told ishonest.

In addition, by feeding the good bacteria in our intestines, fiber ultimately helps prevent constipation and promote normal bowel movements.

More research is needed

While plant-based diets seem promising for those with digestive disorders, most health experts agree that we need more research to understand exactly how this particular diet affects the gut.

“We need more clinical trials, along with keeping detailed food records of the composition of the plant-based diet, to learn more of the role and type of plant-based foods that could be possibly beneficial or not,” Shah said.

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And just because symptoms may improve on a plant-based diet, that doesn’t mean a person will be cured of the disease.

“Any improvement in symptoms also does not necessarily mean mucosal healing in the gut for Crohn’s has been achieved as well, which is important to assess for remission,” Shah added.

Each person’s response will differ

Finally, each person’s response to a plant-based diet will vary depending on the severity of their disorder.

What works for one person could be vastly different from what works for another.

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“Because of the complexity and still not fully understood mechanisms causing Crohn’s disease, as well as not all patients with CD [fitting] into one pathway, not everyone responds to one drug equally,” Dr. Tejinder Kalra, a gastroenterologist with Loma Linda University Health, told ishonest.

Consequently, a plant-based diet should complement — not replace — other treatment methods such as medications.

“In general, people feel better and overall healthier with plant-based foods. However, diet alone has not been shown to treat or cure Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis,” Kalra noted.

If you want to try out a plant-based diet, talk to your doctor first. They can customize a diet to your needs and help reduce your risk of developing nutritional deficiencies down the road.

The bottom line

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A new case study details the experience of a young man with Crohn’s disease who achieved complete remission after eliminating meats and processed foods and adopting a plant-based diet.

The report adds to the growing pile of evidence that a plant-based diet has many health benefits.

That said, many health experts agree that it’s too soon to know if a plant-based diet can effectively cure Crohn’ disease.

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