Crohn’s disease is a form of irritable bowel disease (IBD) characterized by inflammation that can occur anywhere along the digestive tract – and in many cases, the disease can be life-threatening. Most patients will require at least one surgery to manage the disease, and all require careful monitoring and medication to ensure that flare-ups don’t cause serious damage. Many also rely on steroid, immunosuppressant treatments, and other forms of aggressive medication to prevent the disease from progressing.

In a stroke of luck for patients, however, scientists have recently gained valuable insights into how the body’s gut bacteria or microbiome connect to Crohn’s disease, opening up new potential courses of treatment. By correcting the balance of bacteria in the stomach and intestine, patients may be able to avoid more invasive treatments and achieve better health through more natural means.

Understanding The Microbiome

The microbiome is a topic of great interest to scientists today because the balance of bacteria in the GI system and on the skin plays an important role in an individual’s overall health. In previous studies, for example, researchers have found that a healthy microbiome may aid recovery from heart attacks, may play a role in autism symptoms, and could even explain why some individuals are more prone to obesity and type 2 diabetes than their peers. And as a disease that specifically impacts the GI system, it makes sense that Crohn’s would both potentially alter the body’s microbiome and benefit from its correction.

The Pre-Treatment Microbiome

In order to assess the impact of Crohn’s on the body’s microbiome, scientists needed to identify pre-treatment patients. That’s because many people with Crohn’s use antibiotics as part of their treatment protocol, and these medications can deplete most of the body’s natural bacteria. What samples from these patients revealed was that individuals with Crohn’s had low levels of four types of beneficial bacteria typically found in the digestive system of healthy individuals, as well as evidence of six types of harmful bacteria specifically in Crohn’s patients with intestinal inflammation.

Treatment Alternatives

With new insight into how Crohn’s impacts the body’s microbiome, doctors may be able to devise new treatment practices for patients that could provide longer periods of remission and good health. Rather than treating patients with antibiotics as first-line therapy, as has been common in the past, doctors are now advised to select alternative treatments that are less prone to destroy good bacteria and make way for harmful variants.

Rather than treating patients with antibiotics, and before the disease requires surgery, doctors now may be encouraged to provide patients with stem cell treatment to support the immune system, since Crohn’s is fundamentally an autoimmune disease. Other options include nutrition therapy with short-term bowel rest, low-fiber diets, and diets rich in probiotic and prebiotic foods that foster healthy microbiome growth.

Most groundbreaking, however, research into the microbiome in Crohn’s may push doctors and patients to consider fecal microbiota transplants as a treatment option. Fecal transplants have been a topic of some interest over the last few years, and recent research has shown clinical improvement in pediatric patients with Crohn’s and colitis in the first month after undergoing such treatments. Because it can be hard to independently redevelop the GI microbiome in patients with the disease through diet, replacing depleted gut bacteria with that found in a healthy person’s intestine may be the best option for Crohn’s patients.

Abnormal GI bacteria may play a role in a significant number of modern health problems, but for Crohn’s patients, those tiny life forms present a life and death struggle. Reestablishing a healthy microbiome after disease-related changes, then, might be these patients’ best hope for long-term health. Doctors need to break the cycle of further destroying the intestinal microbiome under the guise of treatment and turn to practices designed to reinvigorate patient health from the ground up.