Crohn's disease is a chronic condition that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive system. Along with ulcerative colitis, it's one of the most common forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). While ulcerative colitis affects the colon (large intestine) and rectum (end of the bowel), Crohn's disease can involve any part of the gastrointestinal tract.
The horrendous symptoms your son-in-law is experiencing, which include diarrhea, extreme tiredness, unintended weight loss, blood or mucus in stools and abdominal pain, can be constant or come and go in cycles. The unpredictable nature of the disease can severely affect quality of life.
Conventional medicine's answer is powerful drugs to tackle the inflammation (steroids) or to suppress the immune system (immunosuppressants), which is thought to be working on overdrive in people with Crohn's.
There's also the option of surgery—usually involving removal of the inflamed, damaged sections of the digestive tract—which around half of all Crohn's patients go through at some point.
But both treatments come with significant risks and won't necessarily help. Research suggests that some 40 to 60 percent of IBD patients don't benefit from the available treatments.1
Ideally, your son-in-law should see an experienced functional medicine practitioner, who can to try to work out the root cause and recommend an individualized plan of action, but here are some general strategies you can pass on that may be able to get him on the path to healing.
Look at your diet
Mounting research shows that what you eat can play a big role in Crohn's disease. Here are some dietary changes to consider.
Fill up on fiber; cut down on carbs. Eating plenty of fiber, particularly from fruits, has been linked to a 40 percent reduction in the risk of Crohn's.2 And Crohn's patients who ate a diet high in fiber and low in refined carbohydrates like sugar, sugary foods, white bread and rice had significantly fewer hospital admissions and shorter stays compared to the control group in one study.3
Try the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), which allows carbohydrates with a single unit of sugar (monosaccharides) but bans those with two or more units (disaccharides and polysaccharides). Promising research suggests the diet can be an effective therapy for Crohn's; many patients who've followed it have been able to achieve remission—and maintain it.4 See the box on the right for more details.
Forgo fast food. Eating fast food at least twice a week more than triples the risk of Crohn's disease.5
Investigate allergies. Uncovering any underlying food allergies or intolerances may help to heal your gut. One study found that people with Crohn's are commonly intolerant to cereals, dairy and yeast.6 Follow an elimination diet under the guidance of a practitioner to try to pinpoint any problematic foods.
Several placebo-controlled trials suggest that the traditional Chinese techniques of acupuncture and moxibustion, where dried mugwort is burned at or near acupuncture points, can be effective for Crohn's. In one, 10 sessions of acupuncture and moxibustion led to significant improvements in symptoms, quality of life and general wellbeing.7
To find a qualified practitioner near you visit www.acunow.org.
Dose up on D
Low levels of the sunshine vitamin have been linked to Crohn's disease, and one study suggests that supplementing with vitamin D to achieve normal levels can reduce symptoms and boost quality of life.8 D supplements have also been found to prevent relapses in people with normal levels of the vitamin and whose Crohn's is in remission.9
Your best bet is to work with a practitioner who can get your D levels tested and advise on the right dose for supplementation, but home testing kits are available via the Vitamin D Society (www.vitamindsociety.org) and Better You (www.betteryou.com), along with personalized recommendations on how much to take.
Suggested dosage: 1,000-5,000 IU/day
Try other supplements
Again, it's best to consult with a practitioner who can devise an individualized supplement program for you, but here are some supplements that may be useful, based on preliminary evidence.
Omega-3s. Crohn's sufferers in remission taking fish oil capsules rich in omega-3 fatty acids had a lower rate of relapse than those taking a placebo.10
Suggested dosage: 2.7 g/day omega-3s
Saccharomyces boulardii. This yeast that functions like a probiotic may be helpful for alleviating chronic diarrhea in Crohn's patients.11
Suggested dosage: 250 mg three times/day
DHEA. This hormone (dehydroepiandrosterone) naturally produced in the body is also a popular supplement, usually made from wild yam or soy. Six of seven people with Crohn's disease went into remission after taking it in one small trial.12
Suggested dosage: only take under medical supervision
Get help from herbs
Herbalist Meilyr James, owner of the Herbal Clinic in Swansea, Wales
(www.herbalclinic-swansea.co.uk), recommends the following herbs for easing symptoms of Crohn's disease.
Althaea officinalis (marshmallow root). This soothing herb is particularly useful if there is mucus in the stools, says James.
How to take: as a tea, combine it with other digestive herbs such as yarrow, fennel and meadowsweet—use one heaped teaspoon of dried herbs to each cup of boiling water; or as a tincture, take 3 mL of a 1:5 tincture, diluted in a little water, three times per day
Achillea millefolium (yarrow). This bitter digestive herb helps to reduce bleeding and aid healing.
How to take: add 1 mL of a 1:4 tincture, three times daily, to the Althaea tincture
Zingiber officinale (ginger) is useful for pain and griping, as it relaxes spasm in the digestive tract, says James.
How to take: 1 mL of a 1:2 tincture, diluted in a little water, three times daily
Boswellia serrata (frankincense) and turmeric. Both help to reduce the gut's inflammatory response in Crohn's disease, says James.
How to take: 2,000 mg/day Boswellia in capsule form; 1-2 g/day turmeric paste (ground turmeric mixed with olive oil)
Try mind-body therapies
Stress, anxiety and depression are linked to inflammatory bowel diseases,13 so it's vital to address the mind as well as the body. Try mind-body techniques such as yoga, qigong or meditation, or consider hypnotherapy, which is showing a lot of promise as an alternative therapy for Crohn's.14 To find a hypnotherapist near you visit www.hypnotherapy-directory.org.uk or www.psychologytoday.com.