A recent study by McMaster University in Canada released this month has shown a potential link between foodborne illnesses and the likelihood of developing Crohn’s disease later in life. The study found that gastroenteritis – the irritation and inflammation of the stomach and intestinal linings due to foodborne illness – could later cause Crohn’s disease. Essentially, common foodborne bacteria, like Salmonella, speed up the growth of bad Escherichia coli in a person’s digestive tract. This development has been linked to the development of Crohn’s disease.

In the study, researchers used a “mouse model” to test their theory. In the mice, tests revealed high levels of Adherent-Invasive Escherichia coli (AIEC) or the E. Coli that lives in our digestive tracts, long after the bacteria that caused the foodborne illness was gone. Thus, causing chronic inflammation and potentially leading to the development of Crohn’s disease.

Another study related to this topic was conducted by Dr. Henrik Nielsen of Aalborg Hospital in Denmark in 2009 where he found a correlation between foodborne illnesses related to Salmonella and Campylobacter were linked to Crohn’s disease cases. Dr. Nielsen’s study found that individuals who suffered from these illnesses had a 1.2% risk of developing Crohn’s disease or a related condition within 15 years. Dr. Nielsen’s findings were based off of public records, and not experimental in nature as the McMaster University study.

What is Crohn’s Disease?

Crohn’s disease is a bowel disorder that causes inflammation in the digestive system. Studies estimate that over a half million people in the United States alone have been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. In the United Kingdom, over 100,000 people also have the disease. The disease itself is chronic, and causes inflammation of the digestive system’s linings. The disease can affect any part of the digestive tract, but most commonly attacks the small and large intestines. The inflammation can be so severe that it can spread to the deep inner linings of the digestive system. This is not only painful, but can cause debilitating symptoms such as: rectal bleeding, abdominal cramps and pain, diarrhea, fatigue, constipation, weight loss, loss of appetite, and blood and mucus in stools – to name a few. These symptoms only add to the severity of the condition and could lead to malnutrition or death if not properly treated. In children, without proper treatment, the disorder could lead to growth and development issues.

Diagnosis of the disease is equally complex as the disease itself. Health providers will typically run a series of tests to rule-out any other potential disorders bearing similar symptoms. Radiology and scope techniques may also be used to identify which part or parts of the digestive tract have the disorder. One or more areas may be affected.

Even though there are many confirmed cases of the disorder, its origin and development are largely shrouded in mystery. The mystery surrounding the disease stems from the fact that its exact cause Is unknown. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “[d]octors aren’t sure what causes Crohn’s disease.” It is diagnosed in people of all ages, races, and nationalities. However, there is a prevalence of the disease in the United States as compared to other nations – a statistic that also does not have an explanation. What physicians do know is that people between the ages of 20 to 29 years, people who smoke, and people with a family history of Crohn’s disease are more likely to suffer with the condition.

All the more troubling, is that there is no cure. Health providers and sufferers are able to treat the condition through diet and stress management. Some stricken with the disorder have benefited from an approved exercise routine. In some people, medicines like anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids have been successful treatments. Those with severe symptoms, like tears in the lining of the digestive tract or abscesses, may require surgery. With proper treatment and diet, many people are able to cope and even bring about a remission of the disorder.

The Study and The Future

This is where the latest study comes in. If the cause for Crohn’s disease can be found, then better prevention techniques and methods of treatment could be on the horizon. According to Dr. Brian Coombes, one of the researchers related to the study who is a Professor of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences,

“This is a lifelong disease that often strikes people in their early years, leading to decades of suffering, an increased risk of colorectal cancer, and an increased risk of premature death… Compared to the general population, quality of life for those with Crohn’s disease is low across all dimensions of health …”

Dr. Coombes and his team hope that the study will bring about new developments for the early detection of the disorder as well. With the development of new diagnostic tools, health providers can identify those who may be more susceptible to the disease – like those with elevated AIEC-colonization. Therefore, before they even develop the disorder, these individuals may commence treatment right away. This may not only spare them from long term symptoms or suffering, but potentially pave the way for a possible cure. But sadly, we are not there yet. Dr. Coombes stated in a recent public interview, “[w]e need to understand the root origins of this disease – and to use this information to invigorate a new pipeline of treatments and prevention.” Only time will tell where this study may lead.

If you suspect that you or someone you love may be showing signs or symptoms of Crohn’s disease, it may be a good idea to talk to a healthcare provider about potential diagnosis and/or treatment of your symptoms.

Sources:

Small CL, Xing L, McPhee JB, Law HT, Coombes BK. Acute Infectious Gastroenteritis Potentiates A Crohn’s Disease Pathobiont To Fuel Ongoing Inflammation In The Post-Infectious Period. PLOS Pathogens. 2016.

Gradel K, et al “Increased short- and long-term risk of inflammatory bowel disease after Salmonella or Campylobacter gastroenteritis” Gastroenterology 2009; DOI: 10.1053/j.gastro.2009.04.001.

Kappelman MD, Moore KR, Allen JK, Cook SF. Recent trends in the prevalence of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis in a commercially insured U.S. population. Digestive Diseases and Sciences. 2013;58:519–525.

Molodecky NA, Soon IS, Rabi DM, et al. Increasing incidence and prevalence of the inflammatory bowel diseases with time, based on systematic review. Gastroenterology. 2012;142(1):46–54.