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Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s disease is a poorly understood inflammatory condition that usually affects the final part of the small intestine and the beginning section of the colon. It often causes bloody stools and malabsorption problems.


Rating Nutritional Supplements Herbs
Fish oil (enteric-coated, free-fatty-acid form)
Vitamin D
Multivitamin-mineral (for prevention or treatment of deficiency only)
Saccharomyces boulardii

Folic acid
Vitamin A
Vitamin B12

Green tea
Slippery elm
Witch hazel
Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.


What are the symptoms of Crohn’s disease?

Chronic diarrhea with abdominal pain, fever, loss of appetite, weight loss, and a sense of fullness in the abdomen are the most common symptoms. About one-third of people with Crohn’s have a history of anal fissures (linear ulcers on the margin of the anus) or fistulas (abnormal tube-like passages from the rectum to the surface of the anus).

Dietary changes that may be helpful for crohn’s disease

A person with Crohn’s disease might consume more sugar than the average healthy person.12 Another trial compared the effects of high- and low-sugar diets in people with Crohn’s disease.3 People with a more active disease were reported to fare better on the low-sugar diet than those eating more sugar. Several people on the high-sugar diet had to stop eating sugar because their disease grew worse. While details of how sugar injures the intestine are still being uncovered, doctors often suggest eliminating all sugar (including soft drinks and processed foods with added sugar) from the diets of those with Crohn’s disease. A high-fiber, low-sugar diet led to a 79% reduction in hospitalizations compared with no dietary change in one group of people with Crohn’s disease.

A diet high in animal protein and fat (from foods other than fish) has been linked to Crohn’s disease in preliminary research.4 As with many other health conditions, it may be beneficial to eat less meat and dairy fat and more fruits and vegetables.

Some people with Crohn’s disease have food allergies and have been reported to do better when they avoid foods to which they are allergic. One study found that people with Crohn’s disease are most likely to react to cereals, dairy, and yeast.5 Increasingly, baker’s yeast (found in bread and other bakery goods) has been implicated as a possible trigger for Crohn’s disease.6 Yeast and some cheeses are high in histamine, which is involved in an allergenic response. People with Crohn’s disease lack the ability to break down histamine at a normal rate,7 so the link between yeast and dairy consumption and Crohn’s disease occurrence may not be coincidental. However, the allergy theory cannot account for all, or even most, cases of Crohn’s disease.

Elemental diets contain amino acids (rather than whole proteins, which can stimulate allergic reactions) and are therefore considered hypoallergenic. They have been used extensively as primary therapy in people with Crohn’s disease,8 9 10 with remission rates comparable to those of steroid drugs. Nevertheless, diets containing intact proteins derived from dairy and wheat have proven equally effective at controlling the symptoms of Crohn’s disease.11 12 13 Until more is known, it is premature to conclude that food allergy plays a significant role in the development of Crohn’s disease or that a hypoallergenic diet is any more likely to help than a diet whose protein is only partially broken down.

In one trial, people with Crohn’s disease were asked which foods aggravated their symptoms.14 Those without ileostomies found nuts, raw fruit, and tomatoes to be most problematic, though responses varied from person to person, and other reports have displayed different lists.15 (Ileostomies are surgical passages through the wall of the abdomen into the intestine that allow the intestinal contents to bypass the rectum and drain into a bag worn on the abdomen.) People with Crohn’s disease wishing to identify and avoid potential allergens should consult a doctor.

There is preliminary evidence that people who eat fast foods at least two times per week more than triple their risk of developing Crohn’s disease.16

Lifestyle changes that may be helpful for crohn’s disease

People with Crohn’s disease are more likely to smoke, and there is evidence that continuing to smoke increases the rate of disease relapse.17

Nutritional supplements that may be helpful for crohn’s disease

Vitamin D malabsorption is common in Crohn’s18 and can lead to a deficiency of the vitamin.19 Successful treatment with vitamin D for osteomalacia (bone brittleness caused by vitamin D deficiency) triggered by Crohn’s disease has been reported.20 Another study found 1,000 IU per day of vitamin D prevented bone loss in people with Crohn’s, while an unsupplemented group experienced significant bone loss.21 A doctor should evaluate vitamin D status and suggest the right level of vitamin D supplements.

Inflammation within the gut occurs in people suffering from Crohn’s disease. EPA and DHA, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, have anti-inflammatory activity. A two-year trial compared the effects of having people with Crohn’s disease eat 3.5 to 7 ounces of fish high in EPA and DHA per day or having them eat a diet low in fish.22 In that trial, the fish-eating group had a 20% relapse rate compared with 58% among those not eating fish. Salmon, herring, mackerel, albacore tuna, and sardines are all high in EPA and DHA.

In a double-blind trial, people with Crohn’s disease who took supplements providing 2.7 g of EPA/DHA per day had a recurrence rate of 26% after one year, compared to a 59% recurrence rate among those taking placebo.23 Participants in this study used a special enteric-coated, “free-fatty-acid” form of EPA/DHA taken from fish oil. Other blinded trials using other fish oil supplements that were neither enteric-coated nor in the free-fatty-acid form have reported no clinical improvement.24 25 These disparate outcomes suggest that the enteric-coated, free-fatty-acid form may have important advantages, including the reported elimination of gastrointestinal symptoms that often result from taking regular fish oil supplements.26 Unfortunately, enteric-coated “free-fatty-acid” fish oil is not commercially available at this time.

In double-blind research, diarrhea caused by Crohn’s disease has partially responded to supplementation with the beneficial bacterium Saccharomyces boulardii.27 Although the amount used in this trial, 250 mg taken three times per day, was helpful, as much as 500 mg taken four times per day has been administered in research successfully using Saccharomyces boulardii as a supplement with people suffering from other forms of diarrhea.28

Crohn’s disease often leads to malabsorption. As a result, deficiencies of many nutrients are common. For this reason, it makes sense for people with Crohn’s disease to take a high potency multivitamin-mineral supplement. In particular, deficiencies in zinc, folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and iron have been reported.29 30 31 Zinc, folic acid, and vitamin B12 are all needed to repair intestinal cells damaged by Crohn’s disease. Some doctors recommend 25 to 50 mg of zinc (balanced with 2 to 4 mg of copper), 800 mcg of folic acid, and 800 mcg of vitamin B12. Iron status should be evaluated by a doctor before considering supplementation.

Vitamin A is needed for the growth and repair of cells that line both the small and large intestine.32 At least two case reports describe people with Crohn’s disease who have responded to vitamin A supplementation.33 34 However, in one trial, vitamin A supplementation failed to maintain remission of the disease.35 Therefore, although some doctors recommend 50,000 IU per day for adults with Crohn’s disease, this approach remains unproven. An amount this high should never be taken without qualified guidance, nor should it be given to a woman who is or could become pregnant.

People with Crohn’s disease may be deficient in pancreatic enzymes, including lipase.36 In theory, supplementing with enzymes might improve the nutrient malabsorption that is often associated with Crohn’s disease. However, people with Crohn’s disease considering supplementation with enzymes should consult a doctor.

Are there any side effects or interactions with crohn’s disease?

Refer to the individual supplement for information about any side effects or interactions.

Herbs that may be helpful for crohn’s disease

Doctors sometimes use a combination of herbs to soothe inflammation throughout the digestive tract. One formula contains marshmallow, slippery elm, cranesbill, and several other herbs.37 Marshmallow and slippery elm are mucilaginous plants that help soothe inflamed tissues. Cranesbill is an astringent. Clinical trials using this combination have not been conducted.

A variety of anti-inflammatory herbs historically have been recommended by doctors for people with Crohn’s disease. These include yarrow, chamomile, licorice, and aloe juice. Cathartic preparations of aloe should be avoided. No research has been conducted to validate the use of these herbs for Crohn’s disease.

Tannin-containing herbs may be helpful to decrease diarrhea during acute flare-ups and have been used for this purpose in traditional medicine. A preliminary trial using isolated tannins in the course of usual drug therapy for Crohn’s disease found them to be more effective for reducing diarrhea than was no additional treatment.38 Tannin-containing herbs of potential benefit include agrimony (Agrimonia spp.), green tea, oak, witch hazel, and cranesbill. Use of such herbs should be discontinued before the diarrhea is completely resolved; otherwise the disease may be aggravated.

Are there any side effects or interactions with crohn’s disease?

Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.