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What is Crohn’s Disease?

Awareness of Crohn’s disease has increased recently thanks to celebrities sharing their diagnoses, but with over 75,000 Australians living with the disease, it’s important to learn what it is.

Crohn’s disease is an Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) that causes painful and sometimes debilitating inflammation in the body’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which results in symptoms like cramps, abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss, and diarrhoea.

However, symptoms can vary for patients as Crohn’s can affect the GI tract anywhere from the mouth to the anus. When inflammation occurs in the body, it’s the immune system’s defence against infections from bacteria and viruses and is usually stopped once the infection is gone. With Crohn’s disease, the immune system doesn’t stop the inflammation, which then causes issues within the body.

Crohn’s disease is named for Doctor Burrill B. Crohn who first detailed the symptoms of the disease in 1932, and there are actually several types of Crohn’s disease depending on where your body is affected - for example, Ileocolitis affects the end of the small intestine and the large intestine, while Gastroduodenal Crohn's disease affects the stomach and start of the small intestine. Other types of Crohn’s include Ileitis (only affects the end of the small intestine), Jejunoileitis (affects the upper half of the small intestine) and Granulomatous Colitis (only affects the colon/large intestine).

The symptoms of Crohn’s disease differ for each person and may come in periods of time or ‘flare ups’, in which inflammation gets particularly bad due to stressful events, bad diets, or improper medication. Other symptoms of Crohn’s can include mouth ulcers, pain or swelling around the anus, and blood/mucous in bowel movements.

What exactly causes Crohn’s? Well, there are several factors that can potentially result in developing Crohn’s disease, such as genetic disposition and environment (it typically presents between the ages of 15 to 30).

Though research continues into the causes, it’s understood that your chances of developing Crohn’s increases when you have a close relative (such as a parent or sibling) who also has the disease. Living environments also play a role in developing the disease, as places like Australia, the United States, and Europe (those with Western diets) tend to have more cases than Asia or Africa. Stress and dietary habits don’t directly cause the disease but can exacerbate symptoms and trigger flare ups.

How do people live with Crohn’s disease? Currently there’s no cure for Crohn’s, so treatment is centred on management and preventing flare ups. Medications typically include the use of steroids, antibiotics, and other immunosuppressant medicines to reduce inflammation. Again, it varies from patient to patient, so if you’re suffering from the disease, it’s best to consult with your doctor to find what works best for you.  

Aside from medication, following a healthy lifestyle with a diet that avoids foods that cause gut issues can help significantly, along with reducing stress, exercising consistently, and potentially taking supplements that can help replenish nutrients.