The Science Behind Crohn’s Disease: A Personal Journey

The groundbreaking research of a globally recognized expert on Crohn's disease has benefitted millions - including the researcher himself.

The Scientist Healing Himself and Others

R. Balfour Sartor

By R. Balfour Sartor, MD., as told to Stacia Friedman

Do you know what’s worse than being misdiagnosed? Being misdiagnosed for 10 years! Believe it or not, that’s what happened to me with Crohn’s disease. Inflammatory bowel diseases, which include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, are often mistaken for other gastrointestinal problems. It’s time to spread some knowledge and shed light on this complex condition.

🏥 Diagnosis and Bad Advice

In my case, the journey to diagnosis was far from smooth. It took 10 agonizing years of misdiagnoses and confusion before I finally received the correct diagnosis of Crohn’s disease. Can you imagine? I was in my senior year of premed studies, already accepted into medical school, when the truth hit me like a ton of bricks. It was a setback, no doubt, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me from following my dreams.

The Many Faces of Crohn’s

📚 Wanting to Understand

During my 6-week hospitalization for a severe Crohn’s flare-up, I reflected on my career choice. While I had initially been interested in GI surgery, the thought of performing lengthy surgical procedures made me hesitate. That’s when I realized that gastroenterology was the path for me. I became frustrated with the limited treatment options available for Crohn’s disease—steroids and surgery were simply not enough. I yearned for a deeper understanding of the causes of the disease.

At the time, the prevailing theory was that Crohn’s was an autoimmune process. However, I had a hunch that gut bacteria might play a significant role in driving the immune response. I wanted to dig deeper and explore which specific bacteria were involved. And so, my 40-plus-year journey of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis research began.

💡 The Role of Gut Bacteria

My research has focused on identifying the primary activators of the aggressive immune response in Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In a healthy individual, aggressive bacteria in the gut are balanced by protective bacteria that prevent inflammation. However, this balance is disrupted in patients with Crohn’s and IBD.

So the million-dollar question is, how do we manipulate the system to decrease the presence of aggressive bacteria and stimulate the growth of beneficial gut bacteria? Which bacterial signals are responsible for initiating inflammation, and which bacteria offer protection? These are the questions that keep me and my team up at night.

💊 Genetics, Antibiotics, and Diet

Genetics undoubtedly play a role in the development of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. However, these conditions are not predetermined. In fact, if one identical twin has Crohn’s, the other twin only has a 40% chance of developing the disease. That leaves a 60% chance of not getting it. So, it’s clear that other factors come into play.

One such factor is the use of antibiotics. Frequent exposure to antibiotics, particularly during childhood, disrupts the delicate balance of gut bacteria. Good bacteria get killed off, while harmful bacteria gain the upper hand.

And here’s the final frontier: diet. I am currently researching the impact of diet on bacterial profiles and functions. The typical Western diet, high in preservatives, animal protein, high-sulfur compounds, and processed foods, has been shown to worsen symptoms. On the other hand, a diet rich in freshly prepared, high-fiber, and low-fat foods has been found to help. That’s why I personally avoid red meat and prioritize fiber and fruit in my own meals.

🌟 Sharing My Diagnosis

I remember when I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s disease; I wanted to keep it a secret. However, when I joined the University of North Carolina, I made the decision to share my condition with my colleagues and patients. As a doctor with Crohn’s, I have a unique perspective that allows me to understand and empathize with my patients on a deeper level. I always ask myself, “Would I follow the advice I’m about to give?” before making any treatment recommendations.

Having gone through the ups and downs of living with Crohn’s disease, I can relate to newly diagnosed patients who feel like their world is crumbling. But here’s the thing—Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis treatment has come a long way. We’ve made significant progress in understanding the disease’s mechanism and immune responses. A whole pipeline of new therapies is available, and the chances of full recovery are quite high.

Dr. R. Balfour Sartor is the Lorimer W. Midget distinguished professor of medicine, microbiology, and immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the co-director of the UNC Center for Gastrointestinal Biology and Disease.

🤔 Q&A: Addressing Your Concerns

Q: Are there any natural remedies that could help manage the symptoms of Crohn’s disease? A: While diet plays a crucial role in managing Crohn’s disease symptoms, natural remedies alone are unlikely to provide complete relief. However, some people find that adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can help alleviate symptoms. It’s essential to work closely with your healthcare provider to develop a comprehensive treatment plan.

Q: How can stress affect Crohn’s disease symptoms? A: Stress is known to trigger flare-ups in individuals with Crohn’s disease. While it’s impossible to completely eliminate stress from our lives, finding healthy coping mechanisms such as exercise, meditation, and therapy can significantly reduce its impact on symptoms. Additionally, incorporating stress management techniques into your daily routine can help improve your overall well-being.

Q: Is there a cure for Crohn’s disease? A: Currently, there is no known cure for Crohn’s disease. However, advancements in medical research have led to the development of targeted therapies that can effectively manage symptoms and improve quality of life. It’s essential to continue seeking regular medical care and staying informed about the latest treatment options.

📚 Reference List

  1. The Latest Crohn’s Disease Research
  2. The Seeker: How Searching for ‘Weird’ Holistic Remedies Can Make You Stronger
  3. The Romantic: A Bowel Resection Is Not an Obstacle to Love
R. Balfour Sartor

🙌 Join the Conversation!

Living with Crohn’s disease is no walk in the park, but with the right support and information, it can be manageable. Share this article with your friends and family to raise awareness about this condition. If you have any questions or personal experiences you’d like to share, please leave a comment below. Let’s support one another on this journey!

This article was originally published on 3Health