A Functional Medicine Guide To Crohn’s Disease

crohn's disease

If there’s one thing I’ve learned after years of working with patients at my functional medicine clinic, it’s that digestive issues are becoming more and more common. From bloating to IBS to SIBO and Candida overgrowth, there’s no shortage of people walking into my office hoping for a solution to their GI issues. 

Today, I want to dive into one of the more serious GI issues I see among my patients — Crohn’s disease. Many people with Crohn’s feel hopeless and like there’s no more that can be done. But I’m here to tell you that no matter what you’ve heard, there are steps to take to improve your digestion and see improvements in your symptoms. Keep reading for everything you need to know.


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What is Crohn’s disease?

Like ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease. As of 2015, about 1.3% of the United States population had IBD and this number has increased from 3 million in 1999. IBD is different from IBS in that it is characterized as an autoimmune disease, meaning the underlying cause of Crohn’s is an immune system malfunction that causes the immune system to attack the body’s own tissues. In the case of Crohn’s, the body attacks the intestinal lining, leading to localized inflammation. 

What are the symptoms of Crohn’s disease? 

The inflammation caused by Crohn’s can lead to a host of symptoms, including: 

  • Diarrhea 
  • Bloating 
  • Abdominal pain
  • Rectal bleeding and pain
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Nutrient deficiencies 
  • Fatigue
  • Low mood or depression 
  • Brittle nails
  • Hair loss
  • Nausea and vomiting

To be diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, these symptoms would have to be chronic and moderate to severe. A doctor will also do laboratory tests to check your inflammation levels and signs of nutrient deficiencies, anemia, and infection as well as X-rays, CT scans, and a colonoscopy and endoscopy to officially make a Crohn’s disease diagnosis. 

What does a functional medicine Crohn’s diet plan look like? 

If you’ve been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, you may have already noticed that certain foods seem to trigger your symptoms and other foods seem to be “safe.” And while every person’s trigger foods are slightly different, almost all Crohn’s patients can benefit from reducing their intake of: 

  • Lectin-containing foods like beans and legumes 
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Gluten-containing grains
  • Dairy
  • Processed foods
  • Raw vegetables
  • Caffeine 
  • Sorbitol, xylitol, or other sugar alcohols
  • Alcohol 
  • Spicy foods 
  • Raw fruits

You may be reading the list above and feel a little bummed out. Does this mean you can’t enjoy your morning cappuccino or popcorn at the movies? I recommend reducing these foods as much as possible, especially in the first few months, but you may be able to be more flexible once your symptoms have improved. 

The good news is that there are a ton of delicious foods that can actually benefit your gut health, such as: 

  • Organic meats
  • Fatty fish 
  • Cooked vegetables 
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Fruits and vegetables 

As a general rule, I’ve noticed that people with Crohn’s seem to benefit from eating cooked foods, which means soups, stews, and stir fry are your new best friends. If you have Crohn’s disease, you should work closely with your doctor and follow their instructions on medication and treatment. Crohn’s can have serious consequences and should not be ignored. That said, if your doctor does not seem open to dietary or lifestyle changes, or tells you they won’t make a difference, that is a red flag that you may want to find another physician to manage your care. Why? Because study after study has shown that lifestyle factors DO matter when it comes to Crohn’s and all inflammatory bowel disease for that matter. 

What functional medicine therapies can help with Crohn’s disease? 

Even though Crohn’s disease is a gut-centric disease, there are other non-food lifestyle choices that seem to be able to improve symptoms. If you have Crohn’s I recommend exploring the following: 

1. Avoid smoking

Tobacco products have been linked to the development of Crohn’s and an increased number of flare-ups. (2

2. Manage stress

Stress is not necessarily a cause of Crohn’s but it can definitely trigger flare-ups and worsen symptoms. I recommend yoga, meditation, or gratitude practices as a way to manage daily stress. 

3. Take fish oil

Fish oil may help reduce the underlying inflammation present in Crohn’s disease. In fact, one study showed that patients taking fish oil were twice as likely to remain in remission compared to patients not taking fish oil. (3

4. Try acupuncture

Another great option is the traditional Chinese medicine modality acupuncture. While the research isn’t conclusive, several clinical trials have shown promising results that acupuncture could be helpful for inflammatory bowel disease. (4

5. Experiment with cannabis

Research on cannabis is hard to come by, but surveys have suggested that 15% of people with Crohn’s are already using cannabis to help with their symptoms. Plus, two small studies showed clinical improvements in Crohn’s symptoms with cannabis use. If cannabis is legal in your state, you may want to try experimenting with CBD and THC in different doses and ratios. (5

Crohn’s disease can be overwhelming, painful, and uncomfortable. But here’s what I always tell my patients: Diet and lifestyle interventions can make a dent in your symptoms and help keep you in remission. Follow the advice above and see what works for you!

As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe. 

Photo: unsplash.com

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  1. Data and statistics. (2020, August 11). Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/ibd/data-statistics.htm
  2. Aldhous MC, Satsangi J. The impact of smoking in Crohn's disease: no smoke without fire. Frontline Gastroenterol. 2010 Oct;1(3):156-164. doi: 10.1136/fg.2010.001487. Epub 2010 Sep 23. PMID: 28839569; PMCID: PMC5517176.
  3. Belluzzi A, Brignola C, Campieri M, Pera A, Boschi S, Miglioli M. Effect of an enteric-coated fish-oil preparation on relapses in Crohn's disease. N Engl J Med. 1996 Jun 13;334(24):1557-60. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199606133342401. PMID: 8628335.
  4. Song G, Fiocchi C, Achkar JP. Acupuncture in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2019 Jun 18;25(7):1129-1139. doi: 10.1093/ibd/izy371. PMID: 30535303.
  5. Naftali T. An overview of cannabis based treatment in Crohn's disease. Expert Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2020 Apr;14(4):253-257. doi: 10.1080/17474124.2020.1740590. Epub 2020 Mar 12. PMID: 32149543.

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Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.