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What's New in Inflammatory Bowel Disease Research?

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You can always find interesting developments in the research surrounding Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, the two major inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD).

In the last few months, researchers have:

-- Warned about a possible connection between high altitudes and IBD flare-ups.

-- Presented evidence from mouse studies that certain fats might trigger Crohn's and colitis.

-- Suggested that the food additive maltodextrin might aggravate Crohn's disease.

Inflammatory bowel disease is a chronic condition that can range in severity, sometimes putting limits on a patient's lifestyle because of frequent bowel movements, fever, fatigue and abdominal pain. Its cause is still unknown, although research has focused on the interaction of genetics, the immune system and the environment.

According to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America, as many as 700,000 Americans have Crohn's disease, with the same number estimated as having ulcerative colitis.

In a study out of Switzerland, researchers studying the effects of high altitude asked about 100 IBD patients about their activities in the previous month. Half of the patients had had recent flare-ups and half were in remission from IBD. Overall, the patients reporting flare-ups had made considerably more plane trips or trips to areas above 6,500 feet.

Adjusting to the lower oxygen content at high altitudes -- whether you're flying, skiing or mountain climbing -- might have to do with increased inflammation, the researchers said, adding that it was too small a study to make a firm connection.

Turning to the possible link between certain fats and IBD, the study comes from the University of Chicago, where researchers wanted to begin to learn whether Western diets are contributing to the current increase in Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

The research on mice with signs of IBD studied the effects of concentrated milk fats, finding that these substances altered the composition of bacteria in the gut, in turn triggering a harmful response in the immune system.

Concentrated milk fats are used in processed and confectionary foods. Researchers did not find the same effect on bacteria in tests using polyunsaturated fats, however.

As for the research into maltodextrin -- a white powder often used in processed foods as well as artificial sweeteners -- the study out of the Cleveland Clinic cautioned that it's too soon to tell patients to avoid the additive.

In lab tests -- not human trials -- researchers found that certain artificial sweeteners promoted the growth of E. coli bacteria taken from Crohn's patients. Doctors often find E. coli present in the small intestine of Crohn's patients. Usually, E. coli inhabits the large intestine.

Researchers were concerned about a "sticky biofilm" created in the petri dish that might foster intestinal bacterial growth and even inflammation.

Bacterial communities in the gut are a prime focus of current IBD research, as are environmental and lifestyle factors.


Goodwin, Jenifer. "Could Compound in Artificial Sweeteners Worsen Crohn's Disease?" HealthDay. Web. 11 July 2012.

"Mouse Study Suggests Certain Fats Could Trigger Crohn's, Colitis." HealthDay. Web. 11 July 2012.

"Travel to High Altitudes Tied to Crohn's, Colitis Flare-Ups." HealthDay. Web. 11 July 2012.

"What are Crohn's & Colitis?" Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America. Web. 11 July 2012.

Reviewed July 23, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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