Can Diet Cure Crohn’s Disease?

Dr. David Suskind is pinpointing how an innovative diet puts patients with Crohn’s disease into remission – without medications or their side effects.

One of Kevin Keating’s biggest worries came to life when his son, Jacob, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 6. Crohn’s disease is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which strikes when the immune system attacks the digestive tract. This can sap a child’s energy, halt growth and spark incessant diarrhea.

“IBD runs in our family – my father struggled with Crohn’s, and my mother and brother with ulcerative colitis – so I knew how tough it could be,” Keating says. “I hoped Jacob would never have to face it.”

Standard IBD treatment includes medications that suppress the immune system and dampen the disease’s effects. But those medications leave patients vulnerable to infections and increase the risk of diabetes and other serious conditions. The Keatings’ search for alternatives led them to Seattle Children’s Dr. David Suskind, who is spearheading some of the first research on an innovative diet – called “the specific carbohydrate diet” (SCD) – that has helped some patients achieve remission, without medication.

“The SCD eliminates most grains and sugars, and many of our patients have had tremendous success with it, but no one fully understands why it works or what the best combination of foods is,” Suskind says. “We want to answer those questions and potentially help more children with IBD reduce their medications or stop taking them entirely.”

Starving Out Bad Bacteria

After the Keatings started the SCD in 2014, Jacob’s symptoms went into remission within weeks. That mirrors the results of one of Suskind’s studies, in which all seven participants with IBD went into remission.

“Those patients no longer had gastrointestinal symptoms, pain or diarrhea, and had the energy to do whatever they wanted,” Suskind says.

Suskind suspects that IBD is caused when the immune system reacts to unhealthy bacteria in the microbiome – the bacterial community in the gut and intestine. He hypothesizes that the SCD feeds the beneficial bacteria while starving out the bacteria that contribute to IBD.

Suskind is now in the midst of a study that genetically sequences participants’ gut bacteria before and after the diet. This could help his team pinpoint which bacteria contribute to IBD – and which lessen its effects.

“We’re hoping to show exactly how the diet changes the microbiome and quiets down the immune system,” Suskind says.

Testing Different Food Combinations

After Jacob’s success with the SCD, Keating and his wife, Masha, made a generous donation to support Suskind’s research and help him launch a study that will investigate three versions of the diet, including a vegan version. This could determine whether certain versions are more effective than others, and may give children better nutrition.

“Thinking long-term for Jacob and other families, we want to know which food combinations are healthiest and if a vegetarian version of the diet has the benefits of other diets that exclude meat,” Keating says.

Philanthropy Makes a Difference

Suskind’s research illustrates how private donors, like the Keatings, can help accelerate research at a time when the National Institutes of Health offers little funding for nutritional studies.

“Private funding allows us to pursue ideas that are too innovative to attract traditional grants,” Suskind says. “If our research proves the SCD works, and provides scientific explanations of it, it could give many more physicians and families an incentive to try it – and that could make a huge difference for children.”