Could a highly processed Western diet really be the cause of Crohn’s disease?

Crohn’s disease, which causes chronic intestinal inflammation, leading to pain, bleeding and diarrhoea, affects people all over the world but it is much more prevalent in developed countries with a diet of low fibre, processed foods. Around one in 800 people in the UK suffer from Crohn’s.

The exact cause of the condition is unknown but bacteria in the gut are suspected of playing an important role as people with Crohn's have been shown to have a higher numbers of a particular strain of E.coli bacteria that stick to the gut walls than healthy individuals.

The 'sticky' E.coli are capable of penetrating the gut wall via specialised cells called M cells. It is thought that this triggers an immune reaction and chronic inflammation, which causes the symptoms that are associated with Crohn's disease.

A team at University of Liverpool under Professor Jon Rhodes of the Liverpool Biomedical Research Centre investigated whether selected plant fibres could influence the ability of these ‘sticky’ E.coli to penetrate M cells.

In cell culture experiments, the researchers found that soluble fibres from broccoli and plantain (a type of large banana) prevented E.coli from getting into M cells. In contrast, a common stabiliser added to processed foods known as polysorbate-80 encouraged the movement of bacteria through the cells.

These discoveries could explain the association between Crohn's disease and the 'Western' diet. The team are now conducting clinical trials to see whether a medical food containing plantain fibres could keep Crohn's patients in remission.

Roberts C et al. Translocation of Crohn's disease in Escherichia coli across M-cells: contrasting effects of soluble plant fibres and emulsifiers. Gut 2010.


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First Published Febury 2010

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