Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) affects millions of people, often severely impacting their day-to-day lives. What role does the gut microbiome play in IBD, and can we harness dietary interventions to manage symptoms? Medical News Today explores this question In Conversation with a researcher and an expert through lived experience.

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Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella-term that encompasses ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, two chronic gastrointestinal conditions characterized by inflammation of the gut.

Some of the symptoms of IBD include nausea and vomiting, blood in stool, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue, and irregularities in the menstrual cycle — all of these are invisible issues that can severely impact a person’s quality of life on a daily basis.

IBD affects many people all over the world. In the United States, for example, around 1% of all adults have diagnosed IBD — and while that may seem like a small percentage overall, it actually amounts to approximately 2 million people.

In the United Kingdom, the most recent estimates suggest that IBD affects around 0.8% of the population, or around 131,000 people.

And that figure may be a serious underestimate of the real prevalence of IBD, as both Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis have symptoms that can also be attributed to other chronic conditions, which often makes them difficult to diagnose.

Research from the U.K. published in the Journal of Crohn’s and Colitis in 2020 suggested that an individual could see their doctor in relation to persistent gastrointestinal symptoms for 5 years before they receive the correct diagnosis of IBD.

Yet recent research shows that in people with IBD, the gut microbiome — the community of bacteria and other microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract — has certain particularities that set it apart from the microbiomes of healthy individuals, and which may offer clues to better treatments.

In this episode of our In Conversation podcast, we speak to Dr. Marcel de Zoete, an associate professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology at UMC Utrecht, The Netherlands.

In January 2023, Dr. de Zoete and his colleagues published a paper in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, showing that people with IBD had two previously unidentified bacterial species in their intestinal tracts — a new species of Allobaculum mucilyticum, and a new species of Allobaculum fili. This finding may offer important clues about the underlying mechanisms in IBD, as well as potential new treatments.

Joining us in conversation was also Zosia Krajewska, who lives with ulcerative colitis, and received her diagnosis at the age of 14.

Zosia told us about how changing her diet and lifestyle — alongside medical treatments — has helped her manage her ulcerative colitis and feel healthier, overall.

Past research has suggested that, in some people, dietary fiber and high-sugar diets can worsen the symptoms of IBD, while favoring ultra-processed foods can increase the risk of Crohn’s disease.

Conversely, a recent study showed that following a healthy diet and having a healthy lifestyle may help reduce a person’s risk of IBD.

Beyond lifestyle interventions, however, it is also important for researchers to find better ways of fighting the underlying mechanisms of IBD.

One promising avenue is research looking at gut immune cells, which play an important role in inflammation and other processes in the gut. Harnessing immune cell activity in the gut may, in the future, help treat different forms of IBD.

Another potential treatment line that has been receiving attention from researchers, but which is currently only rarely used in clinical settings, is fecal microbiota transplantation. This presupposes the transfer of “good bacteria” into the guts of people with gastrointestinal disorders.

Find out more about the current research on IBD causes and treatments, and delve into a candid discussion on the real-life impact of IBD by listening to our podcast in full below, or on your preferred streaming platform.