If you’ve ever suffered from persistent tummy troubles, you can attest to just how miserable it can be. And if you’re among the growing number of people struggling with the unpleasant and puzzling condition known as Crohn’s disease, you know all too well just how much tummy troubles can disrupt your life.
But the good news is, we may be getting closer to uncovering the secret to understanding and possibly healing this frustrating disease.
What’s the secret? Microorganisms that live in your gut.
Today we’re going to specifically explore one microorganism in particular known as mycobacterium. It’s been garnering more and more attention as a possible culprit triggering the development of Crohn’s disease. Let’s dive in.
What Is Crohn’s Disease?
Crohn’s disease is what’s known as an inflammatory bowel condition – meaning it’s a disorder that causes flare-ups of inflammation in your digestive tract.
You see, your digestive tract is lined with a thin layer of specialized tissue that’s packed with lymphoid tissue and immune cells. They stand guard to protect you against harmful microbes or toxins that sneak their way in alongside the food and drinks you consume.
This immune cell-packed tissue plays a crucial role in keeping us safe. But sometimes, this protective mechanism can go haywire – becoming activated and launching an inflammatory response when there is no identifiable infection. In Crohn’s disease, this overzealous immune response can erupt in any area of your digestive tract – from your mouth to your rectum and every inch in between. And in truly severe cases, this inflammation can even be seen sprouting up in areas like your skin, eyes, or liver.1
Crohn’s disease causes a distinct pattern of inflammation known as cobblestoning. This is when lesions spring up in patches between healthy tissue – creating an alternating pattern of ulcerated and healthy tissue that resembles a cobblestone surface. These patchy lesions can cause a wide range of unpleasant symptoms.
What Are the Symptoms of Crohn's Disease?
Crohn’s disease symptoms include:2,3
- Problems with bowel movements such as diarrhea and/or constipation
- Bloating and gas
- Indigestion and nausea
- Cramping, pain, and/or discomfort in the abdomen
- Anemia (low red blood cell levels)
- Poor appetite and weight loss
- Canker sores in the mouth
- Joint pain and/or skin rashes
- Development of abscesses or fistulas from deep tunneling lesions
These symptoms tend to wax and wane over time.
Crohn's Disease Progression
Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition, meaning once diagnosed, it’s technically something you’ll have for the rest of your life. Crohn’s disease typically comes and goes in cycles, with flare-ups of symptoms broken up by periods of less intense symptoms or even periods of remission.4
But does Crohn’s disease get progressively worse? Unfortunately, many times, the answer is yes.
Long-term studies have shown that Crohn’s disease may evolve over time. This means that in some cases, the longer you have Crohn’s disease the more likely you are to have more frequent and/or more serious flare-ups. And these flare-ups are more likely to spiral into more complex conditions like fistulas, abscesses, or the development of intestinal strictures (narrowing of the intestinal tract).5
So what exactly is the underlying cause of this progressive inflammatory bowel condition?
Crohn's Disease Causes
We still don’t have all the answers when it comes to what actually causes Crohn’s disease. But we do know that there may be a genetic component associated with this condition, making certain people more susceptible to developing Crohn’s. Researchers speculate that certain genetic configurations may make some people more likely to develop Crohn’s disease in a few ways:6,7
- Certain genetic codes can cause your gut lining to become more permeable – meaning it becomes more porous and allows more substances to pass through your gut wall. This in turn increases the contact and exposure between your gut mucosa and the microbes that live within your gut.
- These genetic codes can simultaneously hinder your immune system's ability to properly fight off certain species of microorganisms – making it difficult for your body to keep certain gut microbe populations in check.
- As the delicate ecosystem of your gut microbiome becomes unbalanced and your gut permeability increases, your body signals your immune system to begin ramping up.
- As your immune system becomes activated, it recruits an influx of specialized inflammatory white blood cells known as T-cells and macrophages.
- As these white blood cells are called to your gut lining, so is a potent cocktail of pro-inflammatory cytokines, degrading enzymes, and harmful free radicals.
This domino effect is thought to be the root cause of the inflammation seen in Crohn’s disease. This then causes a downward spiral of widespread and deep-penetrating inflammation that can trigger an even more forceful response from your immune system.
While we may still have more questions than answers when it comes to Crohn’s disease, there’s no denying that the make-up of your microbiome (the conglomeration of microbes that reside in your gut) plays a pivotal role in the development and severity of symptoms. One microbe in particular has been stirring up a lot of controversies when it comes to Crohn’s disease. It’s a tiny bacteria known as Mycobacterium Avium subspecies Paratuberculosis (MAP).
What Is Mycobacterium?
Mycobacterium Avium subspecies Paratuberculosis (MAP) is a type of bacteria that, as its name implies, belongs to the mycobacterium family. The mycobacterium family also encompasses other strains of bacteria known to cause some nasty diseases – like leprosy and tuberculosis.
Mycobacterium Avium subspecies Paratuberculosis (MAP) causes a disease known as Johne’s disease in a variety of animals including cattle, sheep, and non-human primates.8 When contracted, Johne’s disease causes significant inflammation of the digestive tract of the infected animal. This is eerily similar to the symptoms seen in Crohn’s disease in humans.
So could it be possible that this invading bacteria might be an underlying cause of Crohn’s disease as well?
Could Mycobacterium be an Underlying Cause of Crohn’s Disease?
The answer is – maybe.
Some researchers speculate that while yes, Crohn’s disease does in fact have a genetic component, it’s also in part an infectious disease.
You see, Mycobacterium Avium subspecies Paratuberculosis (MAP) is commonly found in cattle and sheep, which can easily be spread to humans through water or soil contaminated by run-off from manure or from contaminated milk and milk products. It’s speculated that once contracted, this bacteria causes the damage seen in Crohn’s disease like this:9
- Once MAP hits your intestines, it’s eaten up by intestinal macrophages (immune cells that engulf invading microbes)
- MAP is able to survive within your macrophages thanks to its ability to exist without its own cellular wall
- As it dwells within your macrophages, it hijacks the cells, triggering them to secrete proinflammatory mediators
- As your macrophages secrete and recruit pro-inflammatory compounds – like tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), interleukin-1, interleukin-6, and interleukin-10 – it also activates another type of immune cell known as natural killer cells
- As the number of natural killer cells and proinflammatory mediators steadily increases within your intestines, inflammation skyrockets and begins damaging pockets of intestinal tissue – causing the cobblestone ulceration pattern seen in Crohn’s disease
While this theory is supported by the fact that MAP is detected in the gut of just about every individual diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, more time and research is needed to truly determine just how significant of a role this menacing microbe really plays in Crohn’s disease.10
Are You Concerned Mycobacterium Might Be Contributing to Your Crohn’s Symptoms?
If you or a loved one are navigating the challenges of Crohn’s disease or unexplained digestive problems, please know that you are not at the mercy of your diagnosis or symptoms. We as human beings don’t exist in a vacuum – there is almost never one singular underlying factor that is the root cause of Crohn’s disease or any other health condition.
So while there certainly is a possibility that mycobacterium could be linked to your symptoms, the good news is, there’s a bigger picture. You have the power to fight back and have a monumental influence on your symptoms and overall well-being. If you’re looking for ways to manage your symptoms and optimize your health, here’s what I recommend:
First and foremost, I encourage you to seek out the guidance of an experienced Functional Medicine Practitioner to help you identify any contributing underlying factors and assist you in developing a personalized health plan.
Make Your Gut Health Top Priority:
This can sound overwhelming, but a few simple lifestyle tweaks can work wonders in keeping your gut happy and healthy. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend these articles:
- How to Heal Your Gut for a Stronger Immune System
- Crohn's vs Ulcerative Colitis vs Celiac: A Fascinating Look at Their Differences
- How Fungal Gut Dysbiosis Might Be the Underlying Culprit in Crohn’s Disease
Implementing the steps outlined within these articles is the best way to set a foundation for healing and optimizing the health of your gut.
Continue Empowering Yourself With Knowledge:
You are the captain of the ship when it comes to your health. Arming yourself with knowledge that you implement daily is your most powerful tool. So continue seeking out ways to prioritize your well-being and figure out what works for your unique body.
My blog, weekly newsletter, and online store exist for that reason exactly – so feel free to browse through my hundreds of articles. Or sign up for my best advice delivered straight to your inbox by entering your name and email address in the form below!
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn that mycobacterium might be an underlying cause of Crohn’s disease? What are your favorite ways to show your tummy some love and optimize your gut health? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
- The Difference Between Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, and Celiac Disease — Colorectal Clinic of Tampa Bay (tampacolorectal.com)
- Inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease: Overlaps and differences (nih.gov)
- WebMD – Better information. Better health.
- Crohn's Disease Progression | Understanding Crohn's (crohnsandcolitis.com)
- Natural history and long-term clinical course of Crohn’s disease (nih.gov)
- Research Closeup: Fungus and Crohn's disease | Cedars-Sinai
- [PDF] Immunity, Inflammation, and Allergy in the Gut | Semantic Scholar
- Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease: is Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis the common villain? (nih.gov)
- Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis and the etiology of Crohn’s disease: A review of the controversy from the clinician’s perspective (nih.gov)
- Mycobacterium Avium subspecies Paratuberculosis (MAP) (crohnsmapvaccine.com)
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.