What is inflammatory bowel disease?

Understanding your condition

IBD is a broad term describing a painful, chronic inflammation of the bowels, usually relapsing in nature. As an autoimmune condition, it is the body’s own reaction to the lining of the intestinal tract, and an altered composition of gut microbiome species which create this inflammatory response.

The two most common presentations of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. While ulcerative colitis is restricted to the colon and rectum, Crohn’s can occur anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract, and primarily occurs in the ileum. Furthermore, ulcerative colitis is limited to the mucosa and submucosa, whereas Crohn’s disease extends into all three mucosal layers.

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Providing a holistic treatment for IBD

Whilst primarily autoimmune gut conditions, many factors outside the gut contribute to the inflammation, severity and triggers which can be addressed using the functional medicine approach. Our practitioners have a holistic understanding of health and the body, and will seek to detect and address your particular triggers and underlying causes contributing to IBD. A functional medicine approach to Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis includes a truly personalised treatment plan designed to help you be as healthy as you can be.


IBD symptoms

Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are both forms of IBD, however their symptoms whilst similar, are distinct from one another by their location and timing. Distinguishing between these conditions requires detailed case taking and functional testing and will direct the treatment strategy.

Ulcerative colitis

Ulcerative colitis usually presents as continuous areas of inflammation of the lining of the colon. The signs and symptoms of ulcerative colitis occur due to the colon’s inability to absorb water due to being severely ulcerated and inflamed. Relapsing, and episodic in nature, symptoms persist for days, weeks, or even months. People with ulcerative colitis commonly experience:

  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Cramps - usually relieved with defecation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Blood tinged stool
  • Stringy mucoid material
  • Both urgency and inability to pass stool
  • Weight loss due to decreased appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Joint pain

Ulcerative colitis may also lead to some systemic health complications including:

  • Sores in the mouth and skin
  • Osteoporosis
  • Painful and swollen joints
  • Kidney stones
  • Itchy and red eyes

Crohn’s disease

By comparison, Crohn’s disease presents as inflamed patches between healthy sections of intestine. People with Crohn’s disease may experience variable signs and symptoms with intermittent attacks and asymptomatic periods lasting weeks to months. Common symptoms can include:

  • Right lower abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Bloody diarrhoea
  • Weight loss
  • Mucous in stool

While more severe indications are:

  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Fibrosing strictures
  • Peritoneal abscess
  • Perforations
  • Fistula
  • Colon cancer

What causes eczema?


Research has found people with the ‘atopic triad’ have a defective barrier of the skin and upper and lower respiratory tracts.

These genetic alterations cause a loss of function of filaggrin (filament aggregating protein), which is a protein in the skin that normally breaks down to create natural moisturisation and protect the skin from penetration by pathogens and allergens.

Filaggrin mutations are found in approximately 30 percent of people with atopic dermatitis, and also predispose people to asthma, allergic rhinitis (hayfever), keratosis pilaris (dry rough patches and bumps on the skin), and ichthyosis vulgaris (a chronic condition which causes thick, dry, scaly skin.)If one parent carries this genetic alteration, there is a 50 percent chance their child will develop atopic symptoms. And that risk increases to 80 percent if both parents are affected. 

Food allergy and sensitivity

Food hypersensitivity has been found to cause or exacerbate atopic dermatitis in 10-30% of cases, and 90% of these are caused by eggs, milk, peanuts, soy and wheat.

Compromised gut health

The connection between the gut microbiome and skin health is complex, however, research has found the microbiota contributes to the development, persistence, and severity of atopic dermatitis through immunologic, metabolic and neuroendocrine pathways.

Nutritional deficiencies

Deficiency of Omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFA) has been linked with the increased incidence of atopic dermatitis, along with the inability for the body to efficiently metabolise EFA’s to gamma linoleic acids (GLA) and arachidonic acids (AA).

Weather and environment

Changing weather conditions can certainly aggravate eczema symptoms, but the triggers are subject to change among individuals.


Hormones also play a role in the course of atopic dermatitis, including the stress hormone cortisol which triggers an inflammatory immune response affecting all organs of the body, including the skin.

Mould exposure

Mould exposure and susceptibility to mould can cause Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS), of which dermatitis is a manifestation.

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IBD root causes and contributing factors

Primarily inflammatory bowel diseases are considered idiopathic inflammatory conditions, meaning there are no specific identified causes. However, links have been drawn with some common underlying factors:

Environmental triggers: IBD has multiple triggers that may cause inflammation and alter the gut’s normal flora, causing it to flare. Some known triggers include:

  • Smoking
  • Inflammatory diet - sugar, gluten, dairy and processed foods
  • Air pollution
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Medications  like NSAIDs, antibiotics, and reflux medications
  • Oral contraceptive pill
  • Postmenopausal hormonal therapy
  • Hypoxia at high altitude
  • Not being breastfed during infancy

Genetics: Evidence suggests an increased risk of IBD among people with an affected family member by 4 to 8 times, even higher in identical twins.

Epithelial defects: The symptoms of IBD are seen as a result of multiple defects in linings of vessels, organs, and digestive system, called epithelial cells. The most dominating feature is dysfunction of the tight junction barriers or ‘leaky gut syndrome’, resulting in increasing susceptibility to IBD triggers and food intolerances.

Other contributing factors to IBD

Mucosal immune response: The immune system’s role in increasing the chances of IBD is well known. The T helper cells, typically Th17  cells, play an active role in Crohn’s disease.

Parasitic or bacterial infections: Bacteria and yeast can flourish in the deep ulcers and pockets that occur in IBD. These infections, such as SIBO, along with parasitic infestations, may drive and aggravate IBD.

IBD treatment - conventional treatments

Currently, no conventional treatments can completely cure IBD. Instead, the conventional medicine approach to IBD aims to manage the condition and suppress symptoms. This may include the use of:

  • Immunomodulators – to prevent the immune system from activating and flaring up the reaction
  • Corticosteroids – to reduce inflammation by suppressing the immune system.
  • Aminosalicylates – to reduce intestinal irritation
  • Antibiotics – to treat bacterial overgrowth

Despite this range of options there are potentially harmful side effects such as blood, bone, liver, and kidney dysfunction and malignant melanoma. Conventional methods of treating IBD have a high failure rate resulting in increased incidence and severity of disease with long-term complications.

As a result, many people are now turning to a functional medicine approach to IBD for lasting relief.

Left untreated/ineffectively treated, Crohn’s disease can lead to further complications outside the gut including:

  • Malnutrition/poor absorption: Iron, Vitamin A, B12 and folate deficiencies
  • Bones & Joints: Osteoporosis, osteomalacia and osteopenia, arthritis
  • Eyes: Dry eyes, episcleritis, keratopathy, uveitis
  • Kidneys: Kidney stones, glomerulonephritis
  • Liver: Fatty liver disease, hepatitis, gallstones
  • Skin: a range of seemingly unrelated skin conditions

Functional testing considerations for IBD

In an IBD alternative treatment strategy there are a range of functional tests that will help identify the root causes and triggers of your symptoms, they may include:

  • Specific blood tests
  • Microbiome & stool testing
  • Digestive function and nutrient absorption
  • Markers of inflammation, IBD, SIBO or leaky gut
  • Pathogenic parasites
  • Food sensitivities

IBD natural treatment - the functional medicine approach to Crohn’s disease & ulcerative colitis

At Melbourne Functional Medicine, practitioners focus on identifying and addressing the individual factors contributing to each person’s inflammatory bowel disease diagnosis. An IBD natural treatment is tailored to the person, rather than the symptoms, and is informed by the latest science.

In clinical trials, herbal medicines and natural products used in an IBD natural treatment approach to  Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis demonstrated efficacy in improving symptoms and health outcomes by;

  • Maintenance of integrity of the intestinal lining
  • Regulation of the innate immune system
  • Modulation of innate and adaptive immune responses, and
  • Inhibition of TNF-a activity, a protein which triggers inflammation

Our practitioners achieve these results with a combination of lifestyle changes, dietary modifications (including removing aggravating foods and increasing beneficial nutrients) gut health support, natural anti-inflammatories and herbal medicines. Just some of the proven natural remedies for ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease include:

  • Curcumin: This potent extract of turmeric is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, with studies demonstrating it as a safe and effective therapy for maintaining remission of ulcerative colitis
  • Saffron: Saffron has been found to reduce the severity of ulcerative colitis and reduce inflammation by reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines, helping to prevent recurrence
  • Probiotics: Reduced microbial diversity is associated with increased rates of IBD. Probiotics, specifically Bifidobacterium spp. have consequently shown to be beneficial in reducing symptoms of IBD by restoring a healthy microbiome
  • Boswellia serrata: A potent anti-inflammatory found to restore gastrointestinal linings and improve immune response
  • Vagus nerve stimulation: Low vagal tone has a pro-inflammatory role in disease development, and studies have shown stimulation of the vagus nerve can improve active Crohn’s disease
  • CBD & medicinal cannabis: The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of medicinal cannabis are increasingly used in the treatment of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
  • Eliminating processed foods/inflammatory bowel disease diet: Diets containing processed foods including soft drinks, refined sweetened foods, salty snacks and processed meats are associated with higher rates of IBD.  An IBD natural treatment diet is high in anti-inflammatory foods, vitamins, minerals and nutrients for restoration of healthy linings has been shown to improve the onset and severity of symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease
  • Mindfulness and healthy lifestyle changes: IBD can be triggered or aggravated by inflammation associated with obesity, high stress levels, lack of sleep, and lifestyle choices. Mindfulness practices and healthy lifestyle changes can support both physical and psychological wellbeing in people with IBD, including yoga, breathing, movement and meditation

Together with our functional medicine practitioners, our health coaches will help provide the support you need to be successful in achieving your health goals.

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What is the difference between IBD and IBS?

Inflammatory bowel disease is an autoimmune disease causing recurrent inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, whereas irritable bowel syndrome is a range of symptoms that can occur due to disruption to the microbiome.

Functional testing by our practitioners can determine which of these conditions you are experiencing and design a natural treatment plan for your IBD or IBS.

How does functional medicine treat inflammatory bowel disease? What are the alternative IBD treatment options?

The functional medicine approach uses IBD natural treatment strategies for Crohn’s disease.

Ulcerative colitis alternative treatments use similar methods, with both based on the latest scientific studies.

An inflammatory bowel disease diet, herbal medicines, natural supplements, specific probiotic and prebiotics and lifestyle changes are all part of the latest treatment strategies for both conditions, but most importantly treating you as a whole being.

Establishing your particular underlying causes will dictate the treatment strategy. No two people are alike, but in general treatment aims would likely include:

  • reducing your exposure to triggers
  • lowering inflammation to the whole body
  • improving your body’s immune response
  • increasing the body’s resources available to restore and prevent flare ups
  • and increasing diversity and make up of your microbiome

What is the difference between ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease?

Both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are inflammatory conditions of the gastrointestinal tract.

Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the entire gastrointestinal tract from mouth to anus, and can involve the full thickness of the intestinal wall.

Ulcerative colitis generally affects only the mucosal lining of the intestinal wall, and is usually located in the large intestine and rectum.

Ulcerative colitis alternative treatment options are best to be tailored to you, based on the root causes and your symptom picture.

Is Crohn’s disease hereditary?

Yes, it can be. Having a close family member who has Crohn’s increases the likelihood of developing it. However, other non-genetic causes like environmental toxin exposure e.g. smoking, pesticides, and plasticisers, can cause damage to the mucosal lining triggering an immune response underlying the development of Crohn’s.

Some commonly used pharmaceutical medications may also contribute to development of Crohn’s disease, such as the oral contraceptive pill and reflux medicines (such as Nexium, or Somac).

Can I treat Crohn’s disease naturally?

Many people seeking a natural, alternative treatment to Crohn's benefit from a holistic treatment plan that addresses their entire body and overall health. Crohn’s disease can be treated and managed effectively using the functional medicine approach. Dietary change, an inflammatory bowel disease diet, lifestyle changes, specific probiotics and nutritional supplements can all contribute to supporting a healthy immune response within the gastrointestinal tract.

Can’t find what you’re looking for? Reach out to the team directly – we’ll be happy to assist.