Lifestyle Tweaks to Manage Crohn’s Disease Flares and Symptoms

During a flare, should you eat more or less fiber?

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Crohn’s disease is a chronic autoimmune disease, which means you can’t “cure” it, but you can take steps to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life. In fact, many patients can successfully achieve remission—a state of no or mild symptoms—for years at a time thanks to treatment.

When Crohn’s disease symptoms get worse, this is known as a flare, which is caused by worsened inflammation in the body, according to David P. Hudesman, MD, associate professor in the Department of Medicine and medical director of the IBD Center at NYU Langone Health.  

“It’s important to communicate [your symptoms] with the provider, so they can better help figure out what’s driving those symptoms,” says Dr. Hudesman. “Is it Crohn’s, or is it something else?”

Here are the lifestyle tips doctor’s recommend to manage a Crohn’s disease flare:

1. Quit smoking

“Smoking cigarettes is the worst thing you can do for Crohn’s disease,” says Dr. Hudesman. “There’s many studies showing that it worsens the course of Crohn’s disease—so how complicated that Crohn’s disease is. If you have surgery for Crohn’s, and you smoke cigarettes, you’re more likely to have another surgery.”

Additionally, cigarettes may reduce the effectiveness of Crohn’s disease treatments, such as biologics. 

2. Live a healthy lifestyle

This includes things like getting enough exercise, sticking to a healthy sleep schedule, and eating a balanced, anti-inflammatory diet. While your lifestyle can’t cure the disease, it has been shown to minimize symptoms and improve quality of life. 

A healthy lifestyle also minimizes your risk of complications associated with Crohn’s disease, such as osteoporosis and colorectal cancer, or common chronic diseases like heart disease or type 2 diabetes.

Regarding a healthy diet, be cautious about attempting fad diets that claim to cure or reverse your disease. “There’s no perfect diet for Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis,” says Dr. Hudesman. “How you feel is different than what’s happening inside. So going on a certain diet or restricting what you’re eating may make you feel better, but inside, things could be the same, or actually getting worse.”

Consider visiting with a registered dietitian if you’re having trouble finding the balanced diet that works with your body and aids in your disease management. (Find out what to expect at your first appointment with a nutritionist here.)

3. Reduce stress

Stress plays a critical and reciprocal role in Crohn’s disease. Those experiencing disruptive symptoms can often have elevated levels of stress, and stressful situations can also make symptoms worse or lead to flares, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

4. Limit high-fiber foods during a flare

Generally, fiber is essential for a healthy diet, but during a flare, it can worsen symptoms. During those periods, it might be beneficial to choose plain white bread instead of whole-wheat bread, for example. These are easier to digestion, and thus easier for your Crohn's disease.

5. Try over-the-counter medicines

There are some do’s and don’ts for OTC meds to manage Crohn’s disease. During a flare, do try these OTC options:

  • Antidiarrheals can safely help to reduce diarrhea

  • Fiber supplements can reduce cramping and bulk up stool

  • Mild antispasmodics can reduce pain caused by bowel spasms

But while you’re in the pharmacy for a flare, don’t grab NSAIDs, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin. These OTC pain relievers can irritate the digestive system and make a flare worse.

Ideally, if you stick to your treatment plan and a healthy lifestyle, you may be able to prevent a flare altogether and remain in remission. This is why it’s important to continue taking your prescribed medications and playing an active role in your treatment, even when you’re feeling well.