When you’re living with Crohn’s, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you’re likely keeping tabs on promising new research coming down the pike—like this new study out of the Tokyo University of Science that found a compound in blueberries could help ease inflammation in IBD-related diseases. That sounds promising (who doesn’t like berries?) and you may be tempted to run to the grocery store and stock up on the latest shipment ASAP, but it’s important to understand the facts.
Often, there’s more to the study than the headline reveals. We talked with IBD experts about the theoretical implications of the study's findings—and what we do know for sure about the role of blueberries and other similar foods in your Crohn’s-friendly diet.
Making Sense of the Study
The study, published in The FASEB Journal in September 2020, discovered a polyphenolic compound called pterostilbene (PSB) in blueberries. The researchers say PSB, an antioxidant, has strong abilities to suppress the immune system—which means it may be a way to treat inflammation in people with Crohn’s.
“Polyphenols are natural components that are found in fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and they possess different antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties,” says dietician Brittany Roman-Green, R.D., a California-based IBD specialist. “PSB is a type of polyphenol that’s similar to resveratrol (RSV), the antioxidant found in red grapes. What the researchers found with PSB is it not only improved symptoms of IBD but also suppressed inflammatory cytokines, one in particular called TNF, which is involved in inflammation in IBD patients.”
The research is in its early stages, and while it’s promising, don’t expect a PSB pill to be coming on the market anytime soon, says Sara N. Horst, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, who did not take part in the study.
“This was more of an exploratory analysis by researchers to say, this is something we can look into more,” she says. “I think it’s great that researchers are looking into this because as doctors and patients, we would love to use things that already exist in our environment to help keep ourselves healthy. But more data needs to come out before we can draw any conclusions.”
Blueberries and Crohn’s: What We Do Know
Still, there’s ample evidence to suggest that blueberries are helpful in your Crohn's-friendly diet. For one, they contain healthy antioxidants—not just PSB, but also anthocyanin, which gives them their bright blue color, says Roman-Green. “I recommend blueberries for people with people with Crohn's, along with other colorful fruits and vegetables that are well-tolerated, so that they can get a multitude of antioxidants, each conferring its own health benefits,” she says.
If you’re looking for ways to incorporate more blueberries into your diet, you’re in luck—these delicious berries are pretty easy to add to meals and snacks. “You can add them into oatmeal, blend them into a smoothie, or eat them raw if you enjoy them as a snack,” says Roman-Green. “One of my favorite snacks is having toast and lactose-free, low-fat plain yogurt sprinkled with blueberries—and some cinnamon on top, too!”
That said, there are some things to keep in mind before you go bananas with the blueberries (bah-dum-dum). For example, not everyone with Crohn’s may be able to tolerate blueberries—or other fruits and vegetables—well because they contain a lot of fiber, says Dr. Horst.
“If you have Crohn’s disease, you may have a stricture—basically, a narrowing in your colon or your small bowel, and eating a lot of fiber can make you feel much worse, leading to abdominal pain or even an obstruction,” says Dr. Horst. “A lot of the time we recommend that patients do a little bit of a lower-fiber diet. And the problem is, a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables means a lot of fiber.”
Roman-Green concurs: “If you can’t tolerate blueberries raw, or you have a history of Crohn’s disease with strictures, then I would recommend adjusting the texture of the blueberries to make them better tolerated.” That can be done by blending or juicing the blueberries, which makes the fiber in the berry easier for your digestive system to tolerate and reduces the risk of blockages. Similarly, you may want to blend or juice your berries before eating if you have a history of any blockages or recently had surgery, she says.
And if blueberries just aren’t your jam, there are other ways to get beneficial antioxidants into your diet. Other antioxidant foods that are usually well-tolerated in people with Crohn’s include things like sweet potatoes, bananas, cooked or blended spinach, and even fresh herbs like cilantro and parsley.
The major takeaway? Blueberries have potential, but it’s too soon to know for sure about PSB compounds. They are rich in other inflammation-fighting antioxidants, though, so if you’re able to tolerate them, go for it! Everyone's gut is a little different, and when in doubt, it’s smart to seek the advice of your doctor or IBD-specializing nutritionist, Dr. Horst says. “Typically, we recommend you get a dietary consult with dietitian who can help you figure out how to eat these healthy foods in a way that will be beneficial for your symptoms,” she says.