The Patient Experience: Puberty and IBD

Whether you are a parent or not it’s heartbreaking to imagine how it would feel if you found out your child (no matter their age) was diagnosed with a chronic illness like inflammatory bowel disease. Of the more than six million people in the world diagnosed with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, approximately 25% of patients are diagnosed during childhood and adolescence, most of which are going through puberty. Impaired growth, pubertal delay, and low bone density are all common in children and teens with IBD. They can occur at diagnosis or at any time during a patient’s IBD journey.

As an IBD mom of three, who was not diagnosed until I was 21 years old, I personally don’t have the experience or perspective to share what it’s like to grow up with IBD or have a child diagnosed with it, so I tapped into several caregivers in our community, along with four leading pediatric gastroenterologists for input.

My hope is this article will serve as a helpful resource as you navigate the challenging waters of puberty with your loved one. Teen years are difficult enough without a chronic disease, taking a close look at how this impacts a young adult physically, emotionally, and mentally is something that deserves much more attention than a blog article.

Concerns from patients and caregivers

Before we get into the medical input, I want to share some of the messages I received this week from young patients and their caregivers so you can see firsthand how complicated this period of life is for everyone involved.

I’m 14 years old. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s when I was 12, which marked an influential time in my life. It can be hard to cope with being diagnosed and having a chronic illness at that age. That year leading to my Bar Mitzvah, a cultural rights of passage from boyhood to manhood, was really challenging for me. At a time when changes are going on and puberty takes its course, learning to trust your body and that it is working is key. Rather than trusting my body, I had a lot trust issues. If my body could turn itself to work against me in my GI system, what’s to say it wouldn’t turn on me other ways? I am especially worried about my reproductive system. Since I was a little boy, I always knew I wanted to be a father when I grew up. Having kids and being a family man has always been my highest purpose in life. Since my Crohn’s diagnosis, I’ve felt anxious and worried about whether my Crohn’s or my body will stop me from fulfilling that dream.”

“I often worry about whether my son’s hormones will put him into a flare and wonder what the best way to approach the school about his Crohn’s is.”

“My biggest puberty concern is delayed growth or slowed growth and flares. I’ve heard a lot about puberty hormones really causing issues. Is there truth to this?”

“Will my almost 15-year-old son start puberty once his treatment kicks in or will he always look like a 12-year-old child?”

“My 15-year-old lost more than 15 pounds in the last year, we’ve checked all kinds of things, but can’t figure it out. He’s on renflexis (generic Remicade) and his colonoscopy came back clean. He gets full easily and deals with chronic constipation. I hope his IBD doesn’t stunt his growth.”

“The anxiety of managing IBD while combining that with the developmentally normal anxieties of the adolescent years can result in mental health issues that are hard to pinpoint. Body image issues that are normal as their bodies change, mixing with body image and food-related issues associated with IBD (good foods and bad foods, overly focusing on diet, etc.) which can lead into worrisome territory like disordered eating and worse. As children separate from their parents more with each passing year (which is normal), it becomes harder to monitor IBD symptoms and disease progression as a parent. As someone who has always been in the driver’s seat about IBD, this is a scary shift and I worry some symptoms will go unnoticed and become exacerbated.”

“That puberty will stop growth—growth has been severely impacted by Crohn’s before diagnosis and it did—hitting puberty early meant growth stopped and she only reached 4’9”/4’10”. Her periods also add to existing fatigue levels.”

“I worry about medication not working like it used to due to so much change in the body. I also worry about how she may feel about her image comparing herself to others at that age with so many scars or if she ever needs to have an ostomy bag. I worry her IBD will affect her cycles or make them more painful.”

“That my son will go into a flare requiring heavy intervention that goes far beyond our comfort zone, but we’ll feel trapped so he’s able to grow at the right time.”

“My 13-year-old son was diagnosed with Crohn’s a little over a year ago. He is doing ok now and on Humira bi-weekly. I’m mostly concerned about his growth, as he is small for his age. He has gained about 20 pounds in the last year, but he was malnourished as COVID made it difficult to get his diagnosis. Hoping he stays on track and continues growing and that his growth potential isn’t adversely affected by his IBD.”

“As a kid who went through being on high dose steroids while going through puberty, bless my mother!”

“Delayed puberty is a big thing. Also, how, and when is it appropriate to start transitioning responsibly for ultimate transfer of care. Mental health is often a concern for adolescents (anxiety/depression).”

“Flares. Many parents report puberty as being a challenging time for IBD. Imagine all the normal teen/puberty hormonal issues and then add IBD (and I say this as a lucky parent with our teens). I think every parent that makes it out alive should get a very long vacation. The #1 thing I hear from parents of kids with IBD is: “my heart breaks every single day”. Whether in remission or not, the disease is a persistent and heavy burden on patients and families. With all the noise, it’s important not to lose sight of this fact.”

“I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 13 and it all happened very quickly. I was in eighth grade – my body changed almost immediately after being put on prednisone. Being an early developer, puberty was a challenge for me. I didn’t look like most other girls in my grade. So when I started getting really bad acne and a swollen (moon) face from the meds, it was the icing on the cake. I remember ninth grade consisted of me coming home from school and crying to my mom because I felt what was happening to me was unfair. I’d have to excuse myself during classes to use the bathroom, so everyone knew what was happening. I was mortified. And although I was an “early bloomer”, I can’t help but wonder if I would have grown a bit more if I hadn’t been diagnosed, put on prednisone off and on for the first 3 years, or started on biologic treatment. There’s always the questions and mystery of what IBD has potentially taken away from me. But living with IBD also resulted in me growing up pretty quickly. I was able to navigate the healthcare system by the time I graduated from high school. I learned to talk about my body and my health – things that I don’t believe my peers could articulate by that time. So it came with some benefits – or at least things that I have been able to turn into positives. My experiences have made me a stronger person. And I’m thankful for that.”

Impaired Growth: Why it happens and what to watch out for

According to Dr. Sabina Ali, MD, Associate Clinical Professor, Director of IBD program, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, the most common extraintestinal manifestation of IBD in children is impaired growth, particularly in Crohn’s disease and that’s also what she hears from patients and their families when it comes to their greatest concern.

“Growth is a dynamic marker of overall health in children and adolescents, which occurs in 10-30% of cases. Short stature and failure to grow can precede IBD symptoms. It is important to monitor nutrition and growth closely and as this can lead to delayed puberty. Make sure the child is routinely getting height, weight and BMI measured. Growth impairment is more common in males than females with Crohn’s disease. It’s important to get disease in remission.”

Dr. Ali went on to explain that growth issues are more frequently seen in children who have never been in remission or for those who have dealt with flare ups in the pre-pubertal period.

“Pubertal delay may potentially decrease bone mineralization and affect quality of life in children who realize that their sexual maturation is different from their peers.”

Dr. Jonathan D. Moses, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Director, Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program, UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, agrees that remission is essential as a first step to ensure normal bone growth and pubertal development. Most of the time the concerns we hear about puberty and IBD is at the initial diagnosis when parents will note that young women have not started their menstrual cycle yet at the expected age or young men have not started their “growth spurt” yet.

“Growth is a key element of children diagnosed prior to puberty. Our goal is to provide the therapy that will allow them to be in continuous remission and achieve their final adult height and avoid any pubertal delays. If there are any concerns with this, we typically place a referral to the pediatric endocrinologist to help co-manage this.”

According to this University of California San Francisco study, boys are three times more likely than girls to deal with one of the conditions most devastating effects: the failure to grow normally. Researchers were surprised by this finding because the study also found girls had a more severe disease course than boys.

Dr. Ali says that a novel finding is that a high proportion of patients with ulcerative colitis exhibited continued growth, suggesting delayed skeletal maturation is also frequent in ulcerative colitis, contrary to common assumptions. For patients exhibiting continued growth, median final adult height was greater in males with ulcerative colitis than males with Crohn’s disease but did not differ significantly in females with ulcerative colitis, compared with females with Crohn’s disease. This finding supports the growing body of literature that statural growth impairment is more common in males than females with Crohn’s disease.”

Dr. Hilary Michel, MD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, explains the importance of monitoring pediatric GI patients’ weight, height, and pubertal development over time. She says measuring weight and height and asking about pubertal development helps make sure each patient is tracking along their growth curves and developing at an appropriate rate.

“In addition to monitoring IBD symptoms and checking labs, stool tests, and scopes, monitoring growth and pubertal development is another way to make sure we are treating IBD inflammation completely. If a patient is not going through normal stages of puberty, or is going through puberty more slowly than expected, it’s a hint that we should check on their IBD disease control! And if their disease is in control, then we need to think of other causes for delayed puberty and get them in to see the right experts to help.”

Dr. Sandra Kim, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Director, Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, says along with monitoring growth and nutritional status, it’s important to keep a close eye on emotional state and quality of life.

“It’s important children understand their disease, and for families and the care team to understand where the child is not only medically, but psychologically and developmentally. As a pediatric gastroenterologist, who focuses on the care of children and teens living with IBD, I know I have a unique relationship and responsibility as I watch “my kids” grow up.”

Dr. Kim says, “We see growth impairment in children and teens with Crohn’s much more so than with ulcerative colitis, especially with extensive involvement of the small intestine. Active inflammation in the small intestine can impact an individual’s ability to absorb nutrients. IBD also impacts appetite and can lead to inadequate nutrition.”

According to Dr. Kim, studies have shown up to 80% of children (males>females) have some degree of both weight and growth impairment when their Crohn’s is not controlled. While studies do vary in the range affected, it’s clearly a significant issue.

Medication and the pubescent years

In general all pediatric gastroenterologists try to limit and shorten the exposure of steroids in children.

Dr. Ali says, “Recent inception cohort studies in pediatric IBD have highlighted baseline phenotyping of patients to predict the severity of their disease course and help identify who will benefit the most from early biologic treatment. Biologic therapies have improved outcomes in pediatric IBD, including achieving mucosal healing as well as improved growth and pubertal development.”

Prior to this, the goals of treatment in Crohn’s disease were focused on controlling symptoms, enhancing quality of life, minimizing complications to prevent surgery, and restoring growth in pediatric patients. Evidence has shown that mucosal healing is associated with sustained corticosteroid-free clinical remission, reduced hospitalization, and lower surgery rates. According to Dr. Ali, biologics are the most effective in inducing and maintaining mucosal healing in this patient population.

Dr. Moses explains how biologics are decided upon with young patients.

“The age of the patient, in the context of the biologic era, does not seem to play a significant role at our center. If a child, regardless of age, needs a biologic medication, then we will typically proceed with this after shared decision making with the family. As a rule, for all ages, we work very hard to limit steroid exposure, both by planning out their maintenance therapy right away or using exclusive enteral nutrition (EEN) to induce remission in our patient with Crohn’s disease.”

Dr. Michel says it’s important to get IBD under control quickly since the window to achieve the goal of remission is so small.

“Because of this, growth and pubertal delay can be reasons to start a biologic as first line treatment. If steroids are used, they should be short-term (induction therapy only) to prevent negative impacts on growth and bone health. These patients may also be great candidates for exclusive enteral nutrition to treat their IBD, as it can help heal inflammation and address malnutrition without the side effects of steroids. Involving an experienced dietitian is key!”

While research has shown that disease activity may fluctuate with hormonal shifts (like those that happen with puberty, pregnancy, and even menopause), Dr. Michel says she is not aware of any specific data to connect loss of response to therapy because of puberty.

Puberty gets delayed

For pediatric patients in whom remission has never been achieved or for those who have frequent relapses, puberty is often delayed.

The endocrine-hormonal mechanisms responsible for pubertal delay associated with inflammatory disease are incompletely understood. It is thought to be due to effect by both nutrition and inflammation,” said Dr. Ali.

Delayed puberty or delayed linear growth can be presenting signs of IBD to help clinicians make the diagnosis.

“Once these pre-teens achieve remission, they will begin to progress through puberty again and have improvement in their bone density, if it was low at baseline,” says Dr. Moses.

Dr Michel says, “The best way to ensure normal growth, weight gain, and pubertal development is to make sure their mucosa is healed. It’s also important we address low weight or malnutrition. If we’ve confirmed that IBD inflammation is resolved (through labs, stool tests like calprotectin, and scopes), and that patients are getting the nutrition they need, and we’re still seeing delayed puberty or slow growth or weight gain, this may prompt a referral to an endocrinologist, adolescent medicine doctor, or gynecologist to look for other causes of these problems.”

By adequately treating IBD and achieving mucosal healing, kids have the best chance to grow and develop normally and have healthy bones.

“Inflammation affects hormones important in growth and pubertal development, and delayed pubertal development is closely tied with poor bone health,” explained Dr. Michel. “Active inflammation can also worsen malnutrition and lead to low weight, which can delay puberty. These variables are often closely related; for example, a patient with active IBD may not feel well enough to eat regularly and lose weight or be malnourished. Or they may eat well but not be able to absorb the nutrients from their food. Or they may lose nutrients through stool or vomiting. So, treating inflammation and treating malnutrition are KEY to optimizing outcomes for kids and teens with IBD.”

Causes for the delay in puberty and decreased bone density can be multifactorial.

“Things we consider include nutritional deficiencies (not absorbing enough and/or not getting enough into your body), and the impact of inflammation (though pro-inflammatory cytokines – the “chemicals” produced by activated white blood cells – on sex hormone production, as well as growth hormone),” said Dr. Kim. “Other factors that can specifically impact bone density – decreased physical activity which leads to decreased muscle mass.”

When determining a course of therapy, a child’s quality of life and the impact of active IBD must be taken into consideration.

Dr. Kim explains, “Steroids have a great deal of side effects: external appearance (“moon” facies), psychological (can exacerbate underlying anxiety and depression; can impact sleep), bone health (decrease bone density and increasing risk of fractures), impact on wound healing, increased risk if long term on the GI tract (i.e. perforation), increased blood sugar (hyperglycemia), high blood pressure.”

What’s the deal with birth control and IBD?

Each pediatric gastroenterologist featured in this piece says they have heard from both patients and parents about oral contraceptives aggravating IBD. Dr. Ali says oral contraceptives are consistently linked to an increased risk of IBD.

Dr. Michel says since menstruating is a normal part of development for female patients, active inflammation, low weight, and malnutrition, can all play a role in delaying the onset of it. If a patient is flaring, they might have irregular periods or stop getting their period for some time. Once the problem is addressed—inflammation controlled, normal weight achieved, and malnutrition treated, menses typically resumes. IBD symptoms can also be exacerbated during menses for some women.

When it comes to choosing to go on birth control, and what birth control to choose, Dr. Michel advises patients and parents to be clear about their goals and weigh the risks and benefits.

“Goals for starting birth control can include regulating heavy periods or bad cramps, preventing pregnancy, improving premenstrual symptoms (mood, headache, fatigue), or even managing acne. There are some data about birth control pills increasing the risk of developing IBD, but research is conflicting about whether they increase the risk of flare. I would encourage any patient who is interested in starting birth control to talk with her gastroenterologist about what options might be best for her. An adolescent medicine doctor or gynecologist can also be extremely helpful to have these conversations, weigh pros and cons, and help young women and their families make informed decisions.”

Dr. Kim is no stranger to hearing concerns about the impact of oral contraceptives. She says it’s tough to determine whether birth control specifically aggravates disease.

“Women who have increased diarrhea and cramping around their cycles may have improvement in these symptoms when on birth control. Currently, there is not enough data to suggest birth control directly leads to aggravation of underlying IBD. However, there are other issues to consider when a young woman chooses the type of birth control. There is increased risk of venous thromboembolism (increased risk of forming blood clots) in individuals with IBD. There also is an increased risk for clots associated with combination oral contraceptives whether a young woman has IBD or not. Therefore, a woman who has IBD and goes on oral contraceptives not only has a higher risk of forming significant blood clots, but with more significant consequences from this.”

Dr. Kim’s recommendation? Avoid oral contraceptives with an estrogen component, if possible. Depo-Provera is an alternative, but you need to be aware that it can impact bone density. She says IUDs are safe and highly effective

How best to support young patients

  • Support groups: Discuss concerns regarding how a patient is coping with the IBD team. A social worker or psychologist on the IBD team can be a great resource.
  • Psychosocial assessments
  • Care coordination
  • Supportive counseling
  • Connection to resources

“As a pediatric gastroenterologist, my contribution is to manage their therapy as best I can to achieve remission. After that, we rely on our multidisciplinary team to address the psychosocial aspect of the disease and how this affects them at this stage in life,” said Dr. Moses. “Finally, we encourage the families to get involved with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and attend Camp Oasis, if possible, to meet other children their age who also have IBD. This builds up their social support network in a way that can be life changing for them.”

Dr. Michel says,I try to normalize their feelings, and reassure them that with effective treatment and achieving remission, we are working toward them reaching their full potential. I also think it’s a great time to involve experts like psychologists and child life specialists to help work through these concerns. Parents will often also ask about future fertility (kids and teens usually aren’t thinking of this yet)! It’s always a huge relief for families to learn that we expect normal fertility for our young folks with IBD and that the best way to ensure this is to get good control of disease.”

She advises parents to acknowledge how challenging it can be to go through puberty with IBD.

“Any feelings they’re feeling – frustration, anger, sadness – are ok. Then, I would encourage parents and patients to share these emotional and physical struggles with their healthcare team. Many centers have fantastic psychologists, social workers, and child life specialists that can help young people understand their disease, explore their emotions, and develop healthy coping skills that will serve them now and into adulthood. There are also fantastic resources online through ImproveCareNow and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation,” said Dr. Michel.

Dr. Kim advises parents and patients not to be afraid to ask pediatric gastroenterologists and their healthcare team for help.

“I really believe it takes a collective effort to support our children and teens. We are living in an unprecedented time with the COVID 19 pandemic (which has led to social isolation and new stressors with school, peers, and family dynamics),” she said. “Seeking our behavioral health resources (psychology, psychiatry, counseling, social work) is NEVER a sign of weakness – quite the opposite. One thing I would love to see: elimination of any perceived stigma when addressing issues around mental health. It is so crucial to address stress, anxiety, and depression. Besides the obvious impact on quality of life, we know that anxiety and depression can negatively impact an individual’s IBD itself. For the parents out there, I tell them they must check their own guilt at the door. The parents did NOT do anything to cause their child to develop IBD. I always say that you can be mad at the disease but never at themselves.”

Connect with these physicians on Twitter:

Dr. Sabina Ali: @sabpeds

Dr. Hilary Michel: @hilarymichel

Dr. Jonathan Moses: @JonathanMoses77

Dr. Sandra Kim: @SCKimCHP

Let this piece serve as a conversation starter as you discuss your child’s health with their care team. Ask the questions. Get empowered by learning and educating yourself more. As chronic illness patients and parents, it’s a constant learning curve—with each setback and triumph we gain newfound understanding and perspective. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s with guidance regarding making the transition from pediatrics to adult doctors.

Helpful Resources

Learn about the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Camp Oasis

Continued Statural Growth in Older Adolescents and Young Adults with Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis Beyond the Time of Expected Growth Plate Closure

Oral Contraceptive Use and Risk of Ulcerative Colitis Progression: A Nationwide Study

Growth, puberty, and bone health in children and adolescents with inflammatory bowel disease | BMC Pediatrics | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)

How IBD Affects Growth in Kids and Teens (verywellhealth.com)

Pediatric Crohn Disease: Practice Essentials, Background, Pathophysiology (medscape.com)

Contraception, Venous Thromboembolism, and Inflammatory Bowel Disease: What Clinicians (and Patients) Should Know

Growth Delay in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases: Significance, Causes, and Management

Circle of Care: A Guidebook for Caregivers of Children and Adolescents Managing Crohn’s Disease

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