Natural remedies can help ease the agony of ulcerative colitis.
From January, 2007
It all happened so quickly. Four years ago, a 32-year-old New Yorker we’ll call “Sandra” was suddenly overcome with fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. At first she thought she had caught an intestinal bug, but after a couple of days she got worse instead of better.
“The symptoms were severe,” she says. “I went to a couple of doctors and they didn’t really know what it was. Then I went to a gastroenterologist and had a colonoscopy and they determined that I had ulcerative colitis.” Affecting 50 out of every 100,000 Americans, ulcerative colitis (UC) mimics the symptoms of food poisoning or flu; the first sign that the illness is more serious is when patients find blood in their stool. At that point, tests are needed to rule out bacterial infections or cancer.
In UC small ulcers develop in the large intestine. They look as if someone had pulled a grass rake across the lining of the colon, causing inflammation, bleeding and runaway mucus production. (While the more serious Crohn’s disease can affect the entire thickness of both the small and large intestines, UC only affects the innermost lining of the colon.) Patients are frequently prescribed several medications—as many as 30 pills a day—to keep symptoms under control. Still, the medications often do not prevent acute attacks, which call for high-dosage steroids to be used for two to four weeks at a time.
“Those attacks are really frightening because you don’t know if you are getting worse,” says Sandra. For those with severe UC, like a friend of Sandra’s, sometimes the only answer is to completely remove the colon. Although most people with UC can be successfully treated without surgery, roughly 25% will need this procedure because of the risk of colon cancer.
While many doctors claim there is no cure for UC, most patients are able to keep their condition under control with medication and/or supplements. The holistic remedies can complement conventional care. Some naturopathic doctors (NDs) believe natural therapies can not only control symptoms but sometimes even heal the injured intestines. “While a patient might need short-term steroid usage to remedy a bad UC flare, most of the prescriptions given to patients mask the symptoms,” says Peter Bongiorno, ND, LAc. “I aim to get to the source of the problem and fix it.”
Alternative therapies can help to keep the colon’s good flora healthy, which also keeps inflammation to a minimum and maintains intestinal lubrication. Stress management is also important, as stress is a known trigger for UC symptoms. Bongiorno, who runs a New York-based practice, utilizes naturopathic medicine, dietary changes and acupuncture to help UC patients. “Some of the patients still take the prescription medicine while they work with me,” he says. “I make sure that there are no interactions and educate patients as to what lifestyle changes are necessary to heal their digestive tract.”
Because UC affects everyone differently, keeping a food diary after diagnosis can determine which foods cause a spike in symptoms. Some general guidelines include limiting dairy products and spicy foods, eating low-fat foods and foods high in fiber, eating small meals and drinking plenty of water. According to a study in the gastroenterology journal Gut, consumption of meat (particularly red and processed meat) and alcohol increased the likelihood of relapse. “And eating carbohydrates and high-sugar foods trigger UC attacks in some people, while vitamin C has been found to have a protective effect,” says Sarah Cimperman, who has been practicing naturopathic medicine for five years. Foods rich in vitamin C include red bell peppers, strawberries and spinach.
Some holistic remedies have been known to help and sometimes heal ulcerative colitis, but as Cimperman says, “It is important that UC patients utilize supplementation under the supervision of a MD or ND to avoid possible interaction with prescription UC medication.” Therapies include:
• Probiotics: Extra helpings of the friendly bacteria that normally reside in the gut have been found effective in managing UC by helping to control the number of potentially harmful bacteria, reduce inflammation and improve the colon’s protective lining.
• Omega-3 fatty acids: Some studies say that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil capsules, may reduce inflammation in people with UC.
• Aloe vera gel: Studies have found it to have an anti-inflammatory effect.
• Folate: Patients with UC have low levels of this B vitamin in their blood. Some experts suggest that this may be due in part to one of the frequently prescribed UC medications, sulfasalazine. Some researchers speculate that folate deficiencies contribute to the risk of colon cancer in individuals with UC.
• Psyllium seeds: May be as effective as drugs in decreasing UC symptoms.
• Boswellia: This herb from India contains an active ingredient that has been found to block chemical reactions involved in inflammation.
“Many of the patients who come to NDs have been suffering with UC for a number of years,” says Cimperman. “Many people find that even after suffering symptoms for five or 10 years, UC can be brought under control within three to six months as long as they are committed to taking supplements and effecting lifestyle and dietary changes. The key is to bring the body in balance and after that everything falls into place.”