Alternative Treatments to Improve Ulcerative Colitis Symptoms

There are many effective, FDA-approved medications for treating ulcerative colitis (UC), but none of them are perfect, so the search for other remedies - including herbal medicines, natural oils and helpful intestinal bacteria - is ongoing. Are these alternative treatments worth trying? Here's the scoop:

  • "Healthy" bacteria: Living in your digestive system are approximately 400 different types of "good" bacteria that assist in digestion and keep your GI tract healthy, according to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America. When levels of good bacteria diminish, unhealthy bacteria can thrive, causing diarrhea and other digestive problems, which may mean big trouble for people with UC. Probiotics - living microorganisms (bacteria or yeast) that are the same or similar to the good organisms already in your digestive tract - can help. They're available in pills, powders, liquids, wafers, and even some foods, like yogurt. According to the American Gastroenterological Association, studies suggest that probiotics may help decrease inflammation and delay flare-ups of UC. "I don't suggest probiotics to my patients because they can be expensive and there's no solid evidence that they work, but if patients come to me and say they would like to try probiotics in addition to their regular treatment, I tell them to go ahead," says Deborah Proctor, M.D., professor of medicine and medical director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program at Yale University. "In a few years, research may reveal whether probiotics really can help, and which ones are best to take for ulcerative colitis."
  • Natural oils: Omega-3 fatty acids in fish and certain plants like flax (in flaxseed oil) are known to have anti-inflammatory properties, and some researchers have recently tested whether those properties might help people with UC. Until more evidence is available, talk with your doctor before taking supplements of fish oils or other oils, since large doses of oils may interfere with the potency of certain medications. For most people, eating fatty fish and using vegetable oils (such as canola) that contain omega-3 fatty acids as part of a varied, well-rounded diet is safe and good practice under any circumstances, says Dr. Proctor (although there is not yet enough evidence to support their use for UC symptoms).
  • Herbal medicines: When brewed as teas, certain herbs, like chamomile and peppermint, have long been thought to have calming effects on the digestive tract. In some small studies, the age-old herb frankincense, used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine, has been found to have effects in UC patients similar to those of certain 5-ASA medications, but much more study is needed to confirm these findings. The bottom line? There is not yet enough evidence that any herbal medication can reduce symptoms of UC or other inflammatory bowel diseases. Also, because herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA, the quality of these products can vary dramatically. Consult your physician before trying any herbal preparation - and don't stop taking your prescribed medication in order to try an herbal remedy.

Reviewed by: Vikram Tarugu, M.D.

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