by Dr. Axe
Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes long-lasting inflammation and ulcer symptoms, or sores in the digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis affects the innermost lining of the large intestine and rectum.
This inflammatory disease can be debilitating, and sometimes it can even lead to life-threatening complications. Ulcerative colitis may lead to a narrowed area of the intestines, making it harder to pass stool. It may also lead to swelling in the colon, intense diarrhea, joint pain, and scarring of the bile ducts and pancreas.
Ulcerative colitis most often begins gradually and can become worse over time. The symptoms of this inflammatory disease can be mild to severe, and most people have periods of remission, times when the symptoms disappear, which can last for weeks or years. While there is no known cure for ulcerative colitis, there are natural treatments that can greatly reduce signs and symptoms of the disease and result in long-term remission.
Symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis
Ulcerative colitis symptoms can vary, depending on the severity of inflammation and where it occurs; they typically develop over time. Most people experience mild to moderate symptoms, but the course of ulcerative colitis may vary and some people have long periods of remission. The symptoms depend on the location of the disease-causing inflammation. If you have ulcerative colitis, you may have the following signs and symptoms:
- Diarrhea, often with blood or pus
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Rectal pain
- Rectal bleeding
- Urgency to discharge stool
- Inability to discharge stool, despite the urgency
- Weight loss
- Fatigue or chronic fatigue syndrome
- Failure to grow (in children)
Living with ulcerative colitis can lead to some serious health conditions and complications. These occurrences include:
- Severe bleeding
- A hole in the colon
- Severe dehydration
- Liver disease
- Bone loss
- Inflammation of the skin, joints and eyes
- Sores in the lining of the mouth
- An increased risk of colon cancer
- A rapidly swelling colon
- An increased risk of blood clots in veins and arteries
Root Causes of Ulcerative Colitis
Diet and stress were always known to be the root causes of ulcerative colitis, but recently doctors have concluded that these factors may aggravate the inflammatory condition but do not cause it, according to the Mayo Clinic. One possible cause is an immune system malfunction. When the immune system tries to fight off an invading virus or bacterium, an abnormal immune response causes the immune system to attack the cells in the digestive tract.
Ulcerative colitis usually begins before the age of 30, but there are some cases when people did not develop the disease until after age 60. You are at a higher risk of developing ulcerative colitis if you have a close relative with the disease, such as a parent or sibling. Another major risk factor is a certain medication used to treat scarring cystic acne, called isotretinoin. In studies published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, a link between the development of ulcerative colitis and isotretinoin was established.
Stress can also cause a flare-up. It’s important to avoid stress, particularly chronic stress, by exercising, stretching, and practicing relaxation techniques and breathing exercises.
Natural Treatment for Ulcerative Colitis
Conventional ulcerative colitis treatment usually involves either drug therapy or surgery, and according to a review done at Harvard Medical School, anti-inflammaotry drugs are typically the first step in treatment. Two common anti-inflammatory medications that are prescribed for ulcerative colitis include aminosalicylates and corticosteroids. Although these medications can be effective in reducing symptoms of ulcerative colitis, they come with a number of side effects.
For instance, some aminosalicylates, including mesalamine, balsalazide and olsalazine, have been associated with kidney and pancreas problems. Corticosteroids, which are given to patients with moderate to severe symptoms, have numerous side effects, including a puffy face, excessive facial hair, night sweats, insomnia and hyperactivity. More serious side effects of this type of medication includes high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, bone fractures, cataracts, glaucoma and increased chance of infection. This is why these conventional medicines and treatments are not utilized for long periods of time.
Immunosuppressant drugs are also used to treat ulcerative colitis. These medications suppress the immune system response that starts the process of inflammation in the first place. According to a study published in Digestive Diseases, the standard treatment of ulcerative colitis is directed towards inducing and maintaining remission of symptoms and mucosal inflammation. The key factor that is used by doctors to access the most appropriate treatment is the severity and extent of inflammation. Some other conventional treatment medications include antibiotics, which are given when a patient has a fever, anti-diarrheal medications, pain relievers and iron supplements, which are needed by patients who experience chronic intestinal bleeding and may develop iron deficiency anemia. Of course, relying too much on antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, in addition to the other dangers of antibiotics.
In severe cases, surgery can eliminate ulcerative colitis, but it usually involves removing the entire colon and rectum. According to a scientific review published in Surgical Treatment, the underlying rationale for surgical treatment of ulcerative colitis is that the disease is confined to the colon and rectum, and therefore proctocolectomy (rectum and colon removal) is curative. In most cases, this involves a procedure called ileoanal anastomosis that eliminates the need to wear a bag to collect stool. In this case, a pouch is constructed at the end of the small intestine and then attached directly to the anus, allowing for the discharge of waste. In some cases, the surgeon is able to create a permanent opening in the abdomen so stool can pass through into a small bag that is attached.
To treat ulcerative colitis naturally, it’s important to understand that a healing diet is the foundation. Certain foods trigger an aggressive immune response and inflammation in the digestive tract, and these foods need to be pin-pointed and removed from your diet. Some problematic foods include dairy products, spicy foods and refined sugar. There are also beneficial foods that reduce inflammation and help with nutrient absorption, likeomega-3 foods and probiotic foods.
Exercise is also an important factor in treating ulcerative colitis, since the benefits of exercise are so wide-ranging. Moderate-intensity exercise reduces stress, which is a root cause of this inflammatory disease. Exercise (especially yoga and swimming) also stimulates digestion, boosts the immune system and aids relaxation.
Relaxation is a vital element in combating ulcerative colitis because it calms the body and allows it to digest food more easily. Medication, stretching and breathing practices can help improve circulation, regulate the digestive system, and keep the body out of fight or flight mode.
Foods that Make Ulcerative Colitis Worse
The foods that make ulcerative colitis worse typically depend on the person and the location of inflammation. For some people, fiber is bothersome during flare-ups becausehigh-fiber foods are harder to digest. Removing fibrous foods like nuts, seeds, whole grains, and raw fruits and vegetables from the diet is sometimes called a low-residue diet. Although this can help people with ulcerative colitis to ease pain, cramps and other symptoms, it does not get rid of inflammation.
If raw fruits and vegetables lead to discomfort, it may help to steam, bake or stew them. This makes foods in the cabbage family, such as nutrient-dense broccoli andcauliflower, easier to digest. Some other problematic products include spicy and fatty foods and caffeinated, carbonated drinks.
People with ulcerative colitis may have trouble with these foods and drinks:
- carbonated drinks
- dairy products (for people who are lactose intolerant or sensitive)
- raw fruits and vegetables
- dried beans, peas and legumes
- dried fruits
- foods that have sulfur or sulfate
- high-fiber foods
- nuts and crunchy nut butters
- products that have sorbitol (like sugar-free gum and candies)
- refined sugar
- spicy foods