Many people with inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, have used some form of alternative or complementary therapy. Side effects and ineffectiveness of conventional therapies may be among the reasons for seeking alternative care.
These therapies generally aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers can claim that their therapies are safe and effective, but don’t need to prove it. Because even natural herbs can have side effects and cause dangerous interactions, talk to your doctor before trying any alternative or complementary therapies.
Currently, no alternative therapies have good evidence supporting their use in treating ulcerative colitis, but some that may eventually prove beneficial include:
- Probiotics. Because bacteria in the intestine have been implicated in ulcerative colitis, researchers suspect that adding more of the beneficial bacteria (probiotics) that are normally found in the digestive tract might help combat the disease.
- Aloe vera. Aloe vera juice has been purported to have an anti-inflammatory effect for people with ulcerative colitis, but there’s no strong evidence to back this claim. In addition, when ingested, aloe vera can have a laxative effect.
- Acupuncture. Several studies have found acupuncture to be of benefit to people with ulcerative colitis. The procedure involves the insertion of fine needles into the skin, which may stimulate the release of the body’s natural painkillers.
- Tumeric. Curcumin, a compound found in the spice turmeric, has been combined with standard ulcerative colitis therapies, such as corticosteroids or sulfasalazine, in clinical trials. This combination helped improve symptoms and allowed smaller doses of the standard drugs to be used. This evidence comes from two small studies, however. More research is needed before this treatment can be recommended.
Sometimes you may feel helpless when facing ulcerative colitis. But changes in your diet and lifestyle may help control your symptoms and lengthen the time between flare-ups.
There’s no firm evidence that what you eat causes inflammatory bowel disease. But certain foods and beverages can aggravate your symptoms, especially during a flare-up in your condition. It’s a good idea to try eliminating from your diet anything that seems to make your signs and symptoms worse. Here are some suggestions that may help:
- Limit dairy products. If you suspect that you may be lactose intolerant, you may find that diarrhea, abdominal pain and gas improve when you limit or eliminate dairy products. You may be lactose intolerant — that is, your body can’t digest the milk sugar (lactose) in dairy foods. If so, try using an enzyme product, such as Lactaid, to help break down lactose. If you need help, a registered dietitian can help you design a healthy diet that’s low in lactose. Keep in mind that with limiting your dairy intake, you’ll need to find other sources of calcium, such as supplements.
- Experiment with fiber. For most people, high-fiber foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, are the foundation of a healthy diet. But if you have inflammatory bowel disease, fiber may make diarrhea, pain and gas worse. If raw fruits and vegetables bother you, try steaming, baking or stewing them. Check with your doctor before adding significant amounts of fiber to your diet.
- Avoid problem foods. Eliminate any other foods that seem to make your symptoms worse. These may include “gassy” foods, such as beans, cabbage and broccoli, raw fruit juices and fruits, popcorn, caffeine, and carbonated beverages.
- Eat small meals. You may find that you feel better eating five or six small meals rather than two or three larger ones.
- Drink plenty of liquids. Try to drink plenty of fluids daily. Water is best. Beverages that contain caffeine stimulate your intestines and can make diarrhea worse, while carbonated drinks frequently produce gas.
- Ask about multivitamins. Because ulcerative colitis can interfere with your ability to absorb nutrients and because your diet may be limited, vitamin and mineral supplements can play a key role in supplying missing nutrients. They don’t provide essential protein and calories, however, and shouldn’t be a substitute for meals.
- Talk to a dietitian. If you begin to lose weight or your diet has become very limited, talk to a registered dietitian.
Although stress doesn’t cause inflammatory bowel disease, it can make your signs and symptoms much worse and may trigger flare-ups. Stressful events can range from minor annoyances to a move, job loss or the death of a loved one.
When you’re stressed, your normal digestive process can change, causing your stomach to empty more slowly and secrete more acids. Stress can also speed or slow the passage of intestinal contents. It may also cause changes in intestinal tissue itself.
Although it’s not always possible to avoid stress, you can learn ways to help manage it. Some of these include:
- Exercise. Even mild exercise can help reduce stress, relieve depression and normalize bowel function. Talk to your doctor about an exercise plan that’s right for you.
- Biofeedback. This stress-reduction technique helps you reduce muscle tension and slow your heart rate with the help of a feedback machine. You’re then taught how to produce these changes yourself. The goal is to help you enter a relaxed state so that you can cope more easily with stress. Biofeedback is usually taught in hospitals and medical centers.
- Regular relaxation and breathing exercises. An effective way to cope with stress is to perform relaxation and breathing exercises. You can take classes in yoga and meditation or practice at home using books, CDs or DVDs.
- Hypnosis. Hypnosis may reduce abdominal pain and bloating. A trained professional can teach you how to enter a relaxed state.
- Other techniques. Set aside time every day for activities you find relaxing — listening to music, reading, playing computer games or just soaking in a warm bath.