Know Your Options: Alternative Treatments for Ulcerative Colitis

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Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a lifelong disease. And while several medications can ease symptoms, they may not work all the time for everyone. In addition, some have side effects.

So it's no wonder that an estimated 40 percent of people with UC turn to alternative therapies. These treatments aren't in the mainstream, and they're not backed by rigorous medical research. But therapies such as curcumin, probiotics, and an acupuncture-like treatment called moxibustion may offer relief for some.

As with any alternative treatment, talk with your doctor before trying these therapies for UC. He or she can make sure they're safe for you and don't cause harm when combined with other treatments you're using for your disease.

Curcumin

It gives the Indian spice turmeric its yellow hue. But curcumin does more than flavor curry dishes. Worldwide, it's also used to treat a wide range of medical conditions, from cancer to liver disease to the common cold. Curcumin's anti-inflammatory properties appear to soothe the intestinal distress that marks UC.

Though it's used in a wide range of foods—from rice dishes to yogurt to cakes—most people who use it for UC take it in capsule form. Studies are divided on its effectiveness for UC, but it does seem to help some people feel better. Curcumin is generally safe, even at high doses and even if taken alongside conventional medications such as steroids and aminosalicylates. However, it may slow blood clotting, so check with your doctor before using it.

Probiotics

You might not know it, but there's a whole ecosystem inside your digestive system. Hundreds of types of bacteria live in your stomach and intestines in a delicate balance, helping to preserve your health. Scientists suspect a disruption of these gut bacteria may contribute to UC.

That's where probiotics come in. These beneficial bugs are similar to bacteria found naturally in the body, so they may restore imbalances. You can take them as pills or powders, or in dairy products such as yogurt.

Probiotics show promise for reducing diarrhea and also treating pouchitis, an inflammatory condition that occurs after colitis surgery. Still, more evidence is needed before doctors recommend probiotics as a primary treatment for UC.

There are many different types of probiotics, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Though they rarely cause serious side effects, there have been concerns about the quality of some probiotic products. Investigations have found some formulas don't accurately contain the amounts and types of bacteria listed on the label. Check with your doctor about the strains and formulas that may be right for you.

Fish Oil

Thanks to the healthy omega-3 fats it contains, fish oil is famous for preventing heart disease and boosting brain health. These same anti-inflammatory effects have been purported to help with UC.

In fact, about 5 percent of people with the condition use fish oil supplements. However, studies on fish oil's benefits for UC have been conflicting. Some show it helps, while others show no effect at all.

Doses of 3 grams a day or less are generally safe for most people. That's the amount in about 10.5 ounces of fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, or tuna. However, fish oil, like curcumin, slows blood clotting.

Moxibustion

As part of the ancient Chinese therapy moxibustion, a therapist burns moxa—a cone or stick of dried mugwort or wormwood herb. Then, he or she applies it directly or indirectly to acupuncture points on your skin.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the practice is thought to help the body heal itself. But it has downsides. Applying moxa directly to the skin can cause scarring and blisters, while smoke from mugwort or wormwood may irritate your respiratory system.

There's currently promise—but no proof—that moxibustion could be effective in treating UC. The National Institutes of Health is exploring  the utility of moxibustion and acupuncture. So far, published research studies in laboratory animals confirm that moxibustion heals the lining of the colon and inhibits inflammation. 

Aloe Vera

You may have smeared it on your skin after getting a sunburn. But at least one small study suggests that swallowing gel made from this succulent plant soothes mild to moderate UC. When ingested, aloe gel may stop the body from secreting certain inflammatory compounds, thus reducing irritation in the intestines.

While topical aloe has few side effects, the same may not be true for taking aloe internally. It may cause cramps or diarrhea, and it's even been linked to intestinal cancer in animals. Given the thin evidence on its benefits, it's wise to proceed with caution.

Key Takeaways

  • About 40% of people with ulcerative colitis turn to alternative therapies.

  • These treatments aren't backed by rigorous medical research, but they may offer relief.

  • Commonly used alternative therapies for UC include curcumin, probiotics, fish oil, aloe vera, and an acupuncture-like treatment called moxibustion.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Apr 29

  1. Opheim R, et al.Complementary and alternative medicine in patients with inflammatory bowel disease: The results of a population-based inception cohort study (IBSEN). Journal of Crohn’s & Colitis. April 2012, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 345-53.

  2. Zhang C, et al. Considerations of Traditional Chinese Medicine as Adjunct Therapy in the Management of Ulcerative Colitis. Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology. June 6, 2012, epub ahead of print.;

  3. Curcumin for Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A Review of Human Studies. R.A. Taylor et al. Alternative Medicine Review. June 2011, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 152-6.

  4. Baliga M, et al. Curcumin, an active component of turmeric in the prevention and treatment of ulcerative colitis: preclinical and clinical observations. Food & Function. July 26, 2012, epub ahead of print.

  5. Ke F, et al. Herbal Medicine in the Treatment of Ulcerative Colitis. Saudi Journal of Gastroenterology. Jan-Feb 2012, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 3-10.

  6. Mercer M, et al. How Patients View Probiotics Findings From a Multicenter Study of Patients With Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. February 2012, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 138-44.

  7. Lee D, et al. Moxibustion for ulcerative colitis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Gastroenterology. April 7, 2010, vol. 10, no. 36.

  8. Cabre E, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory bowel diseases – a systematic review. British Journal of Nutrition. June 2012, vol. 107, sup. 2, pp. S240-S252.

  9. Veerappan G, et al. Probiotics for the Treatment of Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Current Gastroenterology Reports. August 2012, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 324-33.

  10. Rawsthorne P, et al. The Manitoba Inflammatory Bowel Disease Cohort Study: a prospective longitudinal evaluation of the use of complementary and alternative medicine services and products. Gut. April 2012, vol. 61, no. 4, pp. 521-7.

  11. Ulcerative Colitis, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, October 2011 http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/colitis/

  12. What I need to know about Irritable Bowel Syndrome, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Aug. 1, 2012 http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/ibs_ez/

  13. Aloe Vera, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, April 2012 http://nccam.nih.gov/health/aloevera

  14. Oral Probiotics: An Introduction, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, November 2011. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm

  15. What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine? National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, July 2011. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam

  16. Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, June 2010. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm

  17. Moxibustion, American Cancer Society, March 8, 2011. http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/ComplementaryandAlternativeMedicine/ManualH...

  18.  Fish oil. U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. July 23, 2012. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/993.html



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