Ulcerative colitis is a disease of the colon that is closely related to Crohn's disease. The two are grouped in a category called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), because they both involve inflammation of the digestive tract.
The major symptoms of ulcerative colitis include abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. When the disease becomes severe, individuals may develop fever, weight loss, dehydration, and anemia. Sometimes, constipation develops instead of diarrhea. Arthritis, skin sores, and liver inflammation may occur as well.
One of the most feared consequences of ulcerative colitis is dramatic dilation of the colon, which can lead to fatal perforation of the colon. Ulcerative colitis also leads to a greatly increased risk of colon cancer.
Ulcerative colitis tends to wax and wane, with periods of remission punctuated by severe flare-ups. Medical treatment aims at reducing symptoms and inducing and maintaining remission.
Sulfasalazine is one of the most common medications for ulcerative colitis. Given either orally or as an enema, it can both decrease symptoms and prevent recurrences. Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, are used similarly in more severe cases, sometimes combined with other immunosuppressive drugs, such as azathioprine and cyclosporine. Partial removal of the colon may be necessary in severe cases.
People with ulcerative colitis can easily develop deficiencies in numerous nutrients. Chronic bleeding leads to iron deficiency. Malabsorption, decreased appetite, drug side effects, and increased nutrient loss through the stool may lead to mild or profound deficiencies of protein, vitamins A, B12, C, D, E, and K, folate, calcium, copper, magnesium, selenium, and zinc.1-10 If you have ulcerative colitis, supplementation to restore adequate body stores of these nutrients is highly advisable and may improve specific symptoms as well as overall health. We recommend working closely with your physician to identify any nutrient deficiencies and evaluate the success of supplementation in correcting them.
Fish oil and evening primrose oil contain healthy fats called essential fatty acids. According to some, though not all, of the small, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials reported, fish oil might be helpful for reducing symptoms of active ulcerative colitis.11-15 Evening primrose oil has also shown promise.18 However, larger studies will be necessary to discover for certain whether fish oil or evening primrose oil really help.
Regular use of fish oil alone, or in combination with gamma-linolenic acid (found in evening primrose oil), has not been found effective for preventing disease flare-ups in people whose ulcerative colitis has gone into remission.16,17,35
Friendly bacteria, or probiotics, might be helpful in ulcerative colitis.
A double-blind trial of 116 people with ulcerative colitis compared probiotic treatment against a relatively low dose of the standard drug mesalazine.19 The results suggest that probiotic treatment might be equally effective as low-dose mesalazine for controlling symptoms and maintaining remission. Evidence of benefit was seen in other trials, as well.20,40,45,47 For example, a 2011 review of 4 randomized trials with a total of 587 patients seemed to support the use of probiotics to reduce the relapse rates in people with ulcerative colitis.49 The authors, though, pointed out the need for better designed trials.
Probiotics may be less useful for inducing remission; when they were added to standard medications used for induction of remission, no additional benefits were seen in a study of people with mild-to-moderate ulcerative colitis.45
Probiotics might be useful for people with ulcerative colitis who have had part or all of the colon removed. Such individuals frequently develop a complication called "pouchitis," inflammation of part of the remaining intestine. Two double-blind, placebo-controlled studies found that probiotics can help prevent pouchitis and also reduce relapses in people who already have it.21,38 The probiotic mixture used in these trials contained four strains of Lactobacillus, three strains of Bifidobacterium, and one strain of Streptococcus salivarius.
In addition, some evidence hints that probiotics might reduce the joint pain that commonly occurs in people with inflammatory bowel disease.41
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the Probiotics article.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 44 people hospitalized with severe active ulcerative colitis were given oral aloe gel or placebo twice daily for 4 weeks.39 The results showed that aloe was more effective than placebo in inducing full or partial remission of symptoms.
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full Aloe article.
Researchers have recently become interested in the use of phosphadylcholine as a supportive treatment in severe ulcerative colitis. There may be an insufficient quantity of phosphatidylcholine in the mucus lining the colon in patients with ulcerative colitis. Taking phosphatidylcholine may correct this deficiency. A small double-blind, placebo controlled study of 60 patients whose ulcerative colitis was poorly responsive to corticosteroids were randomized to receive either phosphadylcholine (2 g per day) or placebo for 12 weeks.31 Half of the participants taking phosphadylcholine showed a significant improvement in symptoms versus only 10% taking placebo. Moreover, 80% taking phosphadylcholine were able to completely discontinue their corticosteroids without disease flare-up compared to 10% taking placebo.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 24 people with ulcerative colitis examined the effects of wheat grass juice taken at a dose of 100 cc daily for one month.36 According to various measures of disease severity, participants given wheat grass juice improved to a greater extent than those given placebo. However, wheat grass juice is rather bitter, and it seems unlikely that the study could truly be blind, meaning that participants and doctors didn’t know who was getting the wheat grass juice and who was getting the placebo. Indeed, when researchers polled the participants, a majority of those given wheat grass juice correctly identified it. For this reason, as well as its small size, the results of the study are not convincing.
The substance curcumin (from the spice turmeric) has shown some promise for helping to maintain remission. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 89 people with quiescent ulcerative colitis were given either placebo or curcumin (one gram twice daily) along with standard treatment.43 Over the 6-month treatment period, relapse rate was significantly lower in the treatment group as compared to the placebo group.
Glutamine,22-25 boswellia,26 bromelain,27 blue-green algae,28 colostrum,37 and mesoglycan (glycosaminoglycans), and an an extract of soy called Bowman-Birk inhibitor concentrate (BBI)44 have been suggested for the treatment of ulcerative colitis, but the evidence that they work remains preliminary at best.
Researchers have also studied the herb andrographis as a potential treatment for ulcerative colitis. In one trial, 120 people with ulcerative colitis were randomized to andrographis extract (400 mg, 3 times daily) or the medication mesalazine (1,500 mg, 3 times daily).48 After 8 weeks of treatment, the two groups had similar results.
In a randomized trial of 224 patients with ulcerative colitis, patients were randomized to 1,200 mg or 1,800 mg of andrographis a day, divided into three doses, compared to placebo. Significantly more patients taking the higher dose showed a clinical response, but not a clinical remission, compared to patients taking the placebo. Patients on the lower dose of andrographis showed no significant benefit.50
Various herbs and supplements may interact adversely with drugs used to treat ulcerative colitis. For more information on this potential risk, see the individual drug article in the Drug Interactions section of this database.
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Last reviewed August 2013 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Last Updated: 8/22/2013