Q & A: Herbal Treatment for Ulcerative Colitis

I have suffered from ulcerative colitis for seven years. I have been on medicines that have done little to ease the disease. The long-term prognosis includes possibly having my colon removed. My father has suggested I try some herbs and vitamins. I was hoping you might have some in mind.
–A. S., Gorham, Maine

Keville responds: I’ve seen herbs work miracles on curing ulcerative colitis, but be patient–you’ve had the condition for a long time. Colitis produces swelling and raw sores in the large intestine’s lining. The result is lots of pain, especially when food or gas passes by during the digestive process. A number of herbs reduce the inflammation, gas, and painful cramping, and generally improve digestion. Try drinking 1 cup of the following tea a few times a day. Combine 1 teaspoon each of marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), wild yam root (Dioscorea villosa), and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) with ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare) and lightly simmer in 1 quart of water for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and add 1 teaspoon each of chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita) and peppermint leaf (Mentha ¥piperita).

As with stomach ulcers, doctors no longer think colitis results solely from tension and stress, but it’s still a good idea to work on lessening these with sedative herbs, along with stress-reduction methods. Anti-inflammatory digestive herbs that also relax muscle constriction in the digestive tract include hops (Humulus lupulus), which also relieves insomnia, and St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), to deal with depression. Doing yoga is good–as long as it doesn’t cause pain–because it improves the function of the digestive system. Relieve any constipation by taking psyllium seed powder (Plantago spp.) along with a big glass of water. And speaking of water, make sure you drink several glasses a day. One of my favorite colitis cures isn’t actually herbal–it’s yogurt. I prefer goat yogurt, but any brand containing a living culture such as acidophilus will do. If you don’t eat dairy products, you can get acidophilus in pill form at a health-food store. Another kitchen remedy is cabbage, a traditional cure for ulcers that works equally as well in the intestine. Naturally fermented, uncanned sauerkraut is a good form of cabbage for colitis sufferers. If you’re not already on a healthy, whole-foods diet, now’s the time.

Rountree responds: Ulcerative colitis is a mysterious condition in which the large bowel becomes chronically inflamed, causing the symptoms of recurrent bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. Without treatment, these symptoms can lead to dehydration, anemia, weight loss and malnutrition. If the bowel stays inflamed for many years, there is an increased risk that it could become cancerous. One of the rationales for removing the colon is to prevent this from happening. Standard drug treatments such as steroids and sulfasalazine can be helpful for alleviating symptoms, but they don’t cure the disease, and they can be associated with significant side effects.

Instead of simply treating the symptoms, nutritional and herbal approaches are aimed at restoring overall bowel health. A comprehensive strategy is more likely to get results. This should include several steps: first, encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus; second, replenishing depleted nutrients; third, reducing inflammation; and fourth, identifying and eliminating dietary triggers. Many times hidden food allergies can perpetuate the problem. Refined sugar, dairy products, wheat, and other gluten-containing foods are common culprits, but this may just be the tip of the iceberg. The list of potential offenders can be quite long and identifying all of them may require some patient detective work. You might want to start with a simple elimination diet where you avoid these foods (and any others you suspect) for two or three weeks to find out whether it helps your symptoms.

One of the most important nutrients for you is folic acid or folate, which is found in brewer’s yeast and green leafy vegetables. Studies have shown that folate deficiency is very common in people with inflammatory bowel disease. Take 2 to 10 mg daily (this may seem like a large dose, but I can assure you it’s perfectly safe). It should be balanced with a good multivitamin or B complex containing at least 1,000 mcg of vitamin B12 and up to 50 mg of vitamin B6. Also increase your intake of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Flax oil is a good source, but cold-water fish such as salmon is even more potent. At least three published studies have found that supplementation with these oils can decrease inflammation and improve symptoms in people with ulcerative colitis.

There are also a number of botanical medicines with potent anti-inflammatory effects. Try sallai guggal (also known as Indian frankincense), the gum resin of the Boswellia serrata tree. A clinical study done in Jammu, India, compared the effects of this ancient Ayurvedic medicine to sulfasalazine in patients with moderate to advanced ulcerative colitis. After receiving a dose of 350 mg of the extract three times daily for six weeks, more than 80 percent of people went into remission, which was slightly better than the response to the drug.

Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association and the author of eleven herb and aromatherapy books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.

Robert Rountree, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Boulder, Colorado, where he practices integrative medicine. He is co-author of Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child (Avery, 1994) and Immunotics (Putnam, 2000) and is an Herb Research Foundation advisory board member.

The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.

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