Stephen and his family arrived at my office in 2007 exhausted. Exhausted from the rigors of conventional treatment without the satisfaction of improving symptoms. Stephen was a 32 year old man who had been battling ulcerative colitis for 5 years. He had tried a multitude of conventional treatments ranging from steroids to immune suppressant medications to no avail. The only option left was surgery on his colon, which was something he did not want to do. Unfortunately for Stephen, he still required to wear a maxi-pad daily to collect the constant dripping of blood from his anus and was experiencing sometimes up to ten urgent bowel movements every morning before he left for work. In addition, he couldn’t exercise, and if he tried he would develop a fever causing him to retire to his bed for multiple days to recover. This was not the life he or his family wanted to live, so they came to me for hope which I knew I could give them.
Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) located in the large intestine or colon. The symptoms of active UC are frequent and urgent diarrhea mixed with blood and abdominal pain. UC is associated with an increased risk of colon cancer particularly in patients with extensive colitis of long duration. Characteristically, UC involves ulcers or open sores located in the colon often seen via diagnostic imaging.
There are many theories regarding the specific cause of ulcerative colitis, although none have been proven. Most likely it is a variety of factors that work together to bring about the disease. These factors range from genetics, faulty immune system reactions, environmental influences, and diet. For example, some people are genetically at risk for ulcerative colitis (it runs in their family), and an infection or other toxin may cause an abnormal immune reaction which then causes ulcerative colitis.
One of the goals in treating patients with ulcerative colitis is to reduce inflammation. Naturopathic therapies complement conventional therapies in achieving this goal. Inflammatory compounds such as leukotrienes are greatly increased in the colonic mucosa, blood, and stool of patients with UC. Eliminating pro-inflammatory foods from the diet and uncovering any possible food intolerances are important in managing the chronic intestinal inflammation. Fish oil has also been shown to be important. A study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology showed that dietary changes along with fish oil supplementation had direct anti-inflammatory effects in UC patients.
Herbs have been used historically in the treatment of ulcerative colitis. In UC, a dramatic decrease in the mucus content of the mucus-producing goblet cells has been associated with an increase in the severity of the disease. Demulcent herbs such as slippery elm, marshmallow root, and deglycerinated licorice (DGL) can be used to soothe irritated mucus membranes and promote the secretion of mucus.
The intestinal microflora is another aspect of ulcerative colitis that requires attention. The concentrations of beneficial bacterial flora have been shown to be significantly reduced in patients with inflammatory bowel disease. A study published in the journal Gut in 2004 proved probiotics to be as beneficial as the gold standard medication mesalazine in maintaining remission in patients with ulcerative colitis. Furthermore, this demonstrated the pathogenic significance of intestinal microflora.
Whenever the intestines are inflamed you can guarantee that nutrients are not being absorbed optimally. Without proper nutrient assimilation how can the body heal?Replenishing lost nutrients due to this chronic inflammation is also a critical part of overcoming ulcerative colitis. Clinically, I find that until the gastrointestinal inflammation is better controlled utilizing high quality multiple vitamin and mineral supplements are required.
Like many who have been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel conditions, Stephen was also experiencing rashes that come and go, headaches, vertigo, asthma. anxiety, and extremely low energy. As the inflammation of the colon subsides and the nutrients are supplied for better absorption, I find that many of these additional symptoms reduce in severity.
For Stephen after just one month of using naturopathic therapies he noticed a difference in his symptoms. In seven months he was no longer using the maxi-pads and his bowel frequency and urgency normalized. Now it has been three years, and Stephen has not had one flare up since the first time I met him in 2007.
I have treated many patients like Stephen with ulcerative colitis. Each one was a unique case. I have not found any cookie cutter protocol for treatment. It is truly individualized. Unlike Stephen, who was not utilizing any conventional treatments at the time of his visit, many patients I work with are. Either way there are many naturopathic therapies to assist patients like Stephen to gain control of there life again and overcome ulcerative colitis.