The Real Deal With UC Supplements

by Megan McMorris Health Writer

We get it: When you have ulcerative colitis, you’re eager—OK, desperate!—to find a way to ease the pain associated with an inflamed colon. The good news: There are more possibilities than ever to help you reduce UC flares. “About 50 percent of UC patients take natural supplements, some of which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties,” says Andrew Dupont, M.D., associate professor of gastroenterology at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

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Taking natural supplements helps patients feel more control over their disease, says Dr. Dupont, since it’s something they can initiate on their own. In response to a rising interest, the supplements industry has grown leaps and bounds in the past several years to accommodate. Of course, therein lies the question: Faced with so many options, how do you know what might work, versus what’s total hype? Is there any science backing claims that natural supplements can make a difference with UC? Here’s what the medical experts told us.

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First, Talk With Your Doctor

Natural therapies may sound harmless, but get a pro opinion before you try anything, advises Dr. Dupont. “The most important thing is to go over anything you’re thinking of taking with your doctor,” he says. “Many of them do have benefits and are safe, but some may have interactions with medications.” Now is not the time to drop-kick your prescription, either. “Complementary medicine should be used in conjunction with, not as a replacement for, conventional medicine,” he adds. If you're curious about trying supplements, here are few worth looking into.

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Try a Little Turmeric

The main ingredient in turmeric (the spice that gives curry its flavor) is called curcumin, and it has earned superstar status for helping reduce UC inflammation, according to some studies. But that’s not all this mighty spice does, says Niket Sonpal, M.D., gastroenterologist at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York. Turmeric has also been known to boost the bioavailability of certain UC medications. In you-and-me language, that’s code for helping your UC treatments work more effectively.

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Does Wheatgrass Work?

You can’t hit up a juice bar these days without seeing wheatgrass on display, front and center. Why is it so popular? Well for one, it contains a potent mix of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, making it ideal for someone with UC. In one small study, drinking just half-a-cup of wheatgrass juice daily for one month reduced symptoms of ulcerative colitis by 30% in patients. The magic ingredient might be chlorophyll, which is a plant pigment that diminishes inflammation.

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Probiotics Are Your Gut’s Best Bud

Supplements with anti-inflammatory properties can help to calm your colon down, while other supplements focus on easing UC discomfort by introducing “good” bacteria into your belly, potentially overriding bad bacteria that trigger flares. Meet your new bestie: Probiotics. “When people have UC, their gut flora is changed significantly,” says Dr. Sonpal. “By supplementing with foods containing probiotics, it helps you improve your overall gut health.” Which foods have the goods? Try kimchi, kafir, yogurt, and kombucha to start.

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And in the Other Corner: Prebiotics!

If probiotics are getting all the attention right now, prebiotics are waiting in the wing for their 15 minutes of fame. Think of prebiotics as the behind-the-scenes supporters. They work by providing the building blocks for probiotics to grow and do their thing. As for where you’ll find them, start with fresh fruits and vegetables, including onions, garlic, bananas, and artichokes.

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Eat More Fish

While there is no single “UC Diet” per se, research does suggest certain ways of eating are less likely to aggravate UC symptoms than others. The Mediterranean diet—rich in fish, fresh produce, and olive oil—helps keep symptoms at bay. One reason: The omega-3 fatty acids in fish help lower inflammation in your body. “We always encourage our patients to have at least two to three servings of fish a week,” says Gabriela Gardner, R.D., a dietician in gastroenterology & hepatology at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston.

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Explore Aloe Vera

In one study, consuming 100 mL of aloe vera gel twice daily for four weeks improved symptoms of UC in 30% of patients. You can add slices to salads or blend into smoothies (make sure it’s food-grade, not cosmetic aloe vera, which is not meant for eating!) Also, go easy on aloe vera juice, which can sometimes cause diarrhea. Supplements may be a better route. Don’t give up if results aren't evident immediately, as it can sometimes take a month if not longer to see benefits, says Dr. Sonpal.

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No Harm, No Foul

In the end, you don’t really have to stress about causing any harm if you try out a natural remedy to soothe your symptoms, says Dr. Sonpal. They may not provide the miracle relief you were looking for, but it’s unlikely that any will do more damage. “As long as you communicate with your doctor and you work together to explore your natural remedy options, I encourage people to try them,” he adds. “There’s a certain degree of benefits and very little risk.”

  • Turmeric and UC: Cochrane Database System Review. (2012). “Curcumin for maintenance of remission in ulcerative colitis.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4001731/

  • UC and Turmeric: Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. (2006). “Curcumin maintenance therapy for ulcerative colitis: randomized, multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17101300/

  • Wheatgrass and Antioxidant: Phytotherapy Research. (2006). “Evaluation of the antioxidant activity of wheatgrass (Triticum aestivum L.) as a function of growth under different condi-tions.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16521113/

  • Wheatgrass and UC: Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology. (2002). “Wheat grass juice in the treatment of active distal ulcerative colitis: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled tri-al.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11989836/

  • Probiotics and UC: Best Practice & Research Clinical Gastroenterology. (2016). “Probiotics and prebiotics in ulcerative colitis.” sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1521691816000093?via%3Dihub

  • Aloe Vera and UC: Ailment Pharmacological Therapy. (2004). “Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of oral aloe vera gel for active ulcerative colitis.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15043514/

Meet Our Writer
Megan McMorris