9 Natural Pain-relievers for Ulcerative Colitis

by Steve Calechman Health Writer

Ulcerative colitis (UC) in an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes long-term inflammation and open sores (the ulcers in the word “ulcerative”) within your digestive tract. It occurs when an overactive immune system attacks the lining of the large intestine. The uncomfortable results? Cramps, diarrhea, fatigue, and, sometimes, debilitating pain. There’s no cure for UC, but, in tandem with medications, people with this autoimmune disorder can learn to help manage their symptoms naturally with a few mental and lifestyle hacks—like the ones shared here.

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Get to the Bottom of Your UC

UC is the most common form of IBD, with more than 200,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. “IBD isn’t one disease but many,” says David Padua, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Group in Los Angeles. There are as many as 30 subtypes, with different causes—genetic, environmental, dietary, or some combination of all three. That means no two cases are exactly alike, he says. Devising a personalized treatment plan that works for you requires time and patience to learn what’s at the root of yours.

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Keep a Journal

Keeping a daily journal isn’t just for fun—it can help you identify potential UC triggers, Dr. Padua says. Write down the details of your entire day: what you ate, how you felt, your activities, stress levels, weather, medications, environmental factors—log it all. Perhaps you’ll notice you feel more pain when it rains—or when you spend a lot of time outside, or even when you’re stressing out to make an important work deadline. Share your findings with your doctor at your next appointment. Your doc may spot something you’re missing, says Dr. Padua, helping him or her provide more targeted care.

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Embrace Therapy

Any sort of emotional trauma that precedes a UC flare can leave a lasting imprint—and make you feel like you’re losing control of your disease, says Eva Szigethy, M.D, professor of psychiatry, medicine, and pediatrics and director of Total Care-IBD at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Emotional stress can worsen UC symptoms, so do your best to deal with it—with professional help, if necessary. The right therapist can help you focus on what’s controllable, devise coping skills, and create new habits, she explains. “Ultimately, we want to make the patient his or her own best UC manager.”

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Set a Daily or Weekly Goal

Goal-setting is a great way to distract yourself from the discomfort caused by UC. “You’re engaging the brain,” says Dr. Szigethy, and in the process also shifting any pain you might feel to the back of your mind. The doctor recommends any goal that involves physical activity: a daily walk or a 15-minute yoga flow are two great options. “You’ll feel good that you’re doing something to improve your health,” she says. Plus, exercise is a proven stress-reducer, which can help alleviate symptoms of UC, too. Make sure you regularly update your goals, she suggests, noting how the brain responds well to novelty.

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Use Your Imagination

UC is a disease that can make you feel cornered by its many, and sometime debilitating, symptoms, Dr. Szigethy says. So ask yourself: “If I didn’t have this pain and discomfort, how would my life be different?” Visualizing yourself winning in all sorts of ways—from accomplishing exercise goals to sleeping better to having enough energy to tackle that big household project you’ve long wanted to do, is another way to push pain into the background, encourage the possible, and take small steps toward success, she says.

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Switch Up Your Diet…

There’s no one magic thing to eat or avoid, but certain UC-unfriendly foods, like red meat, dairy, cheese, alcohol, and refined sugar can induce painful UC symptoms, including bloating, heartburn, and diarrhea. This is another important reason to keep a journal—you may spot food-related triggers once you record your every meal. If you do decide to restrict certain foods, Dr. Padua says, make sure you tell your doctor so he or she can ensure you’re not creating any nutritional deficiencies along the way.

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…and Be Proactive About Probiotics

You’ve probably heard about probiotics. They’re the living microorganisms that help keep the healthful bacteria flourishing in your digestive tract—home to the largest part of your immune system. Your favorite yogurt is loaded with probiotics (miso, tempeh, and sauerkraut are good sources, too). According to one 2019 study, more than half of those who regularly consumed probiotics saw improvements in their general quality of life and in specific UC symptoms, including more regular bowel movements.

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Deal With Iron Deficiencies, Too

UC’s painful, even gut-wrenching symptoms don’t always make it fun to eat. And, people with this chronic condition may lose blood in their stool, as well as absorb dietary iron poorly due to inflammation, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Additionally, foods rich in iron, like red meat, often trigger flareups. Together, this can cause anemia, a condition characterized by a low red blood cell count. It’s a common issue with the UC community—and must be controlled to battle fatigue. If you have UC and super-low energy, talk to your doctor about iron supplements. (Vitamin B12 may help, too.)

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Now, Adjust Your Energy Flow

Finally, don’t be afraid to explore new—or, in this case—very old things. Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice that uses very thin needles to pierce your skin on strategic parts of the body to adjust or rebalance energy flow (known as chi, pronounced chee), has been shown to both relax you and distract you from pain. And while more research is needed, some studies suggest this traditional Eastern medicinal approach can help ease the inflammation associated with ulcerative colitis. “It’s definitely worth trying,” Dr. Padua maintains, adding that the risk is minimal—and the rewards just might be significant.

Steve Calechman
Meet Our Writer
Steve Calechman

Steve Calechman is a long-time journalist. He’s written about everything from cooking pasta to desalination systems. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, EXOS and Harvard Health about a range of health and wellness topics, from stress reduction to mindset to building a relationship with your doctor. You can visit his website at stevecalechman.com.