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Ulcerative Colitis: Inflammatory Bowel Disease


An in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of Ulcerative Colitis.

Alternative Names

Inflammatory Bowel Disease; Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Dietary Considerations

Malnutrition is very common in ulcerative colitis (UC), although it tends to be more severe in Crohn's disease. Some experts recommend that children with IBD increase their calorie and protein intake by 150% of the daily recommended allowance for their specific ages and heights. Studies indicate that nutritional support in children is as important as medications for achieving remission. People whose weights are normal or no less than 90% of normal do not need to add extra calories.

Foods Important for Intestinal Protection

Fluids (Non-Caffeinated). Drinking plenty of water is extremely important. It not only benefits the intestine itself but also helps prevent kidney stones, which are common in IBD. Vegetable juice and sports drinks may be helpful for restoring important minerals.

Protein. Proteins are very important for growth in children and for repair of cells. Diarrhea can cause protein deficiency and so IBD patients may need more protein than the general population. Patients might consider using soy as one of their primary protein sources. One study reported that a soy protein diet was particularly useful for patients who were intolerant to milk products. Dried beans and legumes also provide protein.

Complex Carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables should make up half of a patient's calories. Fresh fruit (such as apples, grapefruit, oranges, plums, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries) might actually be specifically protective for IBD and may also reduce the risk for colon cancer.(Simple sugars can increase inflammation, however, so patients should avoid dried fruits and high-sugar fruits, such as grapes, pineapple, and watermelon.)

Foods made up of complex carbohydrates are also often a good source of fiber, which may help reduce damage in the intestinal tract caused by UC, and may even help protect against cancer.Oat bran is of specific interest. In the intestinal tract, this whole grain increases levels of a fatty acid called butyrate, which may help reduce GI symptoms due to ulcerative colitis. Note: high-fiber foods can cause gas, bloating, and pain, particularly in IBD patients. Commercial products (e.g., Beano) are available that can reduce gas. Eating small, frequent meals can also help.

Potassium-rich Foods. Potassium rich foods are helpful not just for protecting the intestine, but they also may reduce the risk for kidney stones. Such foods include bananas, oranges, pears, cantaloupes, tomatoes, dried peas and beans, nuts, potatoes, and avocados.

Fish Oil. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in oily fish, have been associated with protection against inflammation, including in the intestinal tract. Some studies have even reported lowered use of anti-inflammatory medications in people who consume fish oil. Such fatty acids are also available in supplements as docosahexaenoic (DHA) and eicosapentaneoic (EPA) acids. Standards for optimal amounts and forms of omega-3 fatty acids have not yet been established, however.

Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, found plentifully in oily fish and flaxseed and canola oils, are beneficial to people afflicted with IBD (inflammatory bowel disease).

Eliminating Foods That Might Produce Symptoms (Exclusion Diets)

According to a 2002 major analysis, the exclusion (also called the elimination) diet was the only dietary approach to be effective for patients with ulcerative colitis. Exclusion diets are those that eliminate certain allergenic foods or those that might irritate the intestine. To determine these foods, patients use a so-called elimination/challenge approach. First they remove all suspect foods from their diet for two weeks and then reintroduce one food every three days. Patients then watch for any symptoms that might indicate an allergic or irritant response, including gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and flushing.

Typical avoidance foods are as follows:

  • Saturated fats, found in animal and dairy products. People inflammatory bowel disease should limit fats. Some studies have found an association between high fat intake with later development of ulcerative colitis. While animal (saturated) fats have been most often suspected in IBD, one 2000 study reported an association with ulcerative colitis and a high intake of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (found in vegetable oils).
  • Milk products. Some people with IBD are lactose intolerant (unable to digest the sugar lactose, found in milk products). It should be noted, however, that milk, along with the calcium it contains, have been associated with a lower risk for colon cancer. Taking lactase tablets or specially prepared dairy products may help. (Many lactose-intolerant patients are still able to eat yogurt with active cultures, which could be helpful for IBD.)
  • Foods associated with inflammation (alcohol, simple sugars, and caffeine). Fruits may be protective, but patients should avoid dried fruits or high-sugar fruits, such as grapes, watermelon, or pineapple.
  • Products containing corn or gluten (those made from wheat, oats, barley, or triticale).
  • Common allergenic foods, such as soy, eggs, peanuts, tomatoes.
  • Foods that may irritate the intestine, particularly so-called Brassica vegetables (cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kale).
  • Some experts believe, however, that the elimination diet is very difficult to maintain and it is not clear if it prevents relapse.

Dietary Considerations for Reducing Kidney Stones

Kidney stones are painful and common complications in IBD, particularly in patients who have had intestinal surgery. IBD patients are at risk for the most common types of stones--those composed of either calcium oxalate or uric acid crystals. The following are some considerations in reducing the risk for stones:

  • The most important dietary recommendations for reducing the risk for kidney stones are increasing fluid and restricting sodium intake.
  • Limiting protein is recommended for reducing kidney stones. Of note, however, people with IBD with frequent diarrhea are protein deficient. Sufficient protein, particularly in children with IBD, is very important and should be weighed against any risk for stones.
  • Patients should increase intake of potassium-rich foods.
  • Patients should try to correct any dietary habits that cause acidic or alkaline imbalances in the urine that promote stone formation.
  • Many kidney stones are formed from calcium-oxalate stones. Patients should avoid or limit intake oxalate-rich foods, such as beets, beet tops, black tea, chenopodium, chocolate, cocoa, dried figs, ground pepper, lamb quarters, lime peel, nuts, parsley, poppy seeds, purslane, rhubarb, sorrel, spinach, and Swiss chard. A high calcium diet does not appear to increase the risk for kidney stones as long as it also contains plenty of fluids and dietary potassium and phosphate. Importantly calcium is associated with protection against colon cancer and osteoporosis--two conditions that are associated with IBD.
  • Patients who have stones associated with short-bowel syndrome should restrict their intake of fat as well oxalates. In such cases, calcium may bind to unabsorbed fat instead of to oxalates, which increase oxalate levels.

The general recommendations for avoiding kidney stones need to be tailored to the dietary requirements of IBD. Patients should work with their physicians to develop an individualized plan.

Probiotics and Prebiotics

Researchers are currently investigating a mix of bacteria (called probiotics), specific foods (called prebiotics) that are metabolized by these bacteria, and the compounds they produce (called synbiotics). Some evidence suggests that alone or in combination, they may have significant benefits in the intestine.

  • Probiotics are helpful bacterial strains that by themselves may provide a barrier against harmful bacteria, possibly through various mechanisms, such as by excreting certain acids (e.g., lactate, acetate) that inhibit harmful bacteria or competing with them for nutrients. Evidence is now suggesting that probiotics may help maintain remission in patients with IBD. They are also proving to be effective in UC patients with pouchitis--a common surgical complication. The most well-known probiotics are the lactobacilli strains, such as acidophilus, which is found in yogurt and other fermented milk products. Others, such as bifidobacteria and GG lactobacilli, however, may prove to be more important in IBD. Other probiotics include the lactobacilli rhamnosus, casel, plantarium, bulgaricus, and salivarius, and also Enterococcus faecium and Streptococcus thermophilus.
  • Prebiotics are specific non-digestible molecules called fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), which stimulate the growth of probiotics. FOS are found in many foods, including Jerusalem artichokes, onions, salsify, bananas, honey, garlic, and leeks. (It should be noted that some of these foods themselves can irritate the intestine in patients with IBD.) Some researchers that used a germinated barley preparation as a probiotic report reduced disease activity in ulcerative colitis patients.

Researchers are investigating probiotics, prebiotics, or both for intestinal protection, including benefits for patients with IBD. Foods and supplements containing these agents are available in the US and overseas. To date, however, no studies have determined any clear benefits on any specific agent or formulation. Further research is necessary. Medications based on probiotics (e.g., VSL-3) are also in development.

Vitamins and Other Supplements

Vitamins. Deficiencies of vitamins A, C, E, B12, and folate (a B vitamin) may result from malabsorption. In general, vitamin supplements may be recommended for everyone with IBD, particularly for children to avoid growth retardation. Vitamins A, C, and E are antioxidants, which are scavengers of damaging particles in the body. Folic acid supplements are particularly important for patients who must restrict fresh fruits and vegetables and for those taking sulfasalazine. Folate deficiencies may contribute to the increased risk for colon cancer in ulcerative colitis patients. Monthly injections of vitamin B-12 may be necessary. Vitamin D is necessary for bone protection. Because some vitamins, such as A and D, can be toxic in high doses, patients should discuss specific dosages with their physicians.

Mineral Supplements. Supplements of calcium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and iron may be needed to offset deficiencies in patients with severe IBD. Zinc is specifically important for gastrointestinal health. Calcium and magnesium are critical for health and strong bones. Selenium is a potent antioxidant. Iron supplements may be required for anemia. A physician should advise patients carefully on the correct dosages since minerals can be toxic in high levels.


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