Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: August 2023

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is characterized by chronic inflammation of the digestive tract and includes Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC). This inflammation can lead to a variety of symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, and fatigue. The most important parts of a treatment regimen for people with IBD are medications that directly treat the disease itself in order to reduce the symptoms it causes. These include aminosalicylates, immunomodulators, corticosteroids, antibiotics, and biologic therapies.

What are complementary and alternative therapies?

Some people with IBD may choose to supplement their medications with what are known as alternative or complementary therapies.1 Alternative medicine is a term that means any medicinal products or practices that are not part of mainstream medicine given by medical doctors and allied health professionals, such as nurses or physical therapists. Alternative medicine is also defined by its use as an alternate to traditional medical care. Complementary medicine is used in combination with traditional medicine. While some research has been done on complementary and alternative therapies and their use in people with IBD, there is still not enough research to determine the effectiveness of many of these approaches. It is very important that people who are considering complementary and alternative therapies to talk to their doctors first. To date, IBD medications are the only ones that have been proven to have an effect on the underlying inflammation caused by the disease.

Different types of alternative therapies work in a variety of ways. The overall goal of such therapies are generally to help reduce symptoms, alleviate pain, and improve quality of life for people with IBD. However, research has not yet demonstrated that they have any effect on the underlying disease itself. In addition, some of these therapies may even potentially interact badly with a patient’s IBD medications, so it is very important to work with a healthcare provider to figure out a safe and effective overall treatment plan.

What are some common forms of complementary and alternative medicine?

Some common forms of complementary and alternative medicine include:1

What are herbal supplements?

Herbal supplements are products made from plants that are thought to have beneficial effects.2 Most of the medicinal herbs used by people with IBD are believed by some to have anti-inflammatory effects. These include:

  • Slippery Elm
  • Marshmallow
  • Turmeric
  • Cat’s Claw
  • Boswelia

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a major part of traditional Chinese medicine that is often used to help relieve pain.3 During acupuncture, needles that are tiny and very thin are inserted into specific points on a patient’s body. Many people believe that acupuncture can help to:

  • Improve blood flow
  • Enhance the naturally occurring pain relievers produced by the body

What are probiotics and prebiotics?

Probiotics are types of “good” bacteria that live in human bodies, primarily in the digestive tract.4 Unlike harmful bacteria that can cause infections, probiotics have a symbiotic relationship with the human body, meaning they work with it to create an overall healthy environment by keeping the bad bacteria in check. Prebiotics are special types of non-digestible foods that help to fuel and feed probiotics. People can increase their levels of prebiotics and probiotics by consuming certain types of foods, or by taking oral supplements.

What are relaxation techniques?

There are many different forms of relaxation techniques.5 Some forms include meditation, yoga and massage. While stress does not cause IBD, lowering stress levels can be beneficial in improving a person’s overall health and quality of life.

What is fish oil?

Nutritional supplements are products intended to help replace a potential, or known, lack of certain dietary nutritional ingredients.6 Fish oil is a dietary supplement derived from fish. Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which is one of the essential fatty acids in the human diet. It can be consumed in certain types of foods, or in an oral supplement. Some people believe that fish oil may possibly have an effect on some types of inflammation.

What risks are associated with complementary and alternative therapies?

Due to the few research studies that have been conducted on complementary and alternative forms of therapy, the potential risks and side effects are not completely known with many of these approaches.1 Most forms are generally considered safe, with little to no negative side effects. However, it is important to speak with qualified healthcare provider before beginning any type of complementary and alternative therapy. Make sure they are aware of any other medications or supplements that you are currently taking to avoid potentially negative drug interactions.

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