Foods That Heal Colon Inflammation and Keep Your Gut in Check - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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Foods That Heal Colon Inflammation and Keep Your Gut in Check

Using Food (and Probiotics) to Soothe Your Symptoms

Key Takeaways

  • While veggies, fruits, lean meats, and healthy fats can help reduce colon inflammation, it’s your diet in its entirety that’s important for restoring good colon health, rather than specific foods.
  • Nutrition therapy, specifically the Paleo diet, low FODMAP diet, autoimmune protocol, and elemental diet, is effective for healing colon inflammation.
  • The large intestine is less prone to problems than the small intestine, but it’s an area where bacterial and fungal overgrowth, infection, and inflammation can occur.
  • IBS and IBD are two inflammatory conditions that can affect the colon, but you can also have low-grade colon inflammation from individual food sensitivities.
  • Probiotics have been shown to work synergistically with diet therapy to heal colon inflammation.

The colon (large intestine) is a part of your digestive tract that’s responsible for absorbing water and nutrients, supporting trillions of bacteria that protect your gut and make vitamins, and turning indigestible material into stool [1].

But what if you’ve been diagnosed with a colon condition like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms like abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating? Are there any specific foods that heal colon inflammation?

Although foods like fish, leafy green vegetables, blueberries, olives, and avocados provide an anti-inflammatory benefit, your diet on the whole is what’s most impactful for healing colon inflammation and restoring good colon health. Keeping your colon healthy means eating a whole-foods diet (like the Paleo diet) that includes fiber-rich foods to prevent inflammation and support your gut microbiome, and drinking plenty of water to ensure routine bowel movements.

The low FODMAP diet is another option that’s been shown to help with symptoms of colon inflammation, but other diets like the autoimmune protocol diet and elemental diet can be beneficial as well. In addition, probiotics can work in conjunction with diet therapy to soothe your symptoms.

In this article, we’ll discuss the research-based therapeutic diets (and foods) you can use to heal colon inflammation, and touch on how probiotics can work synergistically with diet therapy. We’ll also share how our clinic patient Mona healed her IBS symptoms with diet therapy and probiotics. 

What Are the Foods That Heal Colon Inflammation?

Targeting your dietary pattern on the whole is your best bet, rather than consuming specific foods that heal colon inflammation. However, below are some examples of foods usually found in an anti-inflammatory diet that can help give your colon the boost it needs [2, 3, 4, 5, 6]:

  • Vegetables: zucchini, green beans, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, bok choy, cucumber
  • Fruits: cantaloupe, kiwi, oranges, pineapples
  • Nuts and seeds: macadamia, pumpkin seeds, walnuts
  • Grains (preferably whole grains): oats, quinoa, gluten-free and/or sourdough bread
  • Fish: sardines, salmon, trout, tuna, shrimp, clams, mussels, crab, oysters
  • Eggs: chicken, duck, quail
  • Lean meats: chicken, duck, turkey
  • Dairy and alternatives: almond milk, feta cheese, soymilk, lactose-free milk
  • Healthy fats: extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, avocado, olives

Let’s take a look at the research on some specific diets (and the foods they include) for two common colon conditions: inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Diet Therapy for Inflammatory Bowel Disease 

When it comes to healing IBD, we’ll discuss three specific diets:

  • Low FODMAP
  • Autoimmune protocol (AIP)
  • Elemental

Before we dive into these diets, let’s briefly review some inflammatory bowel disease basics. IBD includes both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (UC), and possibly results from an abnormal immune system response that damages the intestines and disrupts motility. Crohn’s can damage any part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract but UC affects only the colon. 

IBD patients can experience a variety of non-digestive symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, fever, and arthritis [7, 8], but some of the predominant gastrointestinal symptoms include [7, 9]:

  • Pain in the right lower abdomen
  • Gas and bloating
  • Diarrhea (can contain mucus and blood)
  • Weight loss
  • Bowel urgency
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Rectal pain
  • Loss of appetite

While these symptoms can be painful and disruptive to daily life, relief is on the way. Below we will discuss the therapeutic diets that are shown to be highly beneficial for those with IBD. 

Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with IBD but are dealing with symptoms of poor gut health (gas, bloating, stool changes, abdominal pain, etc.) these dietary recommendations are still a great place to start as they’re a safe and effective way to improve your overall colon health.

Low FODMAP Diet

FODMAPS are Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols, which just refer to different types of fermentable starches and sugars. The low FODMAP diet may work by reducing the food supply for inflammatory bacteria, thus decreasing inflammatory cytokines, leaky gut, and gas pressure [10].

Here’s a chart with some examples of low and high FODMAP foods:

Food TypeLow FODMAP FoodsHigh FODMAP Foods
VegetablesZucchini, green beans, bok choy, red bell pepper, eggplant, carrot, lettuce, potato, tomatoCauliflower, artichokes, asparagus, cabbage, broccoli, green bell pepper
FruitsBlueberries, kiwi, banana, grape, lemon, lime, orange, cantaloupeBlackberry, apricot, mango, apple, avocado, pear, peach, nectarines, watermelon
LegumesXLentils, beans, chickpeas, peas
Nuts & SeedsMacadamia nuts, almonds (less than 10 each), peanuts, pecans, walnuts (less than 10 each)Cashews, pistachios, almonds (greater than 10 each)
Dairy Products & Dairy SubstitutesFeta cheese, lactose-free milk or cheese, almond milkBrie cheese, ice cream, yogurt
GrainsWhite rice, quinoa, milletWheat and rye
SweetenersGlucoseFructose, high fructose corn syrup, mannitol, xylitol, sorbitol, maltitol, agave
Prebiotics & AdditivesXGalactooligosaccharides (GOS), isomalt, inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS)

If you’re in an active flare or trying to recover from an IBD flare, eliminate high FODMAP foods for two to three weeks, which will likely lead to significant symptom improvement. Once you’re feeling better, you can slowly reintroduce the eliminated foods one at a time and monitor your symptoms. If you notice any specific trigger foods, you’ll want to keep those out until you experience more complete healing. 

The low FODMAP diet has shown to be an effective treatment for IBD [11] and studies on patients with inactive (not in a flare-up) IBD have found the low FODMAP diet to: 

  • Help reduce diarrhea, bloating, pain, fatigue, and nausea, but not constipation [12]
  • Improve IBD-like symptoms and quality of life [13]
  • Improve symptoms and reduce the loss of microbes thought to regulate the immune system response, but didn’t improve inflammatory markers or IBD-like symptoms [14]

If the low FODMAP diet doesn’t bring about complete symptom relief, you may want to consider the more restrictive autoimmune protocol diet.

Autoimmune Protocol Diet (AIP)

The autoimmune protocol diet — also called the autoimmune Paleo diet — is a stricter version of Paleo eating that eliminates a wider variety of foods linked with triggering inflammation for those with autoimmunity. 

See the below chart for a quick overview of foods to include and foods to avoid on this type of therapeutic meal plan:

Foods to IncludeFoods to Avoid
Grass-fed or wild-caught animal lean proteins (meat, fish, poultry, organ meats, bone broth)All grains, eggs, and legumes such as green beans, black beans, white beans, kidney beans, and garbanzo beans
Healthy fats and oils (coconut oil and coconut milk, olive oil, avocados and avocado oil)All nuts and seeds, such as almonds, walnuts, and chia seeds, including their derivatives like seed and vegetable oils and flours (like almond flour)
Wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (sweet potatoes, greens, lettuce, cucumbers, zucchini, berries, apples, and melon)Nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, tomatillos) and spices derived from nightshades (paprika and cayenne pepper)
Non-dairy fermented foods (sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi)All dairy products, including ghee, kefir, milk, cheese, and cream
Herbs and spices not derived from seeds (cinnamon, turmeric, thyme, oregano, basil, rosemary)Spices derived from seeds, including fennel, cumin, dill, anise, mustard, coriander, and nutmeg
Stevia and maple syrupMost added or artificial sweeteners and food additives, plus coffee and alcohol

While more high-quality research needs to be completed, exclusion diets (like the AIP) where food allergens have been removed have been found to be an effective treatment for active IBD [11]. A couple of small studies have shown promising results:

  • 11 weeks of an AIP diet in patients with active (in a disease flare) IBD led to improved quality of life [15].
  • In a study with 15 participants the AIP protocol improved IBD symptoms and signs of colon inflammation [16].

The AIP diet is pretty restrictive, so it might not be the best first option if you’re new to making food-related changes.

If the low FODMAP and AIP diets haven’t been helpful, the elemental diet is an additional option that takes food restriction one step further.

Elemental and Semi-Elemental Diets

Foods That Heal Colon Inflammation and Keep Your Gut in Check - Elemental Diet Benefits Landscape L

The elemental diet is a liquid meal replacement that’s very easily absorbed in the digestive tract and supplies all macronutrients and essential vitamins. The formula (hypoallergenic, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory) is sold as a powder that you simply mix, blend, or shake up with water and sip on throughout the day. 

Semi-elemental diets differ in that instead of the proteins being fully broken down into amino acids, they’re partly broken down.

Multiple studies have shown elemental diets to be as effective as anti-inflammatory drugs like prednisone in promoting the remission of IBD [17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26]. Many studies have been done on Crohn’s disease, but research also suggests elemental diets can be helpful for UC [27, 28, 29].

Semi-elemental diets can be just as effective as fully elemental diets and they’re usually more palatable and easier to implement. One prospective observational study of Crohn’s disease patients given only a semi-elemental diet for nutrition for 12 weeks found reduced disease activity along with higher rates of remission (from 5.6% to 71.8%), and a significant decrease in [30]:

  • The average number of daily stools (from 4.6 to 1.7)
  • Malnutrition (91.5% to 23.9%) 

Here at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine, we’ve taken the hassle out of starting an elemental diet and have designed several great-tasting formulas that are scientifically backed to improve your gut health. 

Mona’s Story

Mona contacted the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine after suffering for months with:

  • Reflux
  • Excessive saliva
  • A bad taste in her mouth
  • Coughing
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Stomach growling

She saw several healthcare practitioners and received medical treatments ranging from antibiotics to dental fillings, but continued to have concerning symptoms and even ended up in the emergency room at one point. 

After suspecting that an imbalance in her gut bacteria and intestinal inflammation were at play, I started Mona on a low FODMAP diet plan and within one week she was beginning to feel better. She still had some symptoms, so we worked through a gut-healing protocol (like what you can find in Healthy Gut, Healthy You), which included nutritional supplements (probiotics, antimicrobials, and the intestinal support formula). 

Mona now feels great and has been able to successfully reintroduce the eliminated foods without a recurrence of her symptoms.

Diet Therapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

You may not be dealing with overt colon inflammation (such as in IBD), but can still have a bothersome bowel. Don’t worry, as an anti-inflammatory diet that’s low in processed foods and high in fresh fruits, veggies, and healthy fats will likely work for you. The Paleo diet and low FODMAP diet are great options for those with IBS and/or food sensitivities.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may result from disruptions to the autonomic nervous system, which can affect motility in the colon leading to altered bowel movements (diarrhea or constipation) and inflammation. Patients can also experience bloating, abdominal pain, and cramping. A diet high in processed foods, sugars, alcohol, and poor quality fats can aggravate IBS symptoms [31], so it’s important to shift to a healthy, whole-foods meal plan like the Paleo diet first. The Paleo diet helps calm colon inflammation by minimizing your exposure to foods that provoke an immune response in the digestive tract [32, 33]. These include sugars, unhealthy fats, chemical additives, and common problem foods like dairy, gluten, and soy.

Foods That Heal Colon Inflammation and Keep Your Gut in Check - What%20To%20Eat%20On%20The%20Paleo%20Diet 01 L

If you’ve achieved a healthy foundation in your diet and still struggle with IBS symptoms, the low FODMAP diet is a great option and is one of the most evidence-based diets for IBS.

The low FODMAP diet may be better than standard dietary advice [34] and numerous high-quality research studies have shown the low FODMAP diet to benefit those with IBS by:

  • Improving symptoms and stool consistency [35]
  • Reducing digestive symptoms and increasing quality of life [12, 13, 14, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40]
  • Improving diarrhea and normalizing bowel function [34, 41, 42, 43]
  • Reducing abdominal pain [36]

One way the low FODMAP diet may be helpful is through its ability to modulate the gut microbiome by improving dysbiosis in those with IBS. One study found IBS patients with more pathogenic bacteria had a shift in microbial balance to a healthier trend after four weeks on the low FODMAP diet [10].

A gluten-free diet is often recommended for those with IBS, and may be helpful in some cases, but the low FODMAP diet has been found to be more effective than reducing gluten in people with IBS:

  • One study of patients with IBS and self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity (following a gluten-free diet), found gluten ingestion to have no effect on leaky gut markers or on symptoms, whereas the low FODMAP diet significantly reduced a marker of leaky gut and reduced IBS symptoms [44].
  • A randomized controlled trial found that consuming FODMAPs, not gluten or a placebo diet, led to the greatest increase in IBS symptom severity [45].

Diet-related changes are the foundation for healing colon inflammation but probiotics can act synergistically to provide even more benefit.

Using Probiotics to Heal Colon Inflammation

An unhealthy gut is the mainstay of both IBS and IBD [9, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50] and probiotics have been shown to be helpful for maintaining good gut health. Even better, they work synergistically with diet therapy [51].

Probiotics can reduce inflammation and improve gut health for people with IBD [52, 53] and significantly improve IBS symptoms [51]. In addition, a couple of systematic reviews have found multi-strain probiotics to be effective at putting active UC into remission [54, 55].

One systematic review found probiotics were not effective for maintaining UC remission [53], but another study found them to be as effective as the medication mesalamine in preventing the relapse of UC [56]. This highlights why it’s essential to have the proper foundations of a healthy diet already in place while you’re taking probiotics, and not solely relying on a supplement to heal your colon inflammation.

Probiotic supplements are extremely safe and well-tolerated by most people, so they should definitely be a consideration, especially during IBD flare-ups. In addition, the 2021 British Society of Gastroenterology and the 2021 Romanian guidelines for non-pharmacological treatment of IBS both recommend that IBS patients try probiotics [57, 58].

Colon Basics

Your colon (large intestine) is about 5 feet long and makes up approximately one-fifth of your digestive tract [1]. Once your small intestine has done the work of absorbing most of the water and nutrients from your food, the remainder moves into your colon. 

Some absorption of water and the digestion and absorption of nutrients occurs here, but it’s also home to trillions of bacteria. Your gut microbiome ferments indigestible material to make certain vitamins (B and K) and stool [1, 59].

The large intestine is less prone to problems than the small intestine, but it’s an area where bacterial and fungal overgrowth, infection, and inflammation can occur. There are a variety of issues that can arise in the colon, such as motility disorders, colorectal cancer, and polyps (small growths that can become cancerous) [60].

Maintaining a healthy environment in the colon with nutrition and lifestyle strategies can prevent inflammation, polyps, and cancer [59]. Research has found the most important strategies include [1, 7, 46, 61]:

  • Managing your stress 
  • Exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Treating infections
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Avoiding cigarette smoke
  • Appropriately treating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) [60, 62]
  • Consuming an anti-inflammatory diet with a healthy amount of fiber to support a healthy gut microbiome
  • Drinking plenty of water to keep waste properly moving through your digestive tract 

IBS and IBD are two conditions where motility is impacted in the colon [1]. It’s extremely important to keep stool contents moving toward the rectum to prevent inflammation and the reabsorption of toxins.

Heal Colon Inflammation With Food and Probiotics

Maintaining good colon health can be accomplished with diet and lifestyle. If you already have a diagnosis of IBD and/or IBS, or if you’re dealing with the symptoms of an unhealthy colon, food and probiotics can be very effective healing modalities.

Your diet on the whole is more important than adding any specific foods that heal colon inflammation. If you’re new to making dietary changes, it’s best to start with the Paleo diet, which cuts out processed foods, sugars, alcohol, and poor-quality fats that can aggravate colon conditions.

If you’ve been on the Paleo diet (or other whole-foods type diet) for a few weeks, but still have symptoms, then consider moving to the low FODMAP diet. Depending on your symptoms, you may temporarily need more restrictive measures like the AIP or elemental diet.

In addition to diet therapy, probiotics can be a great option, as they’ve been well-studied and have been found to be very helpful for healing the inflammation associated with both IBS and IBD.

You can find a step-by-step gut-healing action plan in Healthy Gut, Healthy You. If you’re in need of more personalized guidance, reach out to us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

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