Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a chronic condition that often causes flare-ups of symptoms between periods of remission. People can try several strategies to minimize the severity of UC symptoms. These include consuming easily digestible foods, eating smaller meals, exercising regularly, and reducing stress levels where possible.

A person preparing a meal on the stoveShare on Pinterest
Kristine Weilert/Getty Images

UC is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in which inflammation causes sores called ulcers to appear on the colon’s lining. It is a lifelong condition that typically involves alternating periods of flare-ups and remission.

People can implement different lifestyle changes to help manage and prevent flare-ups. These changes target the diet, as well as both physical and mental health. A person will also benefit from learning to recognize the warning signs of a flare-up.

Keep reading to learn more about how to stop a UC colitis flare-up, how long the symptoms will usually last, and what strategies may help prevent severe flare-ups.

UC is a condition that affects the gastrointestinal tract, causing inflammation of the lining of the large intestine — called the colon — or the rectum, or both. This inflammation results in ulcers that discharge mucus and pus.

If symptoms reappear during or after a period of remission, doctors refer to this as a flare-up or flare.

The symptoms of UC can include:

People may also report symptoms such as body and joint aches, lack of appetite, or eye problems, including pain, redness, or loss of vision.

Learn more about UC.

Learning how to stop, manage, or decrease symptoms during a flare-up can help improve the quality of life of people with UC.

Although managing flare-ups is important, knowing what can trigger a flare-up can help stop one from happening in the first place.

Some of the following strategies may be helpful to implement.

1. Recognize warning signs

It is good to recognize a flare-up when it first begins to help reduce the severity of symptoms. A person with UC should try to pay close attention to their body and any unusual feelings they may be experiencing.

By doing this, they can begin to recognize which symptoms they will feel before or after a flare-up. It is important to keep a diary or note of what symptoms occur at what time.

Apps are also available that can help people track their symptoms and toilet activity, which can be useful during flare-ups.

2. Dietary choices

Foods that are high in fiber can make symptoms worse during a flare-up. A person should try to decrease their intake of these foods, which include certain fruits and vegetables, during a flare-up. Alternatively, eating only thoroughly cooked fruits and vegetables may help people digest them more easily.

Researchers associate a diet high in protein, particularly animal proteins, with an increased risk of IBD and flare-ups of symptoms. A person should also avoid greasy foods, fried foods, and whole grains.

Doctors recommend keeping a food journal to document symptoms after each meal. A food journal will help a person identify what foods they should avoid.

If a person finds that particular foods affect their symptoms, they can discuss this with a doctor or registered dietitian. These professionals can work with a person to create a diet plan that works for them.

3. Eat small meals

Smaller and more frequent meals are easier on the gut and less likely to worsen symptoms.

Instead of eating three large meals throughout the day, a person can eat five or six smaller meals.

4. Reduce alcohol consumption

Research from 2020 associated alcohol consumption with changes to the gut microbiome in adults.

Alcohol intake, whether moderate or in excess, may also make UC symptoms worse during flare-ups.

People may not need to abstain from alcohol entirely, but doctors recommend drinking in moderation.

5. Smoking

Smoking cigarettes can trigger flares in UC.

People with UC who smoke tend to have higher levels of disease activity and a greater need for medications to control their condition.

6. Exercise

Exercise is extremely beneficial for those experiencing a UC flare-up and individuals hoping to extend the time between flare-ups.

Exercise may help promote the release of anti-inflammatory compounds, which can minimize symptoms.

Although UC can limit the amount and intensity of exercise that a person can undertake, even light exercise may be beneficial during a flare-up. A person can consider low intensity activities, such as walks, yoga, Pilates, or gentle stretching.

7. Intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting (IF) is a dietary strategy in which an individual extends their overnight fast. Some people fast for 12–16 hours each day, whereas others may fast for 36 hours once a week.

A recent study from 2020 showed that IF helps improve gut function by altering the gut microbiome. It also helps improve inflammatory status. IF may be a useful strategy for people with UC, particularly during flare-ups.

8. Reduce stress levels

Stress causes the body to release certain hormones that stimulate an inflammatory response.

Stressful situations can affect IBD and the severity of a flare-up. Learning how to manage their stress levels can help a person overcome a flare-up more effectively.

Research has demonstrated that stress can complicate IBD by causing a higher incidence of flare-ups and increasing the severity of changes in the colon.

Some stress relief strategies that may help stop flare-ups include:

9. Medications

Even when they are not experiencing symptoms, people with IBD may need to continue to take their medications. Missing doses or weaning off the drugs may result in flare-ups.

However, certain medications can also trigger flare-ups. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including aspirin and ibuprofen, can cause flare-ups. Doctors will usually recommend acetaminophen instead.

In some circumstances, antibiotics can also cause flare-ups. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, but they also alter the bacteria that normally live in the intestine.

A person with UC should make sure that any doctors who prescribe them medications are aware of their condition.

10. Consult a medical professional

If UC symptoms are severe, it may be best to speak with a primary care physician or an IBD nurse, who will suggest management strategies. They may also prescribe certain medications to ease the symptoms.

Learn more about how to manage a flare-up.

UC is a condition that is unique to every individual. Some people experience flare-ups that last a few days, while others experience flare-ups that last weeks. Likewise, individuals may go from a mild flare-up to a severe one and then back again.

If a person is experiencing a severe flare-up that persists, they should speak with a doctor. The doctor will help them get their symptoms under control and improve their quality of life.

Strategies to prevent a flare-up include:

  • Modifying the diet: Eating less insoluble fiber will ensure that people can digest food easily and prevent flare-ups. A plant-based diet may also reduce the risk of a relapse of UC.
  • Taking supplements: Research has shown certain dietary supplements, such as curcumin, green tea, and selenium, to be effective in improving symptoms of UC. Supplementing the diet with additional omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D has also had positive effects.
  • Keeping a food journal: By keeping track of the foods they eat and their symptoms, individuals can narrow down what irritates their gut. This will help them determine how their diet relates to their symptoms.
  • Exercising frequently: Exercise improves disease activity and fatigue levels in people with UC. These symptoms are common during a flare-up.
  • Joining an IBD support group: A person may find it beneficial to associate with individuals who have the same condition. They can learn from these people’s experiences and seek support from them during flare-ups. These groups also often play an important role in raising awareness of IBD.

Learn more about UC support groups.

Individuals with UC will need to learn what dietary and lifestyle factors worsen their symptoms and cause flare-ups. By keeping track of these triggers, individuals can help control their condition and improve their quality of life.

If a person needs any help developing strategies or is in the middle of a severe flare-up, they should reach out to a doctor or an IBD nurse for help.

It is possible to minimize and improve symptoms of UC by implementing various lifestyle and dietary changes. People will start identifying what causes a flare-up and learning how to minimize its severity.

If a person suspects that a flare-up is beginning, they can take certain steps to help ease their symptoms.