When it came to dealing with inflammatory bowel disease, one man learned that self-care is the best medicine.
I’ve always believed in hard work and having a plan. When I was in college, my focus was preparing for a job in corporate finance, so I spent most of my days hitting the books hard, then going out on the weekends and staying up far too late. Eating healthy never entered into the equation. The staples of my diet were chicken Parmesan, buffalo chicken sandwiches and French fries. And, between pulling late nights in the library and attending early-morning lectures, caffeine quickly became its own food group.
During my sophomore year, all the dreams I had for the future were put in jeopardy. I started having horrible stomach cramps after I ate and would immediately need a restroom. These issues persisted, and I could tell I wasn’t absorbing my food. Then I began finding blood in my stool. I was scared, but didn’t go to a doctor. It wasn’t until the condition caused me to lose 30 pounds over four months that I went to the hospital.
After weeks of tests, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC), a form of inflammatory bowel disease that causes swelling and sores on the tissue lining the colon. Similar to Crohn’s and celiac disease, UC causes inflammation of the digestive tract, which leads to abdominal pain, frequent diarrhea and severe weight loss.
My doctor said it was a chronic condition with no known cause or cure, although it’s believed that environmental factors (like a typical Western diet and too much stress) were potential contributors.
I was 20 years old. My doctor said it was possible I’d be on and off steroids and anti-inflammatory medication for my entire life.
When the disease was active, it would affect my ability to be out in public because I would need to be near a restroom at all times. I would likely miss work when I had a flare-up. And there was a serious possibility that if the disease continued to progress I would need to have my colon removed.
The doctor told me I would have to avoid putting too much stress on my body because that often triggers the disease. I would have to be “somewhat careful” about what I ate, and I might have to return to the hospital if things got bad again. Everything I had planned for — a move to Chicago, a job in corporate finance, and a life filled with traveling and exploration — was suddenly at risk. I was shocked, afraid and angry.
An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse
I was ready to fill my first prescription when my mother, who had always had an interest in integrative medicine, offered me a bribe. She asked me to commit to two weeks of research before taking any pills. If I couldn’t come up with any alternative ways to try to treat the disease, she would pay the cost of my medication for the first year. I was skeptical, but I agreed.
I quickly came across Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet (Kirkton Press, 1994) by Elaine Gottschall. She recommended avoiding high-starch foods and carbohydrates that are difficult to digest. Other research supported the book’s theory: that people with compromised immune systems and digestive tracts may respond well to foods that are easier to break down.
I stopped eating processed foods. I eliminated all breads and pasta and essentially anything that contained grain, gluten, starch, carbs from corn, lactose or processed sugar; I cut out foods comprising various sugars, which are harder to break down, and often contribute to inflammation. Instead, I ate whole foods such as chicken, lean beef, fish, vegetables, salads, nuts and cheeses.
Instead of starting the medication, I stuck to the diet. In less than four months the symptoms started going away. Then I began putting on weight and looking more like myself again. Not only did my body start absorbing food, my energy level shot up.
I was then lucky to find a doctor who was a proponent of integrative medicine. He told me how light exercise and meditation can strengthen the immune system and improve mental health.
Even when I wasn’t feeling great, I went for light runs in the evening and lifted weights up to three times a week. The activity kept me positive, gave me energy and reduced my symptoms. Meditation helped me calm my mind. After a year of following the diet, exercise and meditation routine, I felt better than I’d ever felt in my life.
There were days when I would have given anything to go back to my life before colitis. But there were also surprising benefits to my new routine. The greatest gift was knowledge of my own body: I knew immediately if something I ate didn’t agree with me, or if I needed rest. My body talked to me, and I listened. And so I stuck with the program, even though it was sometimes very difficult.
Energy and Endurance
It’s been 11 years since my disease went into remission. I’m feeling incredibly healthy and I’ve never been more active. I’ve gained the strength to start participating in some pretty rigorous endurance events, where I’ve met amazing people and formed lasting friendships. I do triathlons and half-marathons now, and I’m working up to a full marathon. I play basketball and tennis regularly.
My disease didn’t stop me from moving to Chicago after graduation and pursuing the career I had dreamed about. After Chicago, I moved to Minneapolis and now work in the medical division of 3M. Living in the world of healthcare has given me a unique perspective on how diet can help with diseases, and I’ve become passionate about the topic.
I find that people are often skeptical that diet, stress relief and alternative therapies can be effective in treating chronic digestive conditions. That’s why, in October 2010, I started Food Rx (www.foodrx.org), a nonprofit organization that empowers patients to take an active role in understanding their conditions and possible therapies. We’re also trying to further the scientific and clinical evidence for how natural therapies can affect serious chronic conditions.
Before I got sick, I would eat almost anything, I would stay out late and fail to get enough sleep, without any thought to the effects on my body. I truly didn’t appreciate what I was doing to myself, and accepted that a certain level of exhaustion was OK.
Today I know that when you take control of your health, you may not cure everything that ails you, but you will heal. And that, to me, is what’s important.