This is not a sad story. This is a story that celebrates life and the body’s natural resilience and ability to heal. I doubt many stories about ulcerative colitis begin this way, but they all should. After all, an ulcerative colitis diagnosis needn’t be devastating, even though it might feel like that at first. In my case, the diagnosis was actually the start of some really great years. At the time, I had no way of knowing how the disease would change my life for the better. But that is exactly what it did.
I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis more than ten years ago, when I was still a student at the University of Wisconsin. Like many people my age, I was leading a pretty active life and studying hard. And I had big plans for what I was going to do after school. So it really turned my world upside down when I began noticing that something was seriously wrong with my health. My stomach would cramp horribly after every meal, and I didn’t seem to be absorbing the food I ate. Because I wasn’t absorbing anything, I was losing weight fast. And every time I had a bowel movement – which seemed to be every other minute of the day – I would find blood in my stool. My parents urged me to get right over to student health services for a checkup. By the time I made it to the clinic, I had already lost 30 lbs.
I was really fortunate; I had a great doctor at Wisconsin student health services. She ran test after test trying to find out what was wrong. Eventually, she ordered a flexible sigmoidoscopy. And that’s when we found the answer – a colon full of ulcers. A few weeks later a full colonoscopy revealed just how badly the disease had ravaged my body. “You’ll probably be on steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs for most of your life,” was the gastroenterologist’s opinion. And if I was lucky, I wouldn’t be one of the 25-40 percent of colitis patients who have to have surgery to remove the colon.
Even though I was stunned by the news, I wasn’t willing to accept this prognosis without being better informed. I was already somewhat familiar with the concept of integrative medicine, having grown up in a family that used holistic therapies. But could integrative medicine help someone with severe colitis? I hit the Internet to find out. Today if you Google “ulcerative colitis,” drug protocols and symptom overviews are mainly what pop up. But somehow back in 2001, the initial search results included Dr. Ronald Hoffman’s Forward to a book on diet in the treatment of ulcerative colitis. Amazingly, within about ten minutes I had found what would turn out to be my most effective tool in battling IBD – the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) – and a highly respected doctor was recommending it.
The SCD is a dietary approach designed to help people with the spectrum of inflammatory bowel disorders. This approach is structured on the premise that removing trigger foods from one’s diet reduces certain causes of inflammation in the intestine, which can lead to clinical remission. While treating intestinal disorders with diet goes back even as far as 300 AD, the SCD as we know it today was developed by Drs. Sydney and Merrill Haas, and later popularized by biochemist and cell biologist Elaine Gottschell in her book Breaking the Vicious Cyle: Intensinal Health Through Diet.
I decided to try this approach after discovering there was a huge community of IBD patients online who also reported amazing results from following the diet. I also decided I wanted to work with a doctor trained in integrative medicine.
I received a referral from Greg Plotnikoff, MD, then at the University of Minnesota. He directed me to David Rakel, MD, who had just completed a two-year training at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine with Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Rakel had just come to UW-Madison to start the new integrative medicine program. That simple referral had a significant effect on the course of my life.
Meeting with Dr. Rakel was a great experience—he spent time getting to know me, and asked me questions about my daily routine, how I spent my free time, and what I did to stay active. We discussed a number of strategies for combating the colitis, including the importance of meditation and exercise as tools to reduce stress and increase the body’s natural resilience to disease. And I discussed the SCD with him. Although he had not heard of the SCD before our meeting, he appreciated the science behind it and thought it was worth trying to see how effective it was.
Almost immediately after starting the diet, I noticed I felt much less pain in my abdomen. In fact, each day brought significant reductions in discomfort. Then, almost overnight, the blood stopped showing up in my stool. I could tell I was gaining weight again, and that further encouraged me. In light of the previously debilitating nature of the disease, my progress felt like a miracle.
These initial improvements in my health proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. After 4-5 months of faithfully following the SCD, and augmenting it with regular meditation and consistent exercise, every one of my symptoms had completely disappeared. I was absorbing my food again, and had gained back much of the weight I lost. My energy level returned to normal. My family and friends were amazed. I was amazed. And I was thankful.
The most spectacular thing about the diet was that as time passed, my health just kept improving. I didn’t just return to “normal,” I honestly began feeling better than I ever had in my entire life. My energy level had skyrocketed, and I almost never felt tired or lethargic. With my newfound stamina I started running regularly, which led to my discovering one of my life’s great passions: participating in endurance sports. Friends commented that I was more active than they had ever seen me. And even though the diet was somewhat restrictive, I never felt like it was a burden. In fact, it felt like a small price to pay for how great I felt all the time.
Upon graduation from college, I took a job in an industry that routinely required me to work 80-90 hours per week. My colitis was so well controlled, I never worried I wouldn’t be able to handle the fast pace and long hours required of me. In fact, in the 4 years I spent in that line of work, I never missed a single day due to my having ulcerative colitis. To be honest, months would go by and the disease would never cross my mind.
Today, many years later, I look back on the pictures of me at the height of my sickness and I don’t recognize the person in the photos. It is testament to the importance of diet that at my current age I am much healthier than I have ever been. I have energy I have never had before, and I live an incredibly active lifestyle – all while balancing the commitments of a demanding job.
The program I follow – a combination of diet, exercise, and stress reduction – quite literally healed me. And while the word “heal” is all too frequently thrown around online to promote questionable folk remedies with dubious efficacy, in my case the science seems to confirm my colitis had vanished. The colonoscopies I have had in the last 6 years showed absolutely no signs of the disease whatsoever. On top of that, I am able to say that over the last decade I have never (1) missed a single day of work due to ulcerative colitis, (2) missed a commitment of any kind due to my illness, or (3) taken a single drug to control the disease. Those of you who live with colitis likely have an appreciation for how remarkable those statements truly are.
The greatest gift the SCD diet gave me, though, is something you might not expect. Above all else, the diet has given me knowledge of my own body. Because I am so careful with how I treat my body as a matter of course, I have learned how to listen to what it tells me. I know immediately if something I eat doesn’t agree with me, and I make a note to eliminate that food from my diet. I can tell if my body needs rest, and I find a way to relax and unwind. My body talks to me, and in turn I listen to it and give it what it needs. It’s a symbiotic relationship that has taken my health and my happiness to a whole new level. And I believe the approach I follow can do the same for many people suffering from IBD.
The Food Rx Project is the product of my need to share this approach with others who are suffering. I have read far too many heartbreaking stories over the years of young men and women who felt like they had no other option in front of them except for the surgical removal of their colon or intestine. Is there anyone out there who can’t sympathize with how those patients must have been feeling before choosing surgery? For those individuals who have IBD, the treatment of the disease is all about options. And despite the efforts of pharmaceutical companies to develop novel treatments and the tireless fundraising of patient advocacy groups like the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA), there are still too few effective methods of combating Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
There are, however, highly beneficial dietary approaches to treatment that receive far too little attention by the mainstream medical community – approaches like the diet that I described in my story. And I find this alarming, because food is responsible for quite literally healing my ulcerative colitis – in every practical sense of the word ‘heal’ – and returning me to a level of health that many in medicine would argue just isn’t possible. But I am here to tell you that not only is it possible, but you owe it to yourself to discuss this dietary approach – and other complimentary therapies – with your medical doctor. And this website will be here to guide you to the resources you need to conduct research. That is our commitment to you.
It is vitally important that I stress this point to you – the health tips we provide through FoodRx.org are always completely free to you. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, our sole mission is your remission. In fact, every month we randomly draw 2 names from our Facebook fan list and give those people a free copy of Breaking the Vicious Cycle.
Our hope is that you will use this site to research your treatment options, and become better prepared to talk to your doctor. Then you get to start down the path that leads to sustained healing. Life is far too rewarding to spend it agonizing over a disease we can beat together.
All my best,