Nourishing Ulcerative Colitis:
My Journey Toward a More Optimal State of Digestive Health
Your life, as you know it, drastically changes when you’re communicated the news that you’ve been diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (an autoimmune condition and form of Inflammatory Bowel Disease). With autoimmunity, one’s Immune System attacks the body’s own healthy cells, as it deems such cells to be foreign invaders. In the case of Ulcerative Colitis, the Immune System attacks the lining of the large intestine, or colon. As with all autoimmune conditions, this circumstance requires strategic dietary and lifestyle choices, including anti-inflammatory, therapeutic foods that are digested and passed through the bowel with ease, so as not to exacerbate damaged tissue (ulcerations) of the lining of the colon.
It was January 2004. My first colonoscopy. For the few weeks prior, I had been experiencing lower abdominal cramping and bowel movements streaked with fresh blood. The year to follow would be tumultuous – a medical chemistry experiment with various drug therapies until the symptoms settle down and showed evidence of some degree of "remission". The "remission" (and my resulting, new state of "normal") did occur about one year later, amidst exhaustion, a reduced appetite and narrowed diet, and noticeable weight loss.
I was provided both very limited and very general advice as to what to consume moving forward. Following that first year of much liquified food and reduced fiber intake, so as to settled down inflammation and stabilize my health to some degree, I continued to consume my pre-diagnosis diet with minor changes. As a 20-something in the midst of the first year of my professional teaching career, I was so preoccupied with keeping my head above the water and surviving in that field, that I had minimal energy to spare upon returning home from the work day. Therefore, therapeutic meal preparation was the last thing on my mind! As a result, I inevitably took the stance of “getting by” with my daily diet, letting the medicine do the work! At that time, my long-term prescriptions consisted of both a daily immunosuppressant and anti-inflammatory medication.
Upon moving out on my own a few years later, my relatively narrow-in-scope cooking skills would continue throughout this decade of my life. In hindsight, I can clearly see how disconnected to my food I was – shopping for the same scope of foods every week, making similar types of meals, and not making it a priority to read ingredient lists more closely, nor realize where my food was coming from. Grocery shopping and cooking were “just another chore” that needed to be done, rather than capitalizing on the powerful impact of food as FUEL and enjoying it for the wonderfully-nourishing and healing properties it possesses.
Come 2012, nine years following my diagnosis, I finally hit my wall. I was certainly sick and tired of being sick and tired! I finally acknowledged that there was much more I could be doing for myself. For nine years, I had been teaching full-time in the school system - a very challenging environment, you can imagine, to expect your Immune System to keep up to! Between the endless mental and physical demands and daily deadlines to meet, let alone the acute illnesses that become rampant when so many bodies are sharing the same space, it was crystal clear that I was struggling in such an environment. It was all I had ever known and I had invested so much in that career path that I was very conflicted. I knew it was ludicrous to continue on the same path, but simply didn’t know at that time what the alternative path might be. What I did know for sure was that my dietary choices had to improve and expand in scope.
My journey toward a more optimal state of digestive health commenced via a Skype consultation with the former Kushi Institute (known for its therapeutic approach to diet and healing the body via Macrobiotic-based cooking). After obtaining a dietary protocol to guide me in my quest to move forward in a mort fitting direction, I was overcome with excitement, of which was accompanied by plenty of fear. The protocol would demand of me different types of meals than I was used to, new culinary techniques and new food ingredients. It would also require removing items I had relied upon for years. But, this was the investment I had chosen to make, and there was no turning back.
The following months were a steep learning curve to say the least, with far greater time spent invested in my health and in cooking. Beyond the work day and on the weekends, I was immersed in visiting new types of grocery stores (i.e. health food stores, Asian markets, Whole Foods), in search of particular food ingredients I had never used before (and some of which I had never even heard of before). This new culinary world absolutely intrigued me. Fuelled by a renewed sense of purpose, I desired to learn as much as I could, as soon as possible. I was displaced from my comfort zone like never before and was revelling in it! I was strongly driven by one overarching goal: to gradually reduce my reliance on both medications I continued to take daily, given the undesirable side effects. And, given the positive shifts I was implementing with my diet, I didn’t doubt for a second that it would be possible over time.
With the protocol devised for me, some food swaps were much more significant than others, such as working toward fully eliminating dairy and gluten-containing grains. Processed foods and refined sugars also had to go. I also gradually minimized my caffeine consumption and cooked from scratch as much as possible. This was by no means easy, just necessary. Little did I know that these initial few weeks of shifts were about to snowfall into a massive transformation.
Since 2012 and that first Macrobiotic-based protocol, my dietary approach has evolved a number of times, from Macrobiotic, to Pescatarian, to what I now refer to as "Plant-Rich & Paleo-Inspired". This evolution has been due to a number of contributing factors: formal education in the fields of Culinary Nutrition & Holistic Nutrition as well as much ongoing, self-directed learning and research, including ongoing completion of various online-based courses.
The reason for this dietary evolution? Eating is intuitive. It is incredibly important that one monitor their body's response to their dietary approach of choice, responding accordingly to what is working, and what is not working. It all comes down to eating what makes you thrive! This is different for each and every individual on the planet, as each and every body is biochemically unique. There is no "One Size Fits All" dietary approach for the population of this planet.
To summarize the past eight years of my life, a drastic personal transformation has occurred, in the areas of diet, lifestyle and career. My kitchen is my oasis. I regularly craft from-scratch meals, using local, seasonal and organic ingredients as often as possible. Stress management and self-care techniques, strategic forms of exercise and day-to-day lifestyle choices are also significant pieces of the picture in managing autoimmunity and supporting the gut. Via formal education and self-experimentation, I have come to learn what body needs (and doesn’t need) in order to thrive. With regards to medications, early 2016 witnessed the termination of the immunosuppressant and anti-inflammatory medications I had been taking for years, of which there were significant side effects. Instead, my dietary and lifestyle shifts are now supported by one, less potent, anti-inflammatory treatment on a daily basis, from which I do not attribute any noticeable side effects. I also consider this a huge WIN.
It doesn't stop there! 2015 began the gradual shift in careers from Elementary Education to Culinary & Holistic Nutrition and becoming a small business owner. My private nutritional consulting practice, as you're becoming acquainted with on this website, provides a range of customized services to my community. Furthermore, I also mentor other adults pursuing a certification in culinary nutrition as a past graduate of the same program.
Without a doubt, I know that this is where I am meant to be and what I am meant to be doing. It’s taken years to find my true calling as an educator, and for me, my true calling as a professional is seamless with my day-to-day lifestyle and how I most enjoy spending my time.
If you’re managing autoimmunity, I hope my story inspires you to both realize and believe that diet, stress management and lifestyle choices have tremendous impact on inflammation in the body, and that it is never too late to start the process of nourishing and healing your body toward a more optimal state of health.
With regards to particular food ingredients that have the potential to make a significant impact on how you feel (if you are managing digestion-based inflammation and imbalances, including autoimmunity), here are some suggestions to consider:
Some food ingredients to consider omitting:
Lack of the bacterial strains that produce the enzymes responsible for digesting the sugar and protein found in dairy can contribute to difficulty digesting such products
Prevalent food allergies (i.e. milk, nuts, egg) are associated with imbalanced gut bacteria (dysbiosis) of the microbiome; dysbiosis of the gut is a contributing factor with IBD
A significant connection exists between food allergy and Ulcerative Colitis; those possessing a dairy allergy can be more susceptible to greater severity of this condition
Gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye, and other grains)
Capable of inducing inflammation in the gut and contributing to pathology of the digestive tract
Some food ingredients to explore:
Its main, active ingredient, curcumin, is a naturally-occurring antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, shown to demonstrate beneficial effects in the treatment of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases
Prebiotic Bacteria-Rich Foods (i.e. asparagus and leek)
Nurturing the gut with prebiotic fiber has a positive impact on the bacterial make-up of one’s microbiome, in favour of protective bacterial strains and a more favourable immune response
Probiotic Bacteria-Rich Foods (i.e. raw/unpasteurized sauerkraut and kimchi)
Nourish the barrier/lining of the intestinal tract, supporting undesirable bacteria from having a stimulating effect on the Immune System
Contribute to increased production of mucus along the lining of the intestinal tract, so as to enhance the intestinal tract’s defence against pathogenic bacteria
Support the down-regulation of the effects of undesirable bacteria that are capable of stimulating the Immune Response