How to tell if you’ve got a flare coming on (and what to do about it)

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A few days ago I woke up with an ominous ache in my foot, and my brain immediately went to dark places. Inexplicable pain in my feet and ankles, to the point of barely being able to walk, was a major feature of my most severe flare back in 2012. At the time I had no idea why my feet ached and I had diarrhoea, and my GP was unable to make the connection between the two (and no, my feet weren’t sore from constantly running to the toilet – after all, I spent enough time sitting!).

Anyway, I soon learnt that joint pain is part and parcel of autoimmune disease, and now that my UC is under control, I experience it infrequently, with just the occasional twinge in my knees.

The foot pain put me into a bit of a spin, but not in a bad way. Although I am listening even more closely to my body right now, I’m not freaking out about a possible flare. Instead, I’m actively putting measures in place to try to keep it at bay.

Aside from my regular medication, I’m placing an even greater emphasis on my diet and lifestyle, and here’s what I’m doing:

Ensuring that everything I eat is aimed at healing. That means no ‘empty’ treats that simply satisfy my taste buds but do nothing to enhance my health. I don’t need Bliss Balls or Nakd bars or 17 bananas a day. It means using food purely as a healing tool. I love to eat and I especially love sweet things so this is extremely hard, but necessary.

No.

No.

Eating foods that reduce inflammation. Every day, I consume avocado and coconut oil/milk/yoghurt – healthy fats that are known to help reduce inflammation. I also eat a small quantity of almonds (literally about 10 a day), plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (at least 5 to 8 servings per day) and lean meat and fish. I’m big into baby spinach right now – I eat it raw or pour boiling water over it to cook it instantly – and try to include turmeric in my diet. Here’s my easy recipe for homemade SCD/paleo coconut yoghurt.

No.

No.

Cutting out alcohol. Alcohol is extremely inflammatory and the fact that I ever drink it at all is a gamble. Right now, I don’t feel like betting on my health, so the booze is gone. I’m not even sad about this; I’m too focused on healing.

Reducing coffee intake. Okay, this is very hard. When the only things you drink are coffee and water, removing 50% of your beverage options is a bitter pill. At the moment, I’m still consuming one to two cups a day, but I’m trying to reduce this to just one cup, and hopefully I’ll be able to cut it out altogether within the next few days. I really hate tea.

Choosing healthy snacks. If I do get hungry between meals, I ensure that the snacks I eat are serving me, not simply filling a gap. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t go hungry. It’s just that I won’t chuck something into my stomach for the sake of taste or plugging a hole. If I’m going to eat it, it’s going to need to fill me and fulfil a healing function. I also drink UltraInflamX once a day to load up extra vitamins and tumeric.

No.

No.

Avoiding problem foods. For me, this means no nightshades (which I’ve been doing anyway), and strictly limiting my consumption of nuts and raw vegetables, as both can be hard to digest.

NO.

No.

Not overloading my gut. I’m a big eater so this has always been my greatest challenge. But overloading my GI system, whether I’m eating healthily or not, is putting it under unnecessary strain that can only lead to damage or at the very least, discomfort. I’m not a believer in eating 6 or 9 or 73 small meals a day. Honestly, that is just not satisfying to me. I love a hearty, filling dinner, and I can go smaller on the other meals. But even that hearty, filling dinner needs to be a reasonably sized portion or my gut simply won’t cope.

Definitely no.

Definitely NO.

Drinking lots and lots of water. I already drink 2 litres a day so I can’t fit much more in without spending every free moment in the loo (one way and another, I can’t seem to get away from that place).

Getting enough sleep. I generally get between 7 and 8 hours a night and I don’t usually have any trouble sleeping, so this is one of the few things that isn’t a problem for me!

Reducing stress. I’m a highly-strung person by nature. I’m impatient, easily frustrated and quickly angered. I frequently become stressed out and annoyed, and all of this probably contributed to my diagnosis in the first place. Trying to be calmer is very difficult for me, but it’s worth the effort because stress and anger only harms the gut and inhibits the healing process. I have redoubled my efforts after reading this insightful article from Adam Scheuer at IHaveUC.com.

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What are your tips for nipping a potential flare in the butt? 🙂

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5 things you need to do for success on AIP/SCD

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I’ve been more-or-less following the autoimmune paleo protocol for the past two months (more ‘more’ than ‘less’), and I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in my body. Most noticeably, I’m less bloated, I wheeze less, and my eczema/psoriasis seems to be less angry. I didn’t experience this level of improvement during my time on SCD, so I’ve given some thought to why AIP is working better for me than SCD did.

Bearing in mind that I embarked on SCD alone, and AIP with the guidance of a qualified nutritionalist, here are the five factors that I think are most critical to success on a healing diet.

1. Find out what’s going on in your gut

Yup, I’m talking about seeing a nutritionalist and getting the tests done. Yes, it costs a bit and yes, it’s icky doing those tests, but it’s worth it. Until you know what you’re actually trying to fix, how can you be sure you’re doing the right thing? For example, if you have yeast overgrowth but you’re continuing to include sugar in your diet, you’re not going to notice substantial improvement and you won’t derive maximum benefit from your diet.

For this step, you’ll need to visit a nutritionalist or a gut-health specialist. Surprisingly, I discovered that I don’t have any yeast issues, but I do have low stomach acid and lingering inflammation. We also found that there’s a big bad bacteria party going on in my gut, and hardly any good guys to balance them out. Each of these issues requires specific supplements, which work in conjunction with diet, exercise and medication to help bring my symptoms under control.

2. Cut out nightshades

It’s very, very difficult to do this, but I do believe it’s worth it. Some might say that a life without tomatoes (or potato chips) is no life at all… and it’s hard to argue with that. But a happy belly might. Although I’ve made lots of changes, I think this has been one of the most beneficial (for me. Loads of people have no issues with nightshades). I can say with certainty that when I eat spicy foods, my belly doesn’t thank me for it. On that note…

3. Listen to your belly pain (and all other aches too)

One of the most pervasive symptoms of IBD is pain. Stomach cramps, of course, but also joint pain and other aches and niggling pains throughout the body.

When you’re in a flare or in an untreated state, your stomach cramps are likely to be constant or at least fairly frequent. One of the great joys in healing is that this pain finally starts to abate. Which is why it’s so important to pay attention to stomach cramps when you’re on a healing diet. They indicate that your body is reacting badly to something you’ve put in it. Now that you’re healing, the amazing thing about this kind of pain is that it’s pinpointing something specific – that is, something you’ve ingested – rather than a general state of illness. It means that you can take action and cut that item out of your diet – either temporarily so you can re-test it later, or permanently. Always, always listen to your gut pain. If I eat dairy – bam, cramps. Same goes for spicy food or anything too rich.

By the same token, you should listen to the other pains too. They indicate that your condition is either improving or worsening. For me, one of the prime indicators of a flare is the terrible pain I get in my knees, ankles, feet and wrists. Now that I’m healing, the pain is less frequent and far less severe. However, the fact that I do still experience it tells me that my gut is yet far from healed.

4. Pay attention to visible indicators

People with autoimmune diseases tend to have more than one of them – lucky us! I have UC, but I also have eczema/psoriasis, dry eyes and many allergies. Monitoring these more visible, measurable symptoms of autoimmune disease are an amazing indicator of your overall health. Because they’re all linked to each other, when they improve, you can be fairly sure your gut is healing – and vice versa of course. Now that the angry, scaly red spots on my legs are healing, I feel confident that my gut is starting to heal (FYI: Spending time in the sun, which is something I rarely do, also helped to dry them up quite nicely. Use sunblock!).

5. Eat good fats but don’t overdo it

After meds and supplements, the most beneficial thing for an inflamed gut is healthy fats like avocado and coconut milk. Try to include these in every meal, but in moderation. I find that if I overdo them, I become extremely nauseous, and may be rewarded with cramps and diarrhoea. The same goes for nuts – again, I’m speaking for myself here. I can tolerate nuts in small quantities but if I overdo it, especially in combination with alcohol (come on, what’s better than nuts and wine?!), I can become quite violently ill. Too much of a good thing, right? 🙂 PS: speaking of alcohol, it’s actually prohibited on AIP, but if you do choose to consume it, stick to dry wines only (nothing else is legal), and don’t overdo it, or this might happen.

As I say, these are the factors that seem to be working for me, but they’re different for everyone. What are your most important success factors for diet success?