Diet vs drugs: Why I’m sticking with my UC medication in 2015

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So let me begin with a disclaimer: I’m not a doctor (yada yada); I’m not any sort of medical professional (blah blah blah) and I speak only from my own layperson experiences (etc etc).

Today I saw my doctor for the first time in a year! Time was when I saw him monthly, before I was diagnosed with UC, and soon after, while I struggled to get my last flare under control.

Am I in remission?

Hard to say, says the doc. And for that reason, he doesn’t want to take me off my meds. I’ve been taking Asacol (800mg) twice a day for almost a year and a half. I have been fortunate in that I haven’t experienced any side effects that I’ve been aware of, although I know this isn’t true for everyone.

Asacol is a very small, very simple part of my life. I take it every morning and most nights. I say ‘most’ nights, because sometimes I forget (and I’m totally okay anyway). But doc says that coming off it completely may send me back into a flare, and considering I’m doing so well, I’m so healthy, and I’m experiencing no side effects, there’s no reason to come off it.

Medication vs. diet: What a year has taught me

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When I was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, I read loads and loads of blogs and forums and really anything the Google results returned. I found that many, many people were successfully treating their autoimmune diseases through diet, and I wanted in. I didn’t want to rely on medication, and so my healing diet journey began.

First up was SCD, and I believe it did great things for my body, flushing it of toxins and giving it a good long time to just recover. Essentially, I treated my gut like a baby’s, and that was exactly what it needed…

… but it wasn’t a permanent fix. Next up I tried autoimmune paleo for a while, and struggled with it (it was just too restrictive, so I kept cheating and bingeing, and then guilting myself and it was ALL TOO MUCH). Paleo was next, and that’s probably the diet I stick closest to now, although I’m certainly not strictly paleo.

I try to eat a high fat, mid protein, low carb diet. Basically, a healthy diet devoid of processed junk. I stick with it around 90% of the time, and I’m happy with that.

But that said.

I do not believe that diet alone could have helped me get my symptoms under control – because I tried; I did. I was terrified of going to the doctor when I was bleeding daily, severely – I didn’t want to know what was wrong with me, and anyway I was convinced it was cancer (aren’t we always? Thanks Dr Google). So I searched for holistic, natural cures for diarrhoea. I had a freezer crammed with blueberries, a fridge full of fresh ginger and cupboards creaking under the weight of white rice and salted crackers. I tried doing a completely ‘white’ diet – rice, bread, pasta, etc – and that helped for a while, until it didn’t any more. I tried avoiding fibre, but I was way too far gone for that. Then for a while, I lived on boiled eggs and basmati rice because it was all my tummy could handle.

None of it stopped the diarrhoea, at least for any significant period of time – and that of course is because I was in the midst of an aggressive flare, and I needed cortisone, and then long-term medication to manage it.

Asacol has changed my life. Throughout all my dietary experimentation of 2014 – and there was a lot of it – Asacol staved off flares and helped keep my system in check, even when I had cramps and discomfort and the occasional bout of OMG-it’s-another-flare panic.

I’m not saying that a dietary change can’t help some people – we’ve all seen piles and piles of evidence stating the opposite. But diet alone wasn’t the answer for me; medication has been.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I abuse my body. I don’t fill it with unhealthy rubbish just because Asacol is so good at keeping the junk from causing trouble. I try to stick to my healthy, clean eating as much as possible, and I won’t go back to grains, or too much dairy, because it places strain on my body that it simply does not need. I want to know, one day when I’m old, that I did everything I could to promote good health long into old age. As anyone with IBD knows, it can lead to many other horrible complications later in life.

For me, the answer so far has been meds first, diet second, but always focusing on eating healthily. I know this flies in the face of what many bloggers say, and as I reiterate, it’s simply my own experience.

If you’re flaring, if you’re very sick and you can’t get your symptoms under control, see a doctor. And if what you’re doing is working for you, that’s simply great.

Interesting note about dairy

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   Basically exactly how it feels  

I’ve discovered fairly recently that I’m able to tolerate small to ‘mid’-sized amounts of dairy, despite being lactose intolerant.

There is a belief that if you’re intolerant to a certain type of food, and you cut it out completely for some time, your body begins to ‘recover’ and may be able to handle it in small quantities again. This has been my experience (this in particular I think is more due to diet than medication, but obviously the meds must help). I cut dairy out for about a year, so I think that gave my body some much-needed recovery time. But I don’t push it – after all, I’m still lactose intolerant, and overdoing it could be a contributing factor to flares, so I (mostly) take it nice and slow with foods that are very low in lactose.

Here’s to another flare-free year.

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One year later: The foods I stopped eating in 2014

SugarCoated

In an effort to find an eating plan that helped me manage my IBD, I tested a lot of different healing diets in 2014 (hence this blog). Turns out, there was no one specific diet that gave me the answer. I had to tweak my eating plan to add and remove foods that my body did and didn’t like, and to find a way of eating that suited me. Here’s a list of what didn’t work for me – it might help you to pinpoint your problem foods. Lower down is a list of all the things I can (and am) eating and drinking now, a year later.

Artificial sweeteners. I used to drink a ton of diet cooldrinks as well as multiple cups of tea and coffee every day, each sweetened with low-calorie sugar replacements. I knew that they were causing me intestinal discomfort, but I ignored it until I was incredibly ill, and then it was the first thing my nutritionalist cut from my diet. The carbonated drinks caused bloating, and aspartame – the main ingredient in many sweeteners – is known to cause GI distress in those predisposed to gastrointestinal disorders. Meanwhile, sorbitol – an ingredient in gum, some diet drinks and even fruit like apples, peaches and prunes – is hard to digest and can cause gas, bloating and diarrhoea. Some researchers have gone a step further to say that sweeteners can cause IBD – just give this scary article a read if you needed any more convincing.

Processed food. I’m hardly an angel – I definitely slip up from time to time, and even since my diagnosis have been known to indulge (one time) in Nutella cheesecake. But for the most part, I avoid anything packaged (unless it has just one or two ingredients, like tomato paste made only from tomatoes and salt). I don’t eat takeaways, sweets, chips or cheap chocolates (when I do have chocolate, I usually go for good quality bars with a high cocoa content). Again, there is the occasional instance in which I slip up, but the norm is for me not to include these items in my diet.

Most dairy. I am lactose intolerant, and when I found out, about two and a half years ago, I cut out all dairy immediately. When I let some sneak back into my diet, I’d have terrible flares. Now that my IBD is under control, and I’ve been lactose-free for so long, I’ve found that I can eat certain dairy products in limited amounts without experiencing horrible side effects. Cheese in small quantities is fine, as is butter and very limited amounts of cream cheese. I still avoid milk, cream and yoghurt, and feel that I’m getting the best benefits of dairy from the items I can eat, and avoiding the dairy products that are usually laden with unhealthy additives (ie, sweetened yogurt).

Sweetcorn. I seldom, if ever, eat sweetcorn. This is because it’s aggravated my belly in the past, so instead of taking a chance, I skip it (and don’t miss it). Baby corn seems to be okay in small amounts.

Bran flakes. If you have IBD, chances are you don’t need much additional bran in your diet. I only realised this well into my second bad flare. These days, if I need a little ‘help’, I drink more water and eat more vegetables. I LOVED bran flakes (especially with milk and sweetener) and I miss breakfast cereals. But believe me, it’s better this way.

Gluten. Both nutritionalists that I’ve been to have strongly recommended I remove gluten from my diet, even though I’m not coeliac. When I’ve tested it, I haven’t had a problem with it, but that said, I’m trying to eat clean, and without gluten in my diet, I feel healthier, lighter and less bogged down. Also, by avoiding packaged foods, I’m automatically avoiding 90% of gluten. I won’t lie – it’s hard to resist the other 10%: the bread basket on a restaurant table, or the birthday cake calling my name. But I do, as much as I can.

Sugar. I have a serious problem with sugar – my problem being that once I start, I can’t stop. No one should be consuming sugar in large amounts, but lots of people can have a slice of cake and stop. I can’t – which is a particularly serious problem for someone who shouldn’t be eating most of the constituents of those two three six slices of it. Sugar is responsible for all manner of horrible illnesses, and for me, given the fact that my GI tract is already compromised, there’s no need for it.

So what do I eat? Everything else!

Healthy Snacks

It might seem like I’ve cut almost every type of food from my diet, but that’s really not the case – not if you know how to eat clean. I eat meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, dark chocolate, cheese and all the delicious dishes you can make from those ingredients. My diet sustains me, makes me feel full, healthy and, most importantly, not bloated and kak (that’s a wonderful South African term for which there isn’t really a translation, but look it up anyway).

And what do I drink?

It’s a very common concern: what can I drink on SCD/paleo/autoimmune paleo, etc. For a start, everyone should be consuming at least two litres of water a day. It’s much easier than you think if you keep water with you all the time.

I also drink good quality black coffee (without sugar – takes some getting used to), but this isn’t allowed on autoimmune paleo. Herbal teas are good, as are pure fruit juices on SCD, if you aren’t avoiding fruit sugars. Sparkling water with berries, lemons, cucumber or orange slices added is a delicious alternative to a fizzy cooldrink, and you can also make your own iced teas and coffees. Play around with the ingredients you’re allowed to have/can tolerate, and avoid adding anything processed to your drinks. Sweeten with honey.

As for alcohol, this is a very personal choice. I’m not a big drinker and I’ve never enjoyed beer, ciders, etc. Some diets will tell you that dry wines and vodka are okay (this is the only spirit I drink), while others (autoimmune paleo, for example) will ban all alcohol. If you are flaring, you should definitely avoid alcohol. If your IBD is under control, test it carefully. Here’s a detailed piece I wrote on what to drink on a healing diet.

What diet am I following now?

I tend to jump around and try different eating plans that work for me, so there isn’t one specific diet that I’m following. It’s not SCD, paleo or AIP. If anything, at the moment, it’s a low carb high fat diet (LCHF). But mostly, it’s a clean, healthy diet devoid of unhealthy packaged foods and excess sugar. And it’s working for me, which is the most important thing.

You need to find a diet that works for you, and if it doesn’t fit into the framework of any specific healing diets, make it up. Tweak, change, add and remove according to want your body likes and wants, and call it your specific diet 🙂