Changing My Diet Helped Me Get My Life Back After Being Diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis
New York Times best-selling author, Danielle Walker, shares how she's beating her autoimmune disease with diet and lifestyle.
Twenty-two was the best year of my life. I had just graduated from college and was about to marry my high school sweetheart. Life was happening just how I wanted it to.
But as I was gearing up for my wedding, I started noticing something off about my health. I began experiencing some digestive and abdominal discomfort but chalked it up to stress and figured it would resolve itself.
After I got married and my husband and I moved into our new home together, my symptoms were still lurking, but I turned the other way. Then, one night, I woke up with horrible abdomen pain with blood all over the sheets—and it wasn't period blood. My husband rushed me to the ER and I was immediately sent in for a couple of different tests. None of them were conclusive. After prescribing me painkillers, doctors recommended that I see a gastroenterologist who would be better suited to figure out the root of my problem.
Over the course of a month, I went to two different G.I. doctors trying to find answers. Numerous tests, ER visits and consults later, no one could figure out what was causing my pain and bleeding. Finally, a third doctor recommended that I get a colonoscopy, which ended up being a step in the right direction. Shortly after, they determined that I had ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and ulcers in the colon and rectum.
I was told that my illness was incurable but that there were several different treatment options I could choose from to help me live a ‘normal’ life.
To start, I was put on a high-dose Prednisone (a steroid to help with the inflammation) and was sent home with several prescriptions. I had very little knowledge about my disease and how debilitating it could actually be. (Related: Hundreds of Supplements Have Been Found to Contain Hidden Drugs, Like Viagra and Steroids)
When I returned to everyday life and started taking my medications, it was apparent within just a few weeks that the ‘normal’ I'd hoped for as a newlywed was not the 'normal' that the doctors had alluded to.
I was still experiencing the same symptoms and, on top of that, had some severe side effects from the high dose of Prednisone. I lost a drastic amount of weight, became pretty anemic, and couldn't sleep. My joints began to hurt and my hair started to fall out. It got to the point where getting out of bed or climbing up a flight of stairs felt impossible. At 22 years old, I felt like I had the body of someone who was 88. I knew things were bad when I had to take medical leave from my job.
Finding an Alternative
From the day I was diagnosed, I asked doctors if there was anything I could do naturally to help me cope with my symptoms, whether that was diet, exercise, or making any other changes to my daily routine. Every specialist told me that medication was the only known way to deal with symptoms caused by ulcerative colitis. (Related: 10 Simple, Healthy Ways to Detox Your Body)
But after almost two years of not seeing any improvement and dealing with horrible side effects from all my meds, I knew I had to find another way.
So I went back to my team of doctors one final time to reconsider my options. Given how aggressive my symptoms were, and how debilitating my flareups had been, they said I could do one of two things: I could opt for surgery and have a part of my colon removed (a high-risk procedure that could help but also cause a series of other health problems) or I could try an immunosuppressant medication administered via IV every six weeks. At the time, this treatment option was new and insurance didn't really cover it. So I was looking at spending between $5,000 and $6,000 per infusion, which just wasn't possible for us financially.
That day, my husband and I went home and pulled out all the books and research that we’d gathered on the disease, determined to find another option.
Over the past couple of years, I had read a few books about how diet could play a role in reducing symptoms that come with ulcerative colitis. The idea was that by introducing healthy gut bacteria and cutting foods that nurtured bad gut bacteria, flareups became few and far between. (Related: 10 High-Protein Plant-Based Foods That Are Easy to Digest)
By coincidence, I also happened to move next to a woman who had the same disease as I did. She had used a grain-free diet to achieve remission. I was intrigued by her success, but even then, I needed more proof.
Since there wasn’t a lot of published research about why or how dietary changes help people with UC, I decided to go on medical chat rooms online, to see if there was a trend here that the community might be missing. (Related: Should You Trust Online Comments on Health Articles?)
Turns out, there are hundreds of people who've experienced positive results by cutting grains and processed foods from their diet. So I decided it was worth a try.
The Diet That Worked
I’ll be honest: I didn’t know much about nutrition before I started cutting things from my diet. Because of the lack of resources about UC and nutrition, I didn’t even know which type of diet to try first or how long to try it. I had to go through a lot of trial and error to figure out what might work for me. Not to mention, I wasn’t even sure if my diet was going to be the answer at all.
To start, I decided to go gluten-free and quickly realized it wasn’t the answer. I ended up feeling hungry all the time and indulged in more junk than before. While my symptoms improved a bit, the change wasn’t as drastic as I’d hoped. From there, I tried several combinations of diets, but my symptoms hardly improved. (Related: Why You Should Probably Reconsider Your Gluten-Free Diet Unless You Really Need It)
Finally, after about a year of experimenting, I decided to take things to the next level and do an elimination diet, cutting out everything that could possibly cause inflammation. I began working with a naturopathic, functional medicine doctor who told me to cut all grains, lactose, dairy, nuts, nightshades, and processed foods from my diet.
I saw this as my last hope before resorting to the IV treatment, so I went into it knowing that I had to give it my all. That meant no cheating and really committing to see if it was going to work long-term.
I noticed an improvement in my symptoms within 48 hours—and I’m talking a drastic improvement. In just two days, my symptoms were 75 percent better, which is the most relief I’d felt since I’d gotten diagnosed.
The purpose of an elimination diet is to slowly reintroduce certain food groups back into your eating regime to see what causes the most inflammation.
After six months of cutting everything out and slowly adding foods back in, I realized that grains and dairy were the two food groups that really caused my symptoms to flare up. Today, I eat a grain-free, Paleo-esque diet, avoiding all processed and packaged foods as well. I’m in remission and am able to keep my medications to a minimum while managing my disease.
Sharing My Story with the World
My illness took five years from my life. The unplanned hospital visits, tons of doctors appointments, and the process of figuring out my diet was frustrating, painful, and, in hindsight, somewhat avoidable.
After realizing that food could help, I found myself wishing someone had told me to change my diet from the get-go. That’s what propelled me start sharing my journey and my grain-free recipes—so that other people in my shoes wouldn’t have to spend years of their lives feeling hopeless and sick.
Today, I’ve published four cookbooks through my Against All Grain series, all geared towards people living with autoimmune diseases. The response has been nothing short of amazing. I knew that people with UC and Crohn’s Disease would be interested in this way of eating, but what came as a shock was the diverse range of people with all sorts of different illnesses (including MS and rheumatoid arthritis) who say that this diet seriously helped their symptoms and made them feel like the healthiest versions of themselves.
Even though I’ve committed my life to this space, I’m still learning more about my disease. For instance, whenever I have a baby, there is a postpartum flare up, and I have no idea why a change in hormones plays a role in that. I’ve had to rely on more medication during that time because diet alone just doesn’t cut it. It’s just one example of things no one tells you about when you have UC; you just have to figure them out for yourself. (Related: Can You Give Yourself a Food Intolerance?)
I’ve also learned that, while diet can be extremely helpful, your lifestyle as a whole plays a huge role in managing your symptoms. I can be eating crazy clean, but if I’m stressed or overworked, I start to feel sick again. Unfortunately, there’s no exact science to it and it’s just a matter of putting your health first in all regards.
Through the thousands of testimonials I’ve heard through the years, one thing's for sure: There's a lot more research to be done on how much the gut is connected to the rest of the body and how diet can play a role in reducing symptoms, especially those related to GI illnesses. The good thing is there are a lot more resources out there today than there were when I was first diagnosed. For me, changing my diet was the answer, and for those recently diagnosed with UC and struggling with symptoms, I would definitely encourage giving it a shot. At the end of the day, what’s there to lose?