JEWELS: Given a choice between taking an expensive drug for life, that may bring with it a host of other serious side effects, or seeing if adapting our diet can heal or at least aid in healing chronic health issues, I for one, would choose eating my way to good health any day! The trouble is we get advice thrown at us from so many sources, often conflicting. So how do we circumvent all the misinformation out there, and uncover what really works?
At the beginning of the summer I announced on Facebook that Dr. Samantha has kindly offered to write a guest post on the real skinny of what we need to change in our diets to heal chronic health issues. The response was so great that she decided to do several guest blog posts, breaking them down by medical condition. Since there were a couple people asking about how to navigate eating with Crohn’s disease, and I know first hand how miserable life is when you have symptoms – I asked Dr. Samantha to start with Crohn’s. What should and shouldn’t we eat? And also, can the disease be treated through diet?
DR. SAMANTHA: My answer is applicable to anyone with any kind of chronic gastrointestinal disorder.* Don’t be deterred from reading just because you don’t have Crohn’s! Truth be told, most people can benefit from decreasing their inflammatory load and we should all know a bit about how to do this.
Crohn’s disease, or regional enteritis, involves severe inflammation in parts of the intestine. It can lead to diarrhea, pain, and problems with nutrient absorption. I’ve worked with countless patients with this and similar conditions and I can say without hesitation that diet plays a pivotal role in both healing and prevention of symptoms. And, as I mentioned above, the approach I take with diet for Crohn’s is similar to that of any chronic gastrointestinal conditions including ulcerative colitis and IBS. And, although it is always individualized, there are some basic tenets that will apply to everyone with these conditions. Once we do this, it is often possible for patients to re-introduce healthy foods that were once bothering them, like dark chocolate, vegetables, and even some spicy food!
1. Remove irritating foods
2. Heal the lining of the intestine (this can often be done with supplements but in some cases it does need to be handled with medication.)
3. Follow an anti-inflammatory diet, including both foods that are generally likely to be inflammatory, and foods that cause you to respond with inflammation.
To manage any kind of inflammation in your body (think “-itis” gastroenteritis, sinusitis, arthritis, tendinitis, etc), it’s important to get your overall inflammatory load down, as well as to figure out which foods are actually causing a problem for you, personally. It’s common for gastroenterologists to tell their inflammatory bowel patients that their diet has nothing to do with their illness and as long as they stay away from high fiber foods that they can eat whatever they feel like eating. They often will even encourage patients to eat foods that we know are inflammatory because it will help them gain weight, which is often an issue for those with chronic diarrhea.
As a naturopathic physician this is the opposite of my approach. In my experience, it is easy to gain weight with healthy foods if you need it, you just need to learn the ins and outs.
So what is an anti-inflammatory diet? This would be a post unto itself. I can heartily recommend my colleague Jessica Black’s book to learn some basics. Typically it includes avoiding refined sugars and grains, gluten, dairy, and making sure that animals you eat are raised on their natural diets and without added chemicals and hormones. Dr. Black recommends avoiding pork entirely but I tend to be a little more flexible with that for patients who want to include a little bit in their diets. Another class of foods that many physicians recommend eliminating for an anti-inflammatory plan are the nightshade vegetables: tomato, potato, peppers, and eggplant. These are foods that I will tend to let patients try to reintroduce once their symptoms are resolved for a period of time.
If symptoms are bad, I will go beyond a simple inflammatory diet and also recommend doing an elimination diet, removing the foods that may cause irritation. There are a number of different approaches to doing this but I typically have people follow it for 4-6 weeks or until they are feeling well (this can be up to 3 months.) We then reintroduce foods one at a time to see how each food impacts both the digestive system and the rest of your body.
It’s best to do this under the care of a physician who has experience with this process as it can be complicated and individualized.
When it comes time to start working on healing the lining of the intestine we work with supplements including but not limited to probiotics, soothing herbs, and amino acids that actually repair the lining of the intestine.
Then on the other side, once symptoms are better, you can avoid the foods that irritate you and focus on the foods that make you feel healthy and vibrant. I personally follow an anti-inflammatory diet 98% of the time because it just makes me feel better, period. And I am also a foodie who loves to cook and eat out at great restaurants. Is it sometimes challenging? Yes. But the result is that you have yourself back. And nothing beats that, right?
* I’ve got to mention, of course, that this post should be taken as general information and not medical advice. It does not imply any patient/physician relationship as obviously I can’t give individual medical advice on a blog!
Dr. Samantha Brody is a licensed naturopathic physician, acupuncturist, and owner of Evergreen Natural Health Center in Portland, OR. When she’s not seeing patients or blogging at http://DrSamantha.com/blog, you can find her cranking out her upcoming series of books on hormone health and balance for women in their 20s and 30s. She’s a powerhouse speaker and has been a featured expert in numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal.