A Registered Dietitians’s Take: Diet vs Medicine for IBD

Managing and treating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) with medication is often necessary for those who live with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. But for many, it’s a difficult decision that often comes with pushback and worry. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from well-respected registered IBD dietitian and ulcerative colitis patient extraordinaire, Stacey Collins, about how she breeches this subject with patients and caregivers and how she utilizes her own patient journey to help empathize with those who are struggling to take the plunge.

Holding space and helping patients accept their reality

When it comes to needing medication, oftentimes conversations are harder on parents or caregivers, than the patients themselves. Stacey tries to encourage caregivers to find the support they need to accept the reality of their loved one needing medication to have a quality of life.

She says, “If someone wants to work with me on their nutrition “instead of medication,” I try to understand where the person is coming from. Usually, it’s from a place of fear, or uncertainty, and I really affirm that experience and hold space with them. Medications, side effects, accessibility, and adherence…it can all be so…heavy. There’s plenty of room to hold those two truths: meds are hard. And they’re often necessary.”

Stacey says when having these conversations she always begins with listening and holding space and then she puts her clinical hat on to ensure that it’s understood that these diseases are progressive and inflammatory, and that science shows that it’s best to get ahead of the inflammation, often with a medical provider, rather than chasing down the symptoms and the inflammation while quality of life suffers.

“I see my role as a registered dietitian as supportive of both treatment goals: helping patients have a quality of life, while assisting with the inflammation. But, I can’t provide medical nutrition therapy without the medicine component, and since diet isn’t ultimately the cause of these diseases, it works best as a complementary therapy with the support of a GI team; not as a cure.”

If patients aren’t trusting of their GI provider, Stacey tries to encourage them to seek out an IBD-specific GI doctor, if possible, while ensuring there’s also frequent follow-up with their local GI team, if they’re living somewhere rural. She says a lot of these conversations are born out of not feeling supported by GI providers, so she tries to help patients find GI’s who specialize in IBD, who are that are a better match.

“I’m upfront about not feeling comfortable about using nutrition in lieu of medication. That puts a lot of non-evidence-based pressure on my job as a dietitian, removes a lot of joy from the experience of eating, and further perpetuates the stigma associated with medicine. IBD is not a preventative metabolic disease, and patients should never feel blamed for eating their way into an autoimmune disease diagnosis. It’s simply not true, and it’s harmful messaging.”

How Stacey’s IBD journey inspired her to become a registered dietitian
 

At the time of her IBD diagnosis, Stacey was desperate for anything to stay alive. So, when it was either steroids, a biologic infusion, or having her colon removed, she was thankful the outcome wasn’t terminal.

“I happily agreed to the meds without even thinking about it. Within a month, I felt like a “normal” college student again, and honestly the changes that I experienced within my body due to the disease itself (losing my long, thick hair in clumps from malnutrition; seeing my body change rapidly to look emaciated), were far more difficult than any side effects from the medication. I felt like it was very much a night-to-day scenario, and I was so grateful for the medications as a result.”

But once she started feeling a little bit better and opened up to some family members about her disease, she heard a lot of negative chatter about the aggressive nature of the IV meds that she had “chosen” and thought, “Hmm. Maybe I’ll try juicing and holistic wellness,” never mind the fact that she was 21 years old with no professional support in making that decision.

“I quickly ended up hospitalized and needing an emergency Remicade infusion (the good ole days when hospitals kept it stocked in their pharmacy). The attending GI doc gave me some tough love, and really took the time to explain to me how “this is lifelong” and “you can’t be late on an infusion, because your immune system will lose response to the medication” and that really clicked for me. It was a hard moment and a tough pill to swallow, but it was a lesson of “maybe my well-meaning family members don’t know what’s best for me, and I’m going to have to trust my body, this med, and this doctor.”

In the years after, she went on to lose response to medications, start new ones, and it was always a night-to-day scenario all over again.

“I think this black/white sort of dichotomy of my experience on and off medication helped me accept that this was my reality pretty easily compared to others’ experience perhaps where maybe they’re less sick and the meds (not to mention the insurance gymnastics required to obtain them regularly) might seem daunting and leave people thinking, “Do I really need this?”. I was able to truly see that meds (and a whole GI team advocating on my behalf repeatedly for access to them) absolutely are the reason I’m still here.”

The challenge of receiving infusions

Infusions were psychologically a little “icky” for Stacey at first. She went from being a young, fun college student on campus with peers one minute… to driving 5 miles away to an infusion center where she was the youngest by a longshot, usually next to someone twice her age receiving chemotherapy or dialysis, and then she would go back to campus and pretend like nothing had happened.

“My boyfriend at the time (now husband) and I had a favorite haunt: Homeslice Pizza in Austin, Texas. Before my diagnosis, we were there on a date, and I spent the whole time in the bathroom. This was one of those places where there’s only one toilet…so I’d immediately finish and get back into line for the bathroom.He was really kind and said, “It’s okay! We’ll take it to-go, and when you’re feeling better, we’ll come back and have a pizza day and celebrate!”

Stacey says they were both so grateful for the night-to-day improvement with medicine that they named infusion days “Pizza Days” and this gave her a reason to look forward to infusion days, instead of dreading them. Over the years, we started inviting our friends to “Stacey’s Pizza Day” everywhere we moved: from Austin to Houston to Oklahoma City, and her friends had so much fun celebrating her infusion schedule every 2, 4, 6, or 8 weeks.

Utilizing research to help back the need for medication

As a dietitian, medications are out of Stacey’s scope of practice. As a patient, she knows them to be helpful. She tries to connect patients to resources so they can make informed decisions for themselves with a GI team that they trust. Resources like the IBD Medication Guide on the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s website are really useful, as well as IBD And Me if patients and caregivers are having some cognitive dissonance about finding a biologic that feels right for them.

“Then I’ll ask them about what their takeaways were. Sometimes, talking out these conversations really helps patients find useful, effective ways to communicate to their GI doctor, so while I understand that it’s not my role as a dietitian to provide guidance on medication selection, I’m happy to help patients sift through what sort of questions or concerns they need to express to their GI doctor. So often as patients we brush off our concerns or our fears because we don’t want to be a bother, and I really encourage patients to have these hard conversations with their GI provider; A good doctor will want to know.”

Why taking medication is not the “easy way out”

It’s fine to struggle with medications; medications can be hard. It’s not fine to feel shamed out of using them under the dogma of gut-health and over-supplementing, and unfortunately there’s a lot of misinformation in the IBD space of people professing left and right how they’ve “healed their gut” naturally.

“I feel like I’m uniquely in the middle of loving the science of nutrition and needing modern medicine to still be here. For me, it’s been damaging and debilitating to also make society comfortable with my need for medicine for so many years until I learned to let that go. Now I speak up when I can if it’s worth my energy. There’s nothing easy about needing medicine for life to stay alive, and the people who say otherwise just haven’t seen that in their life, and that’s okay. It’s not okay for them to think their experience can be applied to all people with gut health issues though. Would also love to have clarification on “gut health.” IBS? SIBO? Constipation? Nervous stomach? Gas? IBD? These are different things that can’t have the same, convenient solution.”

How we can rely on nutrition as a valuable tool in managing our IBD

Stacey sees nutrition as the shiniest, easiest available tool in a toolbox full of other tools: mental health, sleep, pain management/PT/movement, medicine, and surgery.

“Sometimes when I work with IBD patients, nutrition is not even the most important tool- it just depends on what’s going on in each person’s life. Maybe surgery is the most important tool, or it’s mental health. Different life moments with IBD will require different tools, and while my obvious favorite tool is nutrition, the other tools mean a lot, too.”

Nutrition is a tool that is compatible with all the other tools, and nutrition interventions might take some fine-tuning, mindset shifts, and some tailoring to each person’s lifestyle. But the beauty is that it can be picked up as needed, and that’s nutrition’s superpower: it’s a tool, and it’s also a bridge for connection, safety, comfort, and a quality of life within the context of IBD.

“I teach my patients individualized nutrition for IBD as the remissive/relapsing beast that it is, not just for what it looks like during the time that I work with them.”

Stacey’s advice for patients

  • Expect non-linear. Try not to compare. Feel the feelings, let the energy and the emotion move through you whatever way it needs to, brace for impact, and know you’re still here. Make room in your day to celebrate a good one!
  • Recognizing there can be two dualities that are true. You can hate needing medicine and be grateful that they kept you alive. You can feel deep sorrow for losing your health before you were old enough to acknowledge its presence and embrace this new, unprecedented, post-op reality, even though it’s different than what you expected.
  • Embrace your emotions. You can cryabout the reality of having needed an ostomy and be thrilled to eat a chocolate croissant in a moving car without pain BECAUSE the ostomy granted you a pain-free eating experience. You can be fearful about choosing a j-pouch and celebrate that it’s possible and wild to live with one.
  • Resenting the diagnosis is normal. You can resent your IBD diagnosis and be grateful for who you are with it (and thankful for all the people you’ve met because of your diagnosis!).
  • Lean on support groups and the IBD family. The support groups through the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation have been helpful for a lot of Stacey’s friends, and for her personally. She’s a huge fan of Spin4 and Team Challenge. Finding a safe, welcoming community who gets your reality (wherever that may be!) can be powerful and uniquely helpful.

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