There’s no black and white approach when it comes to managing and treating inflammatory bowel disease. Newsflash—you don’t need to choose between medication and diet (nutrition). You can do both! This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, we hear from registered dietitian and ulcerative colitis warrior, Ashley Hurst, about how her personal patient journey inspired her to look into targeted strategies for improving quality of life with IBD.
Ashley was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 24, but she remembers symptoms starting when she was 7 years old. She lacked support for a long time, so her symptoms became her “normal” reality. When she was in college, she sought help for two years before she finally was able to get a diagnosis.
“I went to several doctors who dismissed my concerns thinking the bleeding was just fissures or hemorrhoids. It wasn’t until I was in a nutrition class in college, that I realized it might be something more. I remember reading about Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis and feeling like I was reading about all my symptoms.”
Finally, the fourth doctor she went to diagnosed her with IBD. She experienced a gamut of emotions ranging from relief to disbelief. More than anything, her diagnosis was a huge financial burden. At the time, she was working 2-3 jobs without health insurance. She couldn’t afford medication or even a colonoscopy bill.
“Since I couldn’t afford medications, I relied on nutrition and my own protocol. Once I was more financially stable, and had health insurance, I was able to start mesalamine rectal enemas and oral tablets, while sticking to my nutrition plan.
A preference for finding the balance between diet and medication
“Nutrition and medication have been lifesaving for me at times and I’ve found I prefer doing a bit of both (and so does my gut!). When choosing what route to go for IBD, often we feel a sense of guilt around taking medications. However, it’s important to remember that with whatever treatment route we go, we must weigh the risks versus the benefits.”
An uncontrolled flare is a risk and can impact our quality of life significantly. If you aren’t comfortable with medications your doctor has recommended, you can always ask what other options are available. It’s important to feel good about whatever treatment route you are taking and remember it’s your body, and your choice—just be prepared to face the consequences of active disease and hospitalization if you attempt to go against medical advice and take matters into your own hands. There is a fine balance distinguishing what triggers you and how best your disease is controlled.
The story behind The Crohn’s and Colitis Dietitians
When Ashley initially worked as a registered dietitian, she didn’t specialize in IBD. But as the years went by, she realized Crohn’s and Colitis patients were her favorite people to work with.
“I felt drawn to supporting IBD patients like myself and saw what a need there was for IBD specialized dietitians. Four years ago, I lost my cousin and close friend who had Crohn’s, and he left a lasting impact on me that further increased my desire to make a greater impact in the Crohn’s & Colitis community. He inspired me to be open about my diagnosis and get more connected with others who have IBD.”
Once Ashley decided to specialize in IBD, she quickly discovered how fulfilling it was to do work that has a lasting impact. Ashley says many people seek their support for IBD nutrition, but often feel like they need to choose one or the other.
“Most IBD research studies on both dietary strategies and targeted supplementation for IBD look at participants that are also on medications. Research continues to show that a combined approach using both medications and nutrition is the best path and can help increase chances of remission. It can be tempting to try and experiment by doing one thing at a time to see what works. However, there is currently no one cure for IBD, so treatments typically do involve a multi-faceted approach.”
As business started booming, rather than create a wait list, she brought on three other dietitians. Ashley and her team specialize in providing medical nutrition therapy for Crohn’s and Colitis patients, but also tackle SIBO, acid reflux, allergies, EOE, and much more. All four of the dietitians on the team have IBD, so they understand the patient perspective and the urgency to reach relief.
“As a team, we’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of patients with digestive challenges, and we have witnessed the remarkable transformations that are possible. We are passionate about helping people not only find relief but make peace with food again.”
Like a fish out of water concerning diet
Many of the people with IBD who Ashley speaks with express that they were dismissed when asking their provider for a dietitian referral.
“The most common thing I hear is- “I Googled what to eat for IBD and Google left me with what NOT to eat for IBD and I feel even more confused with all the conflicting information!” It’s true, the internet is filled with conflicting information on this topic. This leaves people feeling afraid of food and often only eating just a few “safe foods”. Oftentimes these self-imposed food restrictions are unnecessary and lead to malnutrition, loss, low microbiome diversity, poor gut health, and ironically more symptoms!”
This is where Ashley and her team come in. They help those with IBD sort through all the nonsense and get to what really matters most and what works on an individualized basis.
“We are interested in supporting IBD patients, not just while they work with us, but for the long haul! We equip our patients with tools to learn so that they feel confident navigating nutrition even after they leave. We also offer a variety of free and low-cost educational resources on our website and Instagram for those people who just need a next step.”
How to know if you’re truly “healing” your IBD with food
The first question Ashley asks fellow patients she consults with is—is your nutritional approach working? The only way to know is to confirm through colonoscopy and inflammatory lab or stool markers.
“Symptoms alone are not always a great indicator of how our IBD is doing. It is important to monitor your IBD even if you are feeling better to make sure your disease is not progressing.”
Medication is not the “easy way out” and is not a sign of failure
Ashley and her team work with many IBD patients who are on biologics and utilize nutrition as a complementary approach to allow their medications to work better.
“Medications often lower certain nutrients, so one way you can support yourself long term is to check for deficiencies regularly. Some nutrients like zinc and vitamin D we need to regulate inflammation and help support our digestive tract lining. Ensuring they are at appropriate levels can help prevent flares. Vitamin D especially tends to get low with inflammation and is correlated with flare frequency and severity.”
Many patients avoid fiber because they fear it will trigger symptoms. Personally, I remember the first decade of living with Crohn’s, I was told I couldn’t have more than 5 mg of fiber per serving, which I now know is not the case.
“Understanding nutrition can help with expanding your diet. Research shows the importance of fiber for IBD for inflammation reduction, preventing flares and also complications. However, fiber is the most common thing IBD patients avoid. There are many ways you can approach expanding your diet without triggering symptoms and working with an IBD dietitian can help you navigate this better.”
The Roadmap of Nutrition
On average, Crohn’s and Colitis Dietitians helps clients reduce their IBD symptoms by 50-75%. Most report that their other big takeaways are improved energy and feeling more at peace with their food choices.
“We help you achieve this through working with people in a group setting and one-on-one. With one-on-one work we see people for a total of 6 months. It starts off with an intake session where we get to know your goals and your whole story with IBD and outside of IBD. After this session we put together a customized treatment plan that is your roadmap forward.”
The process includes dietary guidance (what to prioritize in the diet) and often targeted supplementation recommendations too. After this session, Ashley and her team see people each month in sessions to monitor progress and troubleshoot anything that comes up.
“We also offer access to us through chat throughout the whole 6 months for any questions that come up. We offer customized meal planning and video modules designed to help you.”
IBD is not your fault. It’s important to remember you didn’t sign up for this and you shouldn’t have to carry the weight of it alone.
“It can be incredibly helpful to have a team around you to support you through flares and the ups and downs of IBD. An IBD focused dietitian can help you navigate what to eat, treat nutrient deficiencies, sort through best options for targeted supplementation and help you reduce IBD symptoms.”
Outsource your stress. It’s overwhelming to juggle all the proverbial IBD balls in the air.
“Having a support team alleviates stress. It’s calming to know you don’t have to think through every decision and worry by yourself. It helps to have someone to lean on and takes the weight off your shoulders.
Don’t base your journey off what works for others. Just because you see someone proclaim their success by treating their IBD with food, doesn’t mean you’ll have the same experience. Before making any rash moves with your treatment plan, it’s imperative you communicate with your care team and get medically guided advice vs. following what you see someone post on Instagram. Same goes for medications—just because one person has had a great response on a biologic, does not mean you’ll have the same response.
Here are what some patients have to say about their experience:
“I’m so glad I started this program. I had to stop biologics due to developing antibodies and have been off biologics for over six months and since starting with the Crohn’s and Colitis Dietitians, I feel better than when I was on them. I only wish I found this program earlier.” -A.T.
“During the 6 months I was with Crohn’s and Colitis Dietitians- my symptoms of diarrhea and urgency reduced significantly, I have more energy and my inflammation decreased from over 100 to 38 (fecal calprotectin). Even my doctor was surprised and curious about what I had been doing with my nutrition!” -S
Connect with Crohn’s and Colitis Dietitians
Check out these FREE resources created by Crohn’s and Colitis Dietitians:
E-book + Recipes: What to Eat for IBD
E-book + Meal Plan: One Week Meal Plan + E-book (on website home page)