The Patient Experience: Puberty and IBD

Whether you are a parent or not it’s heartbreaking to imagine how it would feel if you found out your child (no matter their age) was diagnosed with a chronic illness like inflammatory bowel disease. Of the more than six million people in the world diagnosed with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, approximately 25% of patients are diagnosed during childhood and adolescence, most of which are going through puberty. Impaired growth, pubertal delay, and low bone density are all common in children and teens with IBD. They can occur at diagnosis or at any time during a patient’s IBD journey.

As an IBD mom of three, who was not diagnosed until I was 21 years old, I personally don’t have the experience or perspective to share what it’s like to grow up with IBD or have a child diagnosed with it, so I tapped into several caregivers in our community, along with four leading pediatric gastroenterologists for input.

My hope is this article will serve as a helpful resource as you navigate the challenging waters of puberty with your loved one. Teen years are difficult enough without a chronic disease, taking a close look at how this impacts a young adult physically, emotionally, and mentally is something that deserves much more attention than a blog article.

Concerns from patients and caregivers

Before we get into the medical input, I want to share some of the messages I received this week from young patients and their caregivers so you can see firsthand how complicated this period of life is for everyone involved.

I’m 14 years old. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s when I was 12, which marked an influential time in my life. It can be hard to cope with being diagnosed and having a chronic illness at that age. That year leading to my Bar Mitzvah, a cultural rights of passage from boyhood to manhood, was really challenging for me. At a time when changes are going on and puberty takes its course, learning to trust your body and that it is working is key. Rather than trusting my body, I had a lot trust issues. If my body could turn itself to work against me in my GI system, what’s to say it wouldn’t turn on me other ways? I am especially worried about my reproductive system. Since I was a little boy, I always knew I wanted to be a father when I grew up. Having kids and being a family man has always been my highest purpose in life. Since my Crohn’s diagnosis, I’ve felt anxious and worried about whether my Crohn’s or my body will stop me from fulfilling that dream.”

“I often worry about whether my son’s hormones will put him into a flare and wonder what the best way to approach the school about his Crohn’s is.”

“My biggest puberty concern is delayed growth or slowed growth and flares. I’ve heard a lot about puberty hormones really causing issues. Is there truth to this?”

“Will my almost 15-year-old son start puberty once his treatment kicks in or will he always look like a 12-year-old child?”

“My 15-year-old lost more than 15 pounds in the last year, we’ve checked all kinds of things, but can’t figure it out. He’s on renflexis (generic Remicade) and his colonoscopy came back clean. He gets full easily and deals with chronic constipation. I hope his IBD doesn’t stunt his growth.”

“The anxiety of managing IBD while combining that with the developmentally normal anxieties of the adolescent years can result in mental health issues that are hard to pinpoint. Body image issues that are normal as their bodies change, mixing with body image and food-related issues associated with IBD (good foods and bad foods, overly focusing on diet, etc.) which can lead into worrisome territory like disordered eating and worse. As children separate from their parents more with each passing year (which is normal), it becomes harder to monitor IBD symptoms and disease progression as a parent. As someone who has always been in the driver’s seat about IBD, this is a scary shift and I worry some symptoms will go unnoticed and become exacerbated.”

“That puberty will stop growth—growth has been severely impacted by Crohn’s before diagnosis and it did—hitting puberty early meant growth stopped and she only reached 4’9”/4’10”. Her periods also add to existing fatigue levels.”

“I worry about medication not working like it used to due to so much change in the body. I also worry about how she may feel about her image comparing herself to others at that age with so many scars or if she ever needs to have an ostomy bag. I worry her IBD will affect her cycles or make them more painful.”

“That my son will go into a flare requiring heavy intervention that goes far beyond our comfort zone, but we’ll feel trapped so he’s able to grow at the right time.”

“My 13-year-old son was diagnosed with Crohn’s a little over a year ago. He is doing ok now and on Humira bi-weekly. I’m mostly concerned about his growth, as he is small for his age. He has gained about 20 pounds in the last year, but he was malnourished as COVID made it difficult to get his diagnosis. Hoping he stays on track and continues growing and that his growth potential isn’t adversely affected by his IBD.”

“As a kid who went through being on high dose steroids while going through puberty, bless my mother!”

“Delayed puberty is a big thing. Also, how, and when is it appropriate to start transitioning responsibly for ultimate transfer of care. Mental health is often a concern for adolescents (anxiety/depression).”

“Flares. Many parents report puberty as being a challenging time for IBD. Imagine all the normal teen/puberty hormonal issues and then add IBD (and I say this as a lucky parent with our teens). I think every parent that makes it out alive should get a very long vacation. The #1 thing I hear from parents of kids with IBD is: “my heart breaks every single day”. Whether in remission or not, the disease is a persistent and heavy burden on patients and families. With all the noise, it’s important not to lose sight of this fact.”

“I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 13 and it all happened very quickly. I was in eighth grade – my body changed almost immediately after being put on prednisone. Being an early developer, puberty was a challenge for me. I didn’t look like most other girls in my grade. So when I started getting really bad acne and a swollen (moon) face from the meds, it was the icing on the cake. I remember ninth grade consisted of me coming home from school and crying to my mom because I felt what was happening to me was unfair. I’d have to excuse myself during classes to use the bathroom, so everyone knew what was happening. I was mortified. And although I was an “early bloomer”, I can’t help but wonder if I would have grown a bit more if I hadn’t been diagnosed, put on prednisone off and on for the first 3 years, or started on biologic treatment. There’s always the questions and mystery of what IBD has potentially taken away from me. But living with IBD also resulted in me growing up pretty quickly. I was able to navigate the healthcare system by the time I graduated from high school. I learned to talk about my body and my health – things that I don’t believe my peers could articulate by that time. So it came with some benefits – or at least things that I have been able to turn into positives. My experiences have made me a stronger person. And I’m thankful for that.”

Impaired Growth: Why it happens and what to watch out for

According to Dr. Sabina Ali, MD, Associate Clinical Professor, Director of IBD program, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, the most common extraintestinal manifestation of IBD in children is impaired growth, particularly in Crohn’s disease and that’s also what she hears from patients and their families when it comes to their greatest concern.

“Growth is a dynamic marker of overall health in children and adolescents, which occurs in 10-30% of cases. Short stature and failure to grow can precede IBD symptoms. It is important to monitor nutrition and growth closely and as this can lead to delayed puberty. Make sure the child is routinely getting height, weight and BMI measured. Growth impairment is more common in males than females with Crohn’s disease. It’s important to get disease in remission.”

Dr. Ali went on to explain that growth issues are more frequently seen in children who have never been in remission or for those who have dealt with flare ups in the pre-pubertal period.

“Pubertal delay may potentially decrease bone mineralization and affect quality of life in children who realize that their sexual maturation is different from their peers.”

Dr. Jonathan D. Moses, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Director, Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program, UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, agrees that remission is essential as a first step to ensure normal bone growth and pubertal development. Most of the time the concerns we hear about puberty and IBD is at the initial diagnosis when parents will note that young women have not started their menstrual cycle yet at the expected age or young men have not started their “growth spurt” yet.

“Growth is a key element of children diagnosed prior to puberty. Our goal is to provide the therapy that will allow them to be in continuous remission and achieve their final adult height and avoid any pubertal delays. If there are any concerns with this, we typically place a referral to the pediatric endocrinologist to help co-manage this.”

According to this University of California San Francisco study, boys are three times more likely than girls to deal with one of the conditions most devastating effects: the failure to grow normally. Researchers were surprised by this finding because the study also found girls had a more severe disease course than boys.

Dr. Ali says that a novel finding is that a high proportion of patients with ulcerative colitis exhibited continued growth, suggesting delayed skeletal maturation is also frequent in ulcerative colitis, contrary to common assumptions. For patients exhibiting continued growth, median final adult height was greater in males with ulcerative colitis than males with Crohn’s disease but did not differ significantly in females with ulcerative colitis, compared with females with Crohn’s disease. This finding supports the growing body of literature that statural growth impairment is more common in males than females with Crohn’s disease.”

Dr. Hilary Michel, MD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, explains the importance of monitoring pediatric GI patients’ weight, height, and pubertal development over time. She says measuring weight and height and asking about pubertal development helps make sure each patient is tracking along their growth curves and developing at an appropriate rate.

“In addition to monitoring IBD symptoms and checking labs, stool tests, and scopes, monitoring growth and pubertal development is another way to make sure we are treating IBD inflammation completely. If a patient is not going through normal stages of puberty, or is going through puberty more slowly than expected, it’s a hint that we should check on their IBD disease control! And if their disease is in control, then we need to think of other causes for delayed puberty and get them in to see the right experts to help.”

Dr. Sandra Kim, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Director, Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, says along with monitoring growth and nutritional status, it’s important to keep a close eye on emotional state and quality of life.

“It’s important children understand their disease, and for families and the care team to understand where the child is not only medically, but psychologically and developmentally. As a pediatric gastroenterologist, who focuses on the care of children and teens living with IBD, I know I have a unique relationship and responsibility as I watch “my kids” grow up.”

Dr. Kim says, “We see growth impairment in children and teens with Crohn’s much more so than with ulcerative colitis, especially with extensive involvement of the small intestine. Active inflammation in the small intestine can impact an individual’s ability to absorb nutrients. IBD also impacts appetite and can lead to inadequate nutrition.”

According to Dr. Kim, studies have shown up to 80% of children (males>females) have some degree of both weight and growth impairment when their Crohn’s is not controlled. While studies do vary in the range affected, it’s clearly a significant issue.

Medication and the pubescent years

In general all pediatric gastroenterologists try to limit and shorten the exposure of steroids in children.

Dr. Ali says, “Recent inception cohort studies in pediatric IBD have highlighted baseline phenotyping of patients to predict the severity of their disease course and help identify who will benefit the most from early biologic treatment. Biologic therapies have improved outcomes in pediatric IBD, including achieving mucosal healing as well as improved growth and pubertal development.”

Prior to this, the goals of treatment in Crohn’s disease were focused on controlling symptoms, enhancing quality of life, minimizing complications to prevent surgery, and restoring growth in pediatric patients. Evidence has shown that mucosal healing is associated with sustained corticosteroid-free clinical remission, reduced hospitalization, and lower surgery rates. According to Dr. Ali, biologics are the most effective in inducing and maintaining mucosal healing in this patient population.

Dr. Moses explains how biologics are decided upon with young patients.

“The age of the patient, in the context of the biologic era, does not seem to play a significant role at our center. If a child, regardless of age, needs a biologic medication, then we will typically proceed with this after shared decision making with the family. As a rule, for all ages, we work very hard to limit steroid exposure, both by planning out their maintenance therapy right away or using exclusive enteral nutrition (EEN) to induce remission in our patient with Crohn’s disease.”

Dr. Michel says it’s important to get IBD under control quickly since the window to achieve the goal of remission is so small.

“Because of this, growth and pubertal delay can be reasons to start a biologic as first line treatment. If steroids are used, they should be short-term (induction therapy only) to prevent negative impacts on growth and bone health. These patients may also be great candidates for exclusive enteral nutrition to treat their IBD, as it can help heal inflammation and address malnutrition without the side effects of steroids. Involving an experienced dietitian is key!”

While research has shown that disease activity may fluctuate with hormonal shifts (like those that happen with puberty, pregnancy, and even menopause), Dr. Michel says she is not aware of any specific data to connect loss of response to therapy because of puberty.

Puberty gets delayed

For pediatric patients in whom remission has never been achieved or for those who have frequent relapses, puberty is often delayed.

The endocrine-hormonal mechanisms responsible for pubertal delay associated with inflammatory disease are incompletely understood. It is thought to be due to effect by both nutrition and inflammation,” said Dr. Ali.

Delayed puberty or delayed linear growth can be presenting signs of IBD to help clinicians make the diagnosis.

“Once these pre-teens achieve remission, they will begin to progress through puberty again and have improvement in their bone density, if it was low at baseline,” says Dr. Moses.

Dr Michel says, “The best way to ensure normal growth, weight gain, and pubertal development is to make sure their mucosa is healed. It’s also important we address low weight or malnutrition. If we’ve confirmed that IBD inflammation is resolved (through labs, stool tests like calprotectin, and scopes), and that patients are getting the nutrition they need, and we’re still seeing delayed puberty or slow growth or weight gain, this may prompt a referral to an endocrinologist, adolescent medicine doctor, or gynecologist to look for other causes of these problems.”

By adequately treating IBD and achieving mucosal healing, kids have the best chance to grow and develop normally and have healthy bones.

“Inflammation affects hormones important in growth and pubertal development, and delayed pubertal development is closely tied with poor bone health,” explained Dr. Michel. “Active inflammation can also worsen malnutrition and lead to low weight, which can delay puberty. These variables are often closely related; for example, a patient with active IBD may not feel well enough to eat regularly and lose weight or be malnourished. Or they may eat well but not be able to absorb the nutrients from their food. Or they may lose nutrients through stool or vomiting. So, treating inflammation and treating malnutrition are KEY to optimizing outcomes for kids and teens with IBD.”

Causes for the delay in puberty and decreased bone density can be multifactorial.

“Things we consider include nutritional deficiencies (not absorbing enough and/or not getting enough into your body), and the impact of inflammation (though pro-inflammatory cytokines – the “chemicals” produced by activated white blood cells – on sex hormone production, as well as growth hormone),” said Dr. Kim. “Other factors that can specifically impact bone density – decreased physical activity which leads to decreased muscle mass.”

When determining a course of therapy, a child’s quality of life and the impact of active IBD must be taken into consideration.

Dr. Kim explains, “Steroids have a great deal of side effects: external appearance (“moon” facies), psychological (can exacerbate underlying anxiety and depression; can impact sleep), bone health (decrease bone density and increasing risk of fractures), impact on wound healing, increased risk if long term on the GI tract (i.e. perforation), increased blood sugar (hyperglycemia), high blood pressure.”

What’s the deal with birth control and IBD?

Each pediatric gastroenterologist featured in this piece says they have heard from both patients and parents about oral contraceptives aggravating IBD. Dr. Ali says oral contraceptives are consistently linked to an increased risk of IBD.

Dr. Michel says since menstruating is a normal part of development for female patients, active inflammation, low weight, and malnutrition, can all play a role in delaying the onset of it. If a patient is flaring, they might have irregular periods or stop getting their period for some time. Once the problem is addressed—inflammation controlled, normal weight achieved, and malnutrition treated, menses typically resumes. IBD symptoms can also be exacerbated during menses for some women.

When it comes to choosing to go on birth control, and what birth control to choose, Dr. Michel advises patients and parents to be clear about their goals and weigh the risks and benefits.

“Goals for starting birth control can include regulating heavy periods or bad cramps, preventing pregnancy, improving premenstrual symptoms (mood, headache, fatigue), or even managing acne. There are some data about birth control pills increasing the risk of developing IBD, but research is conflicting about whether they increase the risk of flare. I would encourage any patient who is interested in starting birth control to talk with her gastroenterologist about what options might be best for her. An adolescent medicine doctor or gynecologist can also be extremely helpful to have these conversations, weigh pros and cons, and help young women and their families make informed decisions.”

Dr. Kim is no stranger to hearing concerns about the impact of oral contraceptives. She says it’s tough to determine whether birth control specifically aggravates disease.

“Women who have increased diarrhea and cramping around their cycles may have improvement in these symptoms when on birth control. Currently, there is not enough data to suggest birth control directly leads to aggravation of underlying IBD. However, there are other issues to consider when a young woman chooses the type of birth control. There is increased risk of venous thromboembolism (increased risk of forming blood clots) in individuals with IBD. There also is an increased risk for clots associated with combination oral contraceptives whether a young woman has IBD or not. Therefore, a woman who has IBD and goes on oral contraceptives not only has a higher risk of forming significant blood clots, but with more significant consequences from this.”

Dr. Kim’s recommendation? Avoid oral contraceptives with an estrogen component, if possible. Depo-Provera is an alternative, but you need to be aware that it can impact bone density. She says IUDs are safe and highly effective

How best to support young patients

  • Support groups: Discuss concerns regarding how a patient is coping with the IBD team. A social worker or psychologist on the IBD team can be a great resource.
  • Psychosocial assessments
  • Care coordination
  • Supportive counseling
  • Connection to resources

“As a pediatric gastroenterologist, my contribution is to manage their therapy as best I can to achieve remission. After that, we rely on our multidisciplinary team to address the psychosocial aspect of the disease and how this affects them at this stage in life,” said Dr. Moses. “Finally, we encourage the families to get involved with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and attend Camp Oasis, if possible, to meet other children their age who also have IBD. This builds up their social support network in a way that can be life changing for them.”

Dr. Michel says,I try to normalize their feelings, and reassure them that with effective treatment and achieving remission, we are working toward them reaching their full potential. I also think it’s a great time to involve experts like psychologists and child life specialists to help work through these concerns. Parents will often also ask about future fertility (kids and teens usually aren’t thinking of this yet)! It’s always a huge relief for families to learn that we expect normal fertility for our young folks with IBD and that the best way to ensure this is to get good control of disease.”

She advises parents to acknowledge how challenging it can be to go through puberty with IBD.

“Any feelings they’re feeling – frustration, anger, sadness – are ok. Then, I would encourage parents and patients to share these emotional and physical struggles with their healthcare team. Many centers have fantastic psychologists, social workers, and child life specialists that can help young people understand their disease, explore their emotions, and develop healthy coping skills that will serve them now and into adulthood. There are also fantastic resources online through ImproveCareNow and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation,” said Dr. Michel.

Dr. Kim advises parents and patients not to be afraid to ask pediatric gastroenterologists and their healthcare team for help.

“I really believe it takes a collective effort to support our children and teens. We are living in an unprecedented time with the COVID 19 pandemic (which has led to social isolation and new stressors with school, peers, and family dynamics),” she said. “Seeking our behavioral health resources (psychology, psychiatry, counseling, social work) is NEVER a sign of weakness – quite the opposite. One thing I would love to see: elimination of any perceived stigma when addressing issues around mental health. It is so crucial to address stress, anxiety, and depression. Besides the obvious impact on quality of life, we know that anxiety and depression can negatively impact an individual’s IBD itself. For the parents out there, I tell them they must check their own guilt at the door. The parents did NOT do anything to cause their child to develop IBD. I always say that you can be mad at the disease but never at themselves.”

Connect with these physicians on Twitter:

Dr. Sabina Ali: @sabpeds

Dr. Hilary Michel: @hilarymichel

Dr. Jonathan Moses: @JonathanMoses77

Dr. Sandra Kim: @SCKimCHP

Let this piece serve as a conversation starter as you discuss your child’s health with their care team. Ask the questions. Get empowered by learning and educating yourself more. As chronic illness patients and parents, it’s a constant learning curve—with each setback and triumph we gain newfound understanding and perspective. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s with guidance regarding making the transition from pediatrics to adult doctors.

Helpful Resources

Learn about the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Camp Oasis

Continued Statural Growth in Older Adolescents and Young Adults with Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis Beyond the Time of Expected Growth Plate Closure

Oral Contraceptive Use and Risk of Ulcerative Colitis Progression: A Nationwide Study

Growth, puberty, and bone health in children and adolescents with inflammatory bowel disease | BMC Pediatrics | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)

How IBD Affects Growth in Kids and Teens (verywellhealth.com)

Pediatric Crohn Disease: Practice Essentials, Background, Pathophysiology (medscape.com)

Contraception, Venous Thromboembolism, and Inflammatory Bowel Disease: What Clinicians (and Patients) Should Know

Growth Delay in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases: Significance, Causes, and Management

Circle of Care: A Guidebook for Caregivers of Children and Adolescents Managing Crohn’s Disease

Public Policy Advocacy—Pandemic Style: How one IBD volunteer has redirected his efforts to social media

He’s not your typical IBD advocate. He doesn’t have Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis himself, but he’s extremely passionate about supporting the patient community, spreading awareness, and making a difference. John Peters’ wife, Katherine, was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 12. John met her when she was 21. They dated 4 years and just got married in April. As they dated and got to know one another, he had a front row seat to the challenges IBD brings about in a person’s life. Ironically, John’s brother, Bobby, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis this past year.

John and his brother, Bobby

Connecting with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation

When John met Katherine, he remembers how she was a volunteer at Camp Oasis.

“I remember her coming back from camp and telling me what a rewarding and inspirational experience it was. I signed up the next year because I wanted to learn more about Katherine’s illness, while contributing to a good cause. As I reflect on my experience at Camp Oasis now, I feel like it enabled me to develop a deeper appreciation for the courage those with IBD bestow.”

John sees volunteering as a win-win, not only does it give him an inside look at IBD, but also allows him and his wife to spend quality time together. Out of all the volunteering he’s participated in, Camp Oasis takes the cake.

“The campers love sharing stores about IBD, and every camper feels connected to everyone around them. They don’t need to feel embarrassed because everyone at Camp understands first-hand (or through loved ones) the challenges that having IBD brings. It’s a pretty amazing atmosphere to be a part of and the experience has given me a different level of empathy for those who live with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.”

From Camp Oasis to Day on the Hill

Day on the Hill is the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s annual two-day event, where volunteers from across the nation meet in Washington, DC to talk with their legislators about policies that directly impact the IBD community.

Because of COVID-19, last year, the Foundation took Day on the Hill virtual, hosting virtual advocacy trainings and organizing conference calls with Members of Congress, their staff, and Foundation volunteers. Plans for 2021 have not been announced yet.

Day on the Hill has been my most educational experience with Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation so far. I was unaware of what legislative action could do or how much it can affect an IBD patient. My mission is to inform as many people as possible about what legislation can help IBD patients and how to advocate for it. The more people who advocate, the greater the chance for change,” says John.

John with his wife, Katherine, at the Capitol for Day on the Hill

There are two main bills volunteers have been focusing on:

Safe Step Act—This bill would reform the practice of step therapy, which requires patients to try “insurer-preferred” medications before a more ideal medication recommended by the physician. The hope is to create a more transparent and expeditious appeals process.

Medical Nutrition Equity Act—Insurance companies and other healthcare programs would be required to cover necessary foods prescribed by the physician.

“We also petitioned Congress members to join the Congressional Crohn’s and Colitis Caucus which endorses IBD healthcare protections and IBD research.”

How to get involved

John says Day on the Hill is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. He recommends anyone who may be interested to take the leap and apply to participate.

“Our day was mostly speaking with Congress members’ staff and explaining what we are petitioning for (see the bills above). I was on a team of five volunteers and each one had a chance to share how the proposed legislation affects their daily lives. It was incredible to see how just one bill in Congress can have resonating effects on so many people.”

John’s advice—to contact your local congressional representatives and discuss these bills. Click here to find out who your local representatives are. Every single person who advocates for these bills gets us one step closer to getting them passed in Congress.

Taking Public Policy Advocacy a step further

As John juggles being a full-time medical student, a newlywed, and navigating the pandemic, he’s decided to create Facebook and Instagram groups solely dedicated to educating our community about IBD legislation.

He recently launched the following social media pages:

Facebook: Crohn’s and Colitis Legislative Advocacy

Instagram: @ccla_ig

Give the pages a follow and stay up to date on all the latest IBD political news. It’s important to note John created these social media pages on his own and they are not affiliated with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.

Advocacy doesn’t happen only during Day on the Hill, it’s important to join the Foundation’s Advocacy Network to receive alerts around times of action. You can do so by visiting here.


Putting the debate to rest: IBD fatigue isn’t your “normal” type of tired

I was putting away the dishes after dinner when I paused, exhaled, and said to my husband, “Whew. I just got a major wave of fatigue.” He said, “Yeah, I feel tired right now, too.” This isn’t the first time a healthy, able-bodied person has responded this way—and I know everyone with a chronic illness can relate. I kind of laughed and tried to explain why chronic illness fatigue wasn’t the same as feeling tired, but I was coming up short for words and having difficulty explaining the difference. My husband, Bobby, genuinely wanted to know why I thought my fatigue was different than his and how I knew it was. I said I used to be healthy. I used to not have a chronic illness. I know what tired felt like then and what fatigue feels like now.

Articulating pain with IBD and fatigue can be so challenging—even though it’s something that is so much a part of our day-to-day experience. Unless you live it and it’s your reality, it’s difficult to put the experience into words.

I called upon the IBD family on Twitter and Instagram to see how they describe their own personal fatigue. Here are some of the responses:

“Imagine your car being on empty and you put $5 worth of gas in the tank until you’re running on fumes. Then you put $5 worth of gas again, and you continue this process for months at a time…while sometimes running out of gas completely multiple times along the way.”

“Having to run a consistent marathon without stopping while carrying a toddler in the front and a backpack with a week’s worth of supplies on your back…in flats.”

“Mentally feeling like you have the energy to do simple tasks, but your body physically won’t let you. Knowing I need to walk 100 feet to get in my work building and having to give myself a pep talk to do it because I’m not sure I’ll make it without having to sit down.”

“You’re tired from being tired. You are just over everything and the day drags on and on. A nap doesn’t help because you “waste” your day, but the truth is you can’t even take a shower because the thought is way too much energy.”

“Like you’re walking with ankle and wrist weights on 24/7. There are days I feel like I’m walking through a fog so dense in my head I can touch it.”

“When I think of chronic fatigue for me it means faking being well. When getting out of bed or getting a shower is an accomplishment or needing to rest after taking a shower. No matter how much sleep you get you still wake up tired. Chronic illness fatigue is physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.”

“Trying to motivate yourself when you’re fatigued and having brain fog is how I imagine swimming in syrup or molasses would be.”

“It’s the feeling of exhaustion, hopelessness, and loss. You’re beaten down from managing your condition and the various negative side effects that come with it on top of trying to function in whatever role you’re trying to play on a daily basis (for me: wife, mother, employee, and friend). It’s trying to make the most out of life but knowing you’re limited. It’s mourning the person you once were and want to be at that time. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally draining.”

“I explained the fatigue to my students that just thinking about lifting my legs to walk or the mechanics of moving my limbs is exhausting…let alone the act of doing it. Everything feels heavy.”

 “Down to the bone, exhaustion in my core, something that is impossible to push through.”

“I like it’s like first trimester fatigue! But, with no end in sight and nothing hopeful to show for the symptoms like a baby!”

“Like your body is made of bricks. Your mind knows you need to get up and do something—change over the laundry, send an email, but your mind cannot make your body move.”

“Living in a constant state of exhaustion. No amount of sleep or rest seems to shake it.”

“For me…I would describe chronic illness fatigue as KNOWING your car has no more fuel and having to get out and push it home yourself.”

“Heaviness in my body. Just surviving, not thriving. Frustrating because I want to do more things but can’t always.”

“Being tired as soon as you wake up, until you go to bed. Never fully feeling rested. Planning naps throughout a day. Heavy eyes. Mood swing when beyond exhausted.”

“Like constantly living under 10x gravity.”

“Like someone pulled the plug out.”

“Like moving through the mud. It can also creep up on you when you least expect it, sort of like this year’s global pandemic—all encompassing and has no sympathy.”

“Like I’m wearing 100 pounds worth of sandbags that don’t go away even when I get lots of sleep.”

“Waking up and still being tired. No amount of coffee can fix this tired.”

Stop the comparison game

After reading these descriptions, my hope is that the next time you try and compare your fatigue or tiredness to someone with a chronic illness you pause and be selective of your words. Of course, everyone is entitled to be and feel tired, but it’s not an even playing field energy-wise when you’re a healthy, able-bodied person. Coffee, naps, and sleeping in help most of the population feel energized and re-charged, but fatigue with chronic illness is often untouchable. A full night’s rest can still leave you feeling exhausted. A coffee may have no impact. A nap may cause the fatigue to be even more pronounced. As an IBD mom, it can be frustrating to hear someone without a chronic illness try and diminish my personal struggles by equating them to theirs when there is truly no comparison.

Caregiving During COVID-19: How IBD has helped one couple navigate the unknown

Rebecca Kaplan was only 20 years old when she met Dan, the love of her life. It was move in day her junior year of college and as she recalls “this skinny guy knocked on my apartment door to ask for toilet paper”. Her family laughed it off – because who knocks on a random person’s door asking for toilet paper – little did they know how that chance encounter would change the course of both their lives. This week, Rebecca explains how her role of caregiver has evolved over the course of a decade and how it’s helped her cope with the pandemic.

Dan and I began dating four months after that initial toilet paper introduction. Two months later, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, right while my mom was starting chemotherapy for Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As someone who has been plagued with crippling anxiety her whole life, you would have thought I would fold under the stress of two of the most important people in my life receiving life-altering diagnoses at the same time. But I didn’t– in fact, my anxiety motivated me to embrace the role of caregiver.

Dan’s first hospitalization and the colonoscopy that went wrong

We had been married less than a year, living 90 minutes away from our families and our full support system. RK 5His disease had gone unmonitored for years and his new doctor was performing a colonoscopy to see just how bad his IBD had gotten. We were unaware that he had developed a stricture that was so severe that when she pushed the scope through, it nicked the wall of his intestines, causing a perforation and bacteria to get into his bloodstream. Within 45 minutes of waking up from the procedure, he had spiked a 104-degree fever and kept telling me and the nurses he thought he was dying. I was TERRIFIED. But I also found myself motivated by the fear and the anxiety I felt.

Instead of going into a full-blown panic attack, I went into caregiver mode. I knew I needed to be Dan’s voice because he could not speak up for what he needed. It was my job to demand the best care he could get, advocate for his needs, and focus just on him.

While taking care of Dan in the hospital required most of my time and attention, I did notice that I could only do it to the best of my ability if I were also taking care of myself. We lived 45 minutes away from the hospital with a new puppy and no one to take care of him. So, while I wanted to spend 24/7 with him while he was inpatient, I knew that I couldn’t do it for my own sanity. So, I made sure I went home multiple times a day and created a separation between myself and the hospital so I could decompress, eat (SO IMPORTANT), and sleep (ALSO IMPORTANT). Being able to do that meant that I was able to be at the top of my game when he needed me the most. RK 3

It’s been almost 10 years since the series of hospitalizations that started with Dan’s perforation and ended with him having a bowel resection to remove the stricture. And in those 10 years, I’m so thankful that Dan’s health has improved greatly. He’s gained nearly 50 pounds, works full time, works out, plays softball with his dad and brother, and deals with me.

Coping with the COVID-19 Pandemic

With his health stable now, the biggest challenge we’ve been facing the past few months is coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been coping with the pandemic much better than Dan. I jokingly say that I’ve been training for quarantine my whole life, since my obsessive-compulsive disorder has always had me washing my hands, avoiding sick people, and wanting to stay home more than going out. However, Dan does not do well with change – whether that be moving to a new apartment, being diagnosed with a chronic illness, starting a new job, or having life turned upside down by a pandemic. Going from working full-time in an office to being trapped at home, isolating to stay healthy, has been hard for him. His regular life and hobbies have been stripped away from him, and not being able to leave the house and go places has left him stir crazy and agitated. RK 2

Because of this, I’ve put my caregiver hat back on in a different way. I’m not caring for his active disease; rather I’m helping him cope with change and the accompanying stress. I encourage him to do things outside as much as possible, whether that’s taking the dogs on a walk, kicking the soccer ball in the backyard, or going on a hike. I also try and help him see the bigger picture – we’re staying home so that he and our high-risk relatives stay healthy. And I remind him that this is not forever – it will get better and we will get back to normal at some point.

Rebecca’s Top Three Tactics for Caregiving

  1. Make sure you are taking time for yourself – that means eating, sleeping, and doing things to relax and take a break from being a caregiver. This is so important to help you be fully present for your loved one.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When Dan had his surgery, our house was a mess and I wasn’t prepared to come home from the hospital with him. So, my mom and sister went to our apartment one night and cleaned/straightened it up for us so I wouldn’t have to do it after spending all day at the hospital.
  3. Find your tribe who will support you as the caregiver. It’s so important to build your own support system separate from your loved one’s support system. Being a caregiver is hard and making sure you have people you can talk to and rely on is so important for your mental health.

 

Why my husband is much more than a caregiver, Dr. Phil

I still remember the moment I told my husband I had Crohn’s disease. It was a beautiful August afternoon. We sat overlooking water at a boathouse in St. Louis on our third date. As we enjoyed casual conversation and a mutual interest in one another, I knew I had to tell him about my chronic illness.

IMG_0787

Photo from our third date, the day I told Bobby I had Crohn’s disease.

Nervous to rock the boat. Scared to be judged. Worried it would tarnish the image of who I was so far. I just wanted to rip off the band aid and get this conversation over with.

It was never easy to navigate dating and relationships with my disease. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 21 in 2005. I met Bobby in August 2013 at age 29. Rather than seem put off by my disease, he inquired and showed empathy from that point forward. Never once did he make me feel less than or unworthy of love. In that moment, I knew I had found someone special and I felt a huge sense of relief.

Fast forward to this past month and all the conversation surrounding Dr. Phil’s heartless and ignorant comments about caregiving and relationships. I didn’t see the episode live, but have seen the countless posts on social media being shared to prove him wrong. I watched the interview clip after the segment aired and couldn’t believe my eyes or my ears. Dr. Phil told an interabled couple that “100 out of 100 relationships that involve caregiving fail.”

Photo by J Elizabeth Photography www.jelizabethphotos.com

Helping me walk down stairs during our engagement photos–21 days post op from my bowel resection surgery. Photo cred: J. Elizabeth Photography

It pains me to even write the idiotic words that man said. Not only is it upsetting, but it breaks my heart to think of all the young, newly diagnosed chronic illness patients out there who were already wondering if they were worthy of love because of living with a disease.

IMG_0077I’m here to tell you that you are. I truly believe my vulnerability with my Crohn’s and how I deal with flare ups is a big part of why my husband fell in love with me. Chronic illness isn’t pretty. It forces you to see the world without rose-colored glasses. It makes you realize the importance of your health and how quickly it can be taken away from you.

There’s a reason why you say “in sickness and in health” in wedding vows. My husband chose to spend his life with me, because he loves all of me—even the part of me that is riddled with illness. People are cut out to be caregivers or they’re not. You’ll come across this in your life and know which family members and friends have a special way about them. Those who don’t have this trait and ability aren’t meant to marry people like you and me. And that’s fine.

But to say that 100 out of 100 couples will fail because caregiving is involved couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s through Bobby’s caregiving that I continue to fall more and more in love with him. It’s those moments when I need help to get through a pain-filled day that I’m reminded just how strong and unbreakable our love is.

IMG_9492Caregiving looks and means different things to everyone. It’s not just about being a caregiver in the hospital or at a nursing home. It’s taking care of the one(s) you love on a typical day at home. It can be something as simple as rubbing your back or taking care of the kids while you’re stuck in the bathroom. It can be dishing you out ice cream after you give yourself an injection. Or holding your hand on a walk outside following a hospitalization. It’s those caregiving moments in particular that remind me constantly of the everlasting love I’ve found and make me 100 percent positive we will make it through, for the rest of my life.

My words of advice for you—if you’re a caregiver, know how appreciated you are—for all the little things and the big things. photo by J Elizabeth Photography www.jelizabethphotos.comIf you’re someone dealing with a disability/disease—don’t allow Dr. Phil’s ridiculously inaccurate comments make you think you aren’t worthy of love, because you are and always will be.