Building Body Composition and Maintaining Weight While Battling IBD

For many of us, when we’re initially diagnosed with IBD or when we flare, we experience weight fluctuations. The number on the scale may plummet during times when eating anything hurts or seems to make symptoms worse. The number on the scale may skyrocket when we’re on prednisone and not only retaining fluid, but also wanting to eat everything in sight.

Andrew Jagim, PhD, CSCS*D, CISSN was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2014 after being infected with an intestinal parasite (Giardia). He managed to remain in remission for a few years until things went downhill quickly at the end of 2016. He dropped 50 pounds over the course of 3-4 months, was going to the bathroom 15-plus times a day, was running constant fevers, severely fatigued, anemic, and had little appetite. In the spring of 2017, after two weeks on TPN and several days in the hospital, he decided that a sub-total colectomy was his best option at the time. Since then, Andrew’s battle has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, resulting in 12 colorectal surgeries.

Sports and fitness have always been a huge part of Andrew’s life—so much so, that he made a career out of it. He has a doctorate in exercise physiology, is a certified strength & conditioning specialist and a certified sports nutritionist, so he has an extensive background when it comes to understanding the important roles of exercise and nutrition for health and performance.

“Throughout my life, a large part of my identity has always been tied to my physical appearance. I’ve always been known as someone who is athletic, big, and strong with a high state of fitness. I struggled immensely during my flares and surgery recoveries when I couldn’t work out, when I looked sick or couldn’t stop losing weight. It was like I was losing a sense of who I was and who I identified with. When I looked it the mirror, it pained me to see my hard-earned muscle just “falling off” when I was too sick or weak to workout. However, I have always been determined to rebuild my body and regain what I lost.”

This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s—a look at the impact disease flares and surgeries can have on body composition, and how you can try and counteract the changes through diet and exercise.

A cornerstone of the disease itself is a high state of inflammation – most of which is centralized to the gut; however, this can also have systemic effects thereby resulting in widespread joint pain, fatigue and even a state of anabolic resistance within muscle tissue. Essentially, this makes it challenging to maintain or increase muscle mass during a period of high disease activity. This can be coupled with a reduction in appetite which can exacerbate body weight loss and muscle loss.

Surgeries can range from minimally invasive procedures to treat a fistula to much larger and complex operations such as removal of sections of the bowel and placement of a stoma for an ostomy. Depending on the magnitude of the surgery, patients often must modify diet and physical activity based on the recommendations of the surgeon.

These modifications will likely lead to decrements in body weight, muscle, strength, and endurance in the short-term; especially individuals who may have been highly active prior to the surgery. However, in patients who may be extremely ill at the time of surgery, the procedure may help them regain lost weight and strength as their body may finally be able to heal and recover from the inflammatory cascade brought on by IBD.

The Case Study Andrew Conducted

A year and a half after Andrew’s colectomy, he decided to schedule the second step for the J-pouch procedure. However, prior to, he decided to take advantage of this unique opportunity and conduct a case study on himself to document the changes in body composition and performance throughout the recovery process. He was curious how a surgery like that would impact someone with his fitness state as most of the literature focused on smaller or more sedentary individuals. Leading up to surgery, he had been able to resume his regular fitness routine and got his weight close to where it had been for most of his adult life.

“As seen in the figure below from my published case study, there were significant declines in body weight (-10.5%), lean body mass (-9.9%) and endurance (-40.3%) 4-weeks post-surgery. At 16 weeks postoperatively, most parameters were near their baseline levels (within 1–7%), with the exception of my peak endurance, which was still 20.4% below baseline. Thankfully, I was able to leverage my educational background and expertise in exercise physiology and nutrition to use targeted exercise and nutritional strategies to retrain my body and build my physique back up,” explained Andrew.

The balancing act of trial and error

As many IBD patients know, there are a lot of nuances, misconceptions, and unknowns regarding how diet impacts disease. For Andrew, it has been a lot trial and error to find foods that worked for him and helped him achieve his goals.

“Early in the recovery stage, just getting my appetite back and trying to eat more while not interfering with any post-operative dietary recommendations was always my goal. For me, this meant trying to eat about 2,500 – 2,750 calories and 150-170 grams of protein per day. In my opinion, these are the two most important dietary goals when it comes to regaining any weight (especially muscle mass) following surgery or during a flare. It will also help support the tissue and incision recovery following surgery”

Regarding exercise, strength training, is the most effective form of exercise to regain lean body mass following surgery. However, most colorectal surgeons (for good reasons) impose a lifting restriction of no more than ~10-15 lbs. for about 6 weeks following surgery to allow the incisions to heal and avoid the risk of hernia.

“For my larger surgeries, this was easy to abide by as I was in so much pain and was so fatigued that it was a struggle to just get dressed and ready for the day, so there was no temptation to get back in the weight room any time soon. But for the smaller surgeries, as I got closer to the 6-week mark, I was anxious to get back to my old routine. I took a very conservative approach and used a lot of alternative training techniques (i.e. blood flow restriction training, isometrics, resistance bands, etc.) to elicit an adequate training stimulus while not having to lift heavy weights and to avoid injury,” said Andrew.

Andrew’s main piece of advice about life with IBD? “Be prepared for a rollercoaster of changes to both your body composition and physical abilities throughout battles with IBD – especially during a flare or following surgery. Unfortunately this also will likely take a toll on your mental health as well, or at least it certainly did for me. However, just know that you can always get it back in time and more often than not, come back even stronger. Be patient and give your body rest when needed but otherwise keep grinding.”

Everyone has their own battles they are fighting

“I think my experience with IBD has taught me that everyone has their own battles they are fighting – even if they don’t show it. Additionally, it is also a reminder that not all disabilities are visible as a lot of people are probably unaware that I live with a permanent ostomy. I have chosen to keep a lot of my health struggles private and I think a lot of people will be surprised when they hear what I’ve endured over the past five years as I have still managed to have a successful career and not miss much work – despite all the surgeries and time spent feeling very ill.”

Andrew’s IBD journey also shifted his research focus a bit and challenged him to apply my knowledge of how to increase performance, strength and muscle mass in athletes towards a more clinical application.

“A lot of the strategies that work well with athletes can be modified and used in clinical settings as several of the benefits (i.e. increased muscle, strength, endurance, energy, etc.) may also help improve quality of life in patients will a chronic illness, those who are critically ill, or those recovering from surgery. It’s just a matter of making the appropriate modifications and fitting them to the current need,” said Andrew.

Here’s how you can connect with Andrew:

  • Facebook: Andrew Jagim
  • Twitter: @Ajagim
  • Instagram: Sports Science/Performance Nutrition Focused: @andrewjagim
  • Instagram: IBD/Ostomy Focused: @the_chronic_comeback

IBD and Adoption: Insight from a Crohn’s mom about the journey

When you have IBD, the path to motherhood can look different for many. There is added stress about whether your body can create and sustain a new life successfully. There’s worries about flare ups and medications and how to stay well-managed while keeping the health of your unborn child in mind…just to name a few. For 30-year-old, Audrey Bolton, of North Carolina, adoption had been a calling in her life since high school when she stood at the airport and watched a family friend bring home their daughter from Guatemala.

She knew from that day forward, she would adopt one day. What she didn’t know is that she would be diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 10 months after getting married and struggle to conceive. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, Audrey shares her journey of becoming an IBD mom through adoption and what she wants others to know about the process.

NH: Many women with IBD fear their bodies are incapable of carrying a child/or are told they aren’t well enough. What would you like to say to them?

AB: “I would tell them that every journey to parenthood looks different, but at the end of the day, we are all moms. I think it depends on everyone’s situation and it’s a conversation they need to have with their doctor(s) and their spouse. For me, I was sick at the time my husband Crawford and I wanted to have a baby. I was not sick enough to where I wouldn’t be able to parent, but I do not think my body at that time could have been healthy enough to carry a child without problems. With that said, I’m nearing remission so I do still hope that one day we can have a biological child. If a person wants to be a mom, I fully believe that there are many different avenues a person can take to be a mother.”

NH: What are some of the struggles/challenges about adoptions that you wish other families knew?

AB: “Adoption comes from a place of brokenness, so while it is so beautiful that our son Camden made me a mother, it is not lost on me that his birth mother made a huge sacrifice that left a piece of her heart missing. It can be beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.”

NH: Was the fact you had IBD ever an issue with adoption agencies?

AB: “Not at all! I love this question because I wasn’t sure what to expect when we started the process back in 2017. For all adoptions, you must complete a home study which includes health questionnaires, a physical, and several meetings with a social worker. In those meetings, we talked about my Crohn’s disease and how I was working with my doctor to treat it. If a person is well enough to parent and take care of a child, there are not any issues with having IBD and being eligible for adoption.”

NH: What are your tips for navigating the adoption journey with a partner/spouse?

AB: I could write a book on this one, but the truth is, Crawford has been my rock. He had no idea when he married me that I would be facing a chronic disease that would land me in the hospital multiple times a year for days on end. He has truly stuck by his vows “in sickness and in health.” I think the best tip I have for navigating Crohn’s with a partner/spouse is to communicate. Crawford knows when I’m not feeling well, the best thing for me is to rest and he makes it happen. He also is my voice of reason and tells me if I’m doing too much or if I need to say no to some obligations so that I can properly rest. Communication is key!

NH: What was it like when you first met your son Camden?

AB: “I always envisioned the moment we laid eyes on our son to be beautiful and the best moment of my life. When we arrived at the hospital, we had not slept in 24 hours and had driven straight through the night. We thought we would be meeting our son, but we were told he was being transferred to a Children’s hospital for further testing on his heart. He was hooked up to all kinds of wires and it was one of the scariest moments of my life. We only got to see him for about an hour before the ambulance came and took him to the Children’s hospital. It was whirlwind of a day, but God saw us through it and the next day, he passed all of his tests with flying colors and I was able to bond with my baby for the first time and have my “beautiful moment.”

NH: What’s been the most magical aspect of being an adoptive parent?

AB: “Most days, I forget that Camden is adopted. He looks just like Crawford and he’s been with us from his second day of life, so he belongs with us. Every now and then, I will have a moment and remember that he has another mom somewhere out in the world. I always say that she is my hero because she chose life for her baby boy and I would say that has been the most magical part for me. Knowing that I owe everything to a woman that I have never met. I pray that she has peace in knowing how loved he is on a daily basis.”

NH: If someone is on the fence about adoption–what would you tell them?

AB: “Pray, pray, and pray some more. If it is God’s will, he will give you that peace. I receive messages every day asking how the process works and people are scared about the cost. If it’s meant to be, don’t let the cost stop you! There are so many ways that it CAN be done.”

NH: You recently announced you’ll be adopting baby number two in 2021, you must be so excited! Did that process differ at all from Camden’s?

AB: “We are extremely excited. So far, it is the exact same because we are going through the same agency. I’m sure there will be some bumps along the way, but we are so excited to bring home baby #2.”

NH: How has already being an adoptive parent helped you through the experience this time around?

AB: “I know what to expect this time, so I am better prepared for the timeline and the traveling that is involved. With that said, our adoption with Camden was extremely quick. I was at work one minute, waiting for the phone call to meet a birth mom and the next I’m told that there is a baby waiting for us to come get him. There was no time to think or for anything to really go wrong. That makes me a little more nervous this time, as I know that it doesn’t normally happen that fast. I’m just praying that everything happens the way it should in the Lord’s timing.”

NH: How has faith played a role in how you navigate your IBD and motherhood?

AB: “I would be lying if I said I never questioned why God would allow a 25-year-old newlywed to be diagnosed with a chronic disease with no cure. It has been a tough journey, but I think God has shown me a glimpse of how strong I can be in tough situations and it ultimately prepared me to be a mother. Not long after we brought Camden home, I had a full circle moment one night while rocking him to sleep. I realized that Camden would not be in my life if it had not been for all the trials I faced with my health and months and years of seeing only one line on a pregnancy stick. While the journey was really difficult in the moment, it is the privilege of a lifetime to know God handpicked me to be Camden’s mother and that He was with me through all of the really low times.”

Connect with Audrey on Instagram: @audreyabolton

Click here to check out her blog.

The future of biologics and the changes coming down the pipe

This article was sponsored by SmartTab. All opinions and thoughts are my own.

The future of IBD care and treatment is constantly evolving and there’s a lot of hope on the horizon for the patient community. Think back to the moment your physician discussed starting a biologic for the first time and how daunting it was to imagine giving yourself an injection or getting an infusion for the rest of your life. It’s a heavy burden to bear for many reasons.

This is where SmartTab comes in. SmartTab is a digital medicine company focused on drug delivery and improving patient care, comfort, and compliance. Their main application, the InjectTab, would give people the option of using the current syringe or autoinjector used to give biologic medication or instead have a person swallow a capsule that would deliver the active ingredients to either the stomach or the small intestine. This initiative is making waves in a big way in both the patient, pharmaceutical, and technology industries. SmartTab was recently named a Tech Crunch Disrupt 2020 Top Pick.

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As someone who has been giving myself injections for over 12 years, this is music to my ears. My next question was what this means for those on infusions.

Robert Niichel, Founder and CEO of SmartTab, says, “We will start with the biologics deployed through a syringe and needle and then move to biologic infusions. Imagine if you take that infusion dose and instead take a smaller dose of the same medication as an ingestible capsule once a day. You now have reduced the amount of drug to a daily amount, side effects would go down because you’re not having to process this entire bolus and keep in mind that some of these drugs, no matter what it is, when you have an infusion, whether it’s to treat Crohn’s or receive chemotherapy, your body has to process that out through the liver or the kidneys. It’s stressful on the metabolism and the organs. Our goal, is that one day, regardless of whether it’s an infusion or an injectable, that you’ll take those drugs via an InjectTab capsule.”

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Keeping patients in mind every step of the way

SmartTab is determined to limit the anxiety associated with managing diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. The diagnosis and living with a chronic illness can be challenging to cope with, no matter how many years you’ve had it. It’s exciting to think what the future will hold for the IBD family.

“If physicians could go to people and say, we are going to start you on a biologic, you will take one capsule, every week, that’s a lot less of a burden than finding out you need to give yourself injections or spend hours with an IV getting an infusion. Your compliance goes up, patient outcomes, go up. At the end of the day, we’re trying to figure things out so people can lead better and more comfortable lives,” said Robert.

Getting InjectTab FDA-approved

SmartTab has the technology of the capsule finalized and they are starting a pre-clinical animal study next month. The InjectTab will inject an active ingredient into the side of the stomach.

“We will then do blood draws to collect the different levels of the active ingredients. Once that is complete, we will move on to human clinical trials and then onto FDA clearance, meaning approval of a device. Once we have that clearance, then we can combine our InjectTab with other active ingredients. Then we would seek out strategic partners to combine a prescription drug with our InjectTab. We would then do human studies.”

A lot of the heavy lifting for the actual technology has been completed, now it’s all about the clinical studies. Robert says the good news is that they’re not working on getting a new drug approved, since existing biologics will be used with the InjectTab technology.

“We believe that five years from now, if you take a biologic, you will no longer need to be doing a self-injection, there will be more options than syringes or needles to get your medication. You could just take a capsule. Whether it’s once a day or once a week, it will be as easy as taking your vitamins and moving on with your day.”

The cost benefits of a capsule vs. an injector

Right now, autoinjectors are typically hundreds of dollars. The InjectTab will range from $10-$50 a capsule, so right away there’s a significant cost reduction per use.

Robert says SmartTab is really counting on the insurance companies to look at this and say they’ll reimburse for the technology to deploy the drug because now patients are compliant and have reduced office visits and disease progression that can lead to hospital stays and surgeries.

SmartTab is currently in talks with several pharmaceutical companies, because that is the path to commercialization and making InjectTab a game changing reality for patients. Initially, the capsule technology will be available in the United States and then Europe. InjectTab will be geared towards the adult population first.

Life with IBD can be a tough pill to swallow, but the future possibilities surrounding InjectTab may prove otherwise. As someone who has given myself injections for more than a dozen years, this type of technology blows my mind in the best way. When my GI walked into my hospital room in July 2008 while I was battling an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine and he told me I had two options—Humira or Remicade, I was devastated. I didn’t want to give myself injections and I didn’t want to sit with an IV in my arm and feel sickly. It was a lot to process then and is still not always easy now. Hats off to companies like SmartTab innovating and changing the landscape for the future of IBD and beyond. As a patient, it means the world to me to see the tireless work going on behind the scenes that will change the future for those living with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other conditions.

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Interested in learning more about IBD innovations? Check out the virtual IBD Innovate: Product Development for Crohn’s and Colitis conference November 17-18. Register here.

Click here to learn more about Tech Crunch’s Top Picks for 2020.

Check out my podcast interview about living life powerfully with Crohn’s disease and the future of IBD treatment.

Four Things People with IBD Wish Healthy People Knew

If you live with chronic illness, you may often find you sugarcoat your struggles. For 26-year-old Marissa Spratley of Maryland, this is nothing new. She battles Crohn’s disease, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and interstitial cystitis. She manages her conditions with Stelara and sulfasalazine. This week she openly shares what she wishes healthy people knew about life with IBD. I’ll let her take it away.

In the chronic illness community we all know how incredibly difficult it is to have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), or any other chronic illness. We know what it feels like to get hit with a wave of fatigue so hard you have to lay down immediately. We know what it feels like when our gut is on fire from something we ate. We know what it feels like to have nausea so badly all we can do is curl up in a ball on the bathroom floor and cry. We know these things, yet when we communicate with a healthy able-bodied person, we downplay our struggles and pain. 

Why are we afraid to be honest about how much pain we’re in on a daily basis? Is it because we don’t want to make others feel bad for us? Is it because we don’t want to show weakness? Or maybe it’s because we feel like by explaining how much we suffer on a regular basis, people might know the truth about us. That even though we are incredibly resilient, we live a hard life. We struggle and we cry and we ache and there are days where we wish IBD didn’t exist at all.

The truth is, hell yeah we are strong. But we are also weak, and we are tired. We are exhausted from always having to be strong in the face of pain. We are sick of having to downplay our symptoms and our suffering to make the healthy, able-bodied people around us feel less uncomfortable. We are tired of saying, “I’m good,” when someone asks how we’re doing and we really want to say “I feel like death.” 

So, in the spirit of honesty and opening up to the very ableist world around us about what it’s like to live with IBD, here are four things people with IBD wish healthy people knew.

  1. There are days when it hurts just to breathe. 

No, I am not being overdramatic. Yes, IBD affects more than just your gut. There are days when we wake up and everything about us aches. The way I describe it, is that I feel like I just got hit by a bus. My whole body aches deep in my bones, and it can take me an hour just to get out of bed and stand up straight. Those days are some of the hardest because on the outside we look perfectly normal. Please remember that not all illnesses are visible to the eye.

  1. Good intent doesn’t always mean good impact.

We know you’re just trying to help when you make suggestions about things we could do to try to feel better. But the truth is, we know our bodies better than anyone else, and trust us when we say — if there was something we could do to make us feel better, we’d do it. When you comment about things we should try (like juicing or yoga or going paleo), it makes us feel like you think we aren’t doing enough to feel better. Our healing and health are our business, and while we know you care, if we want your help or advice, we’ll ask for it. We appreciate you understanding this.

  1. Having a chronic illness is really hard on our mental health.

IBD is hard, period. Folks with chronic illnesses not only have to struggle with our physical health, but IBD also has a huge impact on our mental health. Being chronically ill makes you question a lot about yourself — Am I a burden to those around me? Am I worthy if I can’t work? Does my chronic illness make me hard to love? It also makes you question a lot about your worth — Am I lesser than because I can’t work as long as healthy people? Will employers not want to hire me? Do I bring enough to a relationship? These are all real questions I’ve asked myself at one time or another, and I can guarantee they are things other chronically ill folks have thought about as well. The way that IBD can affect your mental health is one of the most challenging parts of being chronically ill, because it is not talked about. So, what can you do to help us with our mental health? You can remind us we are inherently worthy, no matter how “productive” we are. You can remind us that you love us for who we are in our hearts, and not what we can do with our bodies. That means more to us than we can even put into words.

  1. Ableism affects the chronically ill, too.

Many people with IBD and chronic illnesses struggle to claim themselves as disabled, and this is something I could go on a tangent about. But here’s what you need to know: IBD affects our bodies in ways that make us less able, or disabled. The truth is, in the able-bodied centric society we live in, we believe it is offensive to call someone disabled because it means they can’t do something. However, to the actual disabled folks in our community, it is not offensive at all. We own the fact that we can’t use non-handicapped restroom stalls or walk up stairs. We are not afraid to say that there are tasks we cannot do as chronically ill, disabled individuals. It is our ableist society who thinks the term disabled is offensive. It is the ableist mindset that believes by saying someone can’t do something, we are being hurtful. Because to the chronically ill and disabled community, we know that our disabilities do not affect our worth. We know that our health does not affect our worth. But now we need you to know that, too.

To all my IBD and chronic illness folks: I see you, and I hear you. I hope that the next time you have a conversation with someone and you want to be real about how much it truly sucks sometimes, you can send them this article.

To the healthy, able-bodied folks reading this article, thank you for showing up and reading to the end. I hope you learned something new about how to better support your loved ones with IBD or chronic illness.

Connect with Marissa on Instagram: @mindbodycrohns

Navigating IBD and IVF During a Pandemic WITH A Toddler

When I asked 34-year-old Amanda Osowski how she’s juggling Crohn’s disease, motherhood, and IVF during the pandemic, she said “with caution.” And rightfully so! These times are complicated and overwhelming for everyone. Add some chronic illnesses and trying to maintain your health, sanity, and emotions while doing all that and trying to get pregnant with a second child through IVF, and I’m amazed she found the time and energy to write this guest post! I’ll let her take it away.

Here we are, more than 7 months into a global pandemic, still wondering if and when life may “resume as normal”. To be honest, in my house, life has in some ways paused and in other ways accelerated since the March quarantines began. As an IBD patient on Remicade (an immunosuppressant medication to manage my Crohn’s disease), I have chosen from the beginning to adhere strictly to social distancing, mask wearing, unnecessary exposure and other risk reducing options. 

This also meant that my job, my income, and my ability to support others has transitioned from mainly in-person to entirely virtual. The silver lining of this is that I’m able to work with clients all over the world. Balancing that alongside parenthood, and IBD during a pandemic requires a good bit of patience, strategic thinking, and deliberate planning.  

Gearing up for Baby #2 Through IVF 

My husband and I were diagnosed with Unexplained Infertility in 2017 while trying to conceive our first child. After several failed treatments, we had one successful round of IVF in which I became pregnant with our daughter in the fall of 2018. As soon as she was born, we knew we wanted to have another baby close in age – both for our family planning goals and in hopes that I would be able to maintain my Crohn’s remission status long enough to complete another pregnancy. 

While we began trying naturally as soon as we were ready, we knew that the recommendation for fertility treatment was to wait until 12 months passed after delivering our daughter. I desperately hoped that we’d get lucky before then, and that we’d end up with natural conception, rather than going through the physical, emotional, and financial journey of another cycle of IVF. I also knew that I wanted another baby, and that would happen however it was meant to. 

How the pandemic has impacted fertility treatments

We were scheduled to begin fertility testing in March 2020, with treatment starting in April. As I’m sure you guessed, that was immediately halted with the closing of most fertility offices and the pausing of all new treatment cycles with the influx of COVID-19 cases and concerns. Having my treatment (and my timeline) be paused indefinitely with the continuing anxiety and stress of the pandemic caused my IBD symptoms to increase – something that then caused me more anxiety and stress about its impact on my IVF plan if and when I was able to reschedule treatment. 

After an exceptionally long few months, my doctor’s office re-connected with me about getting my appointments scheduled. My IBD while not flaring, was not perfectly calm either, and that’s such an important part to me about preparing for pregnancy, so we gave it a little more time. FINALLY, this month (September), I began the treatment protocol I should’ve started five months earlier. Our daughter Brooklyn just turned 16 months old.

Today you’ll find me managing IVF medication injections around business calls, my Remicade infusion schedule, chasing a toddler and being stuck inside my home around the clock. It’s HARD, and exhausting, but it’s the only way I know how to make my hopes come true. 

Tips for handling IBD + IVF

  1. Communication with your partner is critical. From parenting responsibilities to COVID-19 precautions to childcare to work stressors to fertility treatment planning and execution – there is an entire machine full of decisions and emotions that are part of every single day, and not being on the same page as your partner can have devastating effects. My recommendation: schedule time once a week on your calendar after bedtime to talk. Keep a list running during the week of things to add to the conversation. Ask all your questions to each other then, when you can focus and talk and connect. You’re a team, and it’s important in this season to work together. 
  1. Mental health is just as important as physical health. When managing IBD + ANYTHING, let alone motherhood, and a pandemic, and fertility treatment, taking time to check in with your mental health and care for yourself is imperative. Each of these things come with so many feelings, and burying them all will only make it harder to deal (& keep your IBD in check!) I personally recommend working with a counselor, taking time to journal or meditate or center yourself, and ensure you’re checking in with your own needs regularly. 
  1. Social Media Strategy – During the pandemic, I think we’ve all admitted to more screen time than usual. I know firsthand that the amount of pregnancy announcements, gender reveals, new baby births & seeing families with multiple kiddos can cause feelings of guilt, frustration, jealousy, anger, etc. Social media can make things feel extra difficult for those struggling to get pregnant, undergoing fertility treatments AND managing something like IBD. Here’s what I recommend. The beauty of social media is that we can choose what we do and don’t see while we scroll. This is a perfect time to click “hide” or “unfollow” on any hashtags or accounts that make you feel sad or icky. That’s not to say you don’t love your neighbor/friend/co-worker, but in my opinion you also don’t have to constantly watch their highlight reel. On the flipside, utilize social media to connect with your TRIBE. Whether that’s other IBD and IVF warriors, others struggling with infertility, etc – there’s so much more space for online communities now than there ever has been before. If you’re having difficulty finding and connecting with others, please DM me and I’m happy to make some suggestions! Also, please know that whatever you’re feeling during this experience and this season is so valid, and you’re not alone!  
  1. Give yourself grace. There will be days when you feel inadequate – as a parent, as a spouse, as a patient – these moments don’t define you. You’re juggling so much, it’s so important to know that you’re doing the best you can, even if that looks different than it used to or different than you’d like it to. 

If my story resonated with you, or you’d like to connect, please reach out! You can find me on Instagram personally as @amanda.osowski and professionally as @heartfeltbeginnings.  

Why this public bathroom triggers me: Tactics for coping with the mental health aspect of IBD

I paid for my groceries and casually pushed my cart full of food through the automatic door when I saw it. The bathroom where I experienced one of my scariest and most painful moments. The bathroom I had to run into after pulling over on my way home from work because I was in such debilitating pain, I couldn’t handle sitting upright in my car to make it the extra five minutes home. The bathroom where I lost all feeling in my arms and legs and where my fingers locked into painful contortions. I couldn’t even hold my phone to call my boyfriend (now husband) to tell him we needed to go to the hospital. The bathroom where I unknowingly happened to call my mom after accidentally hitting “Recent Calls” with my elbow. All she heard on the other line when she answered was me screaming. She didn’t know if I was getting raped, she didn’t know what the hell was going on and she was in a different state. God was watching out for me because she was able to call Bobby and let him know I needed help and I needed help fast.

He rushed to the grocery store and whisked me out of the bathroom and straight to the hospital where I found out I had a bowel obstruction.

I’ve been going to this same grocery store for nearly seven years. It’s been nearly six years since that dramatic experience occurred. But even now, five years into remission, I always go out the other doors because seeing that bathroom is a trigger. A trigger to one of my lowest points in my patient journey with Crohn’s disease. A trigger that caused my IBD to act up right in that moment this past week.

I was forced to go out of the grocery store that way as part of COVID-19 safety procedures to keep all incoming traffic through one set of doors and all outgoing traffic to another.

Coping with psychological triggers

When those of us in the IBD community hear the word “trigger”, food usually comes to mind. We casually say “oh that’s a trigger food for me”, but we often don’t pay much attention to the physical triggers in our lives that can exacerbate our symptoms—such as locations like that grocery store bathroom, relationships with certain friends and family members, the pressure of being enough and doing enough in comparison to our peers, the list goes on.

I interviewed Dr. Tiffany Taft, PsyD, MIS, a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and a fellow IBD warrior to get some clarity on this subject and to learn more about what steps we can make right now to protect our mental health and prepare for the unknown.

NH: As chronic illness patients–how can we best navigate triggers that instigate a stress response? (Other than avoidance)

Dr. Taft: “While avoidance feels like the safest option when it comes to situations that trigger our stress response, it simply kicks the can down the road in terms of the effects these situations have on our bodies. People living with chronic illness may collect multiple situations that trigger the stress response – doctor’s offices, hospitals, certain tests or treatments, making avoidance very risky if it means not managing the illness and staying healthy.

Try the “Exposure Hierarchy” exercise: Dr. Taft recommends making a list of activities or situations that are stressful, ranking them from the least stressful to the most stressful and picking 10 things. Rate those 10 things from 10 to 100 (100 being the worst). After making the list, she has patients start with number 10 and practice that task several times over the course of a week.

Before that, though, she teaches relaxation strategies such as deep breathing and grounding to help when the anxiety goes up. She says, “With repeated exposures to the feared situations and working through the anxiety, each time we do activity 10 again, it will feel easier and confidence grows. Once the patient is ready, they repeat with 20, 30, etc. until we get to the dreaded 100 which will actually feel less scary because of all the other work we did before.”

**NOTE** If you feel you have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which include vivid nightmares, flashbacks, and feeling on high alert most of the time, you should seek treatment with a trauma therapist. The good news is research on treatments for PTSD show they are just as effective when delivered via tele-medicine.

NH: Can you explain (in layman’s terms) what goes on when we’re “triggered”?

Dr. Taft: “Triggered is setting off our body’s fight-flight-freeze response, and results in a cascade of physical sensations and emotions. The most common ones are muscle tension, sweating, shallow breathing, and heart racing. Unfortunately, this response can also trigger our guts to start acting up because of the brain-gut connection. It’s a completely normal process but when you have IBD it can trigger symptoms. Your thoughts may be all over the place and littered with “what if’s” and “I can’ts”. Your mind may revisit the worst aspects of past experiences or come up with even more catastrophic possibilities in the future.”

NH: As people with IBD–I know many of us are nervous about flaring and needing to be hospitalized all alone during this pandemic, while being at greater risk for getting COVID. Do you have any advice on how to cope/mentally deal with that worry/concern?

Dr. Taft: “Facing a flare and hospitalization was stressful in the “before times” so facing this during COVID19 is an extra level of stress. While we have video chat, it does not replace the comfort of physical closeness and touch we would get from supports who could be in the hospital with us. The good news is hospitals have figured out COVID quite well and the odds of contracting it while hospitalized for IBD are lower than they were at the start of the pandemic.”

If you’re facing hospitalization, think about your resilience in these circumstances. There were probably times you felt like you couldn’t handle it, or it was never going to end or get better, but here you are today reading these words. You made it through. It may not have been pretty, it was probably incredibly hard. Anxiety has a great ability to negate our memories of how much we’ve navigated in the past.

Feeling anxious? Do this: Write down the ways you coped before, what worked and what maybe didn’t. Evaluate your thoughts about being hospitalized. Are they accurate? Are they helpful? What are some alternatives that could help you feel less anxious? If that doesn’t work, sit with the anxiety, and try some deep breathing to calm your nervous system. The sensations will likely pass and then you can retry evaluating your thinking when you aren’t feeling so keyed up.

NH: What advice do you have for people during these already complicated and challenging times when it comes to managing mental health?

Dr. Taft: “This is truly a unique time in that we are all in this COVID19 boat together. We all came into the pandemic with our own life challenges, and those probably haven’t gone away and even may have been made worse. We’re coping with a lot of information, new rules every other day, grim statistics, and people bickering over who’s right or wrong. I’ve told every patient I see to turn off the news. Get out of the comments on social media when people are arguing the same points over and over.”

Steps you can take in your day-to-day: Dr. Taft advises not to spend more than 15 minutes a day on the news, so you can stay informed but not get into the weeds. Take social media breaks, especially if your feed is full of the same tired arguments. Focus your attention on meaningful activities that align with your values. Those are what will bring you some stress relief. And those are unique to you, so no list on the internet of how to cope with COVID is going to solve everything. Sometimes these lists make us feel worse because we’re not doing most of the recommendations. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend or a beloved family member. Nobody has it figured out right now even though some people like to say they do.

Self-care isn’t selfish: Using my birthday as a re-set button

One of my friends recently said I need to start doing more for me, that once I fill my own cup that energy and that fulfillment will spill onto others, without making me feel depleted and like I’m constantly in survival mode. As an IBD mom of two, who has lived with Crohn’s for more than 15 years, these challenging times we’re living in have forced us all to pause and refocus on what’s important and what we need to do to get by.

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Today is my 37th birthday. Sounds a lot older than I feel, but chronic illness has a way of forcing you to grow up and mature well beyond your years. Between the pandemic, mom life, and my advocacy work, there hasn’t been much time for a breather. I feel as though I’ve been coasting for awhile. Coasting through the day to day. Coasting through remission. Coasting just to make it through.

I don’t want to coast anymore

If you’re feeling the same, please follow my lead and that of others, who have recognized they’re ready to do more to improve their quality of life.

I want to stop being such a “yes” person.

I want to stop making excuses.

I want to stop waking up when my kids call out for me and instead start my day with a cup of coffee outside on the patio or a workout, followed by a shower, while the house is calm and quiet.

I want to stop not asking for help.

I want to stop staying up so late binge watching TV or scrolling through my phone.

I want to stop going months on end without a night out with my husband (we’re going on a date tonight for the first time in over six months!) IMG-7109

I want to stop working seven days a week and being at everyone’s beckon call and instead set aside days where I’m offline and able to live in the moment.

I want to start prioritizing my health, my well-being, my marriage, my friendships, who I am outside of being a mom and a person with chronic illness, because while that’s a lot of me—it’s not all of me.

Finding the ‘Joie de vivre’

Let’s face it, this coronavirus nightmare isn’t ending anytime soon. Much like a chronic illness diagnosis—there is no end in sight. We all rise to that challenge day after day, and don’t think twice. I fear if I don’t start spending more time for myself, I may put my remission in jeopardy and that scares me, big time, because when you’re a mom and a wife, your flares impact a lot more than just you. IMG-5066 (1)

I look at this 37th year with a lot of hope and a lot of possibility. I’m eternally grateful for the life I have and the family and friends I have around me, near and far. Recognizing there’s a need for change is similar to the importance of being proactive in managing your illness and doing all the things you can to set yourself up for success—whether it’s seeing countless specialists for medical care and preventative screenings, taking medication, getting blood draws and scopes, etc.…I look at this form of self-care as just as important in managing my Crohn’s and giving myself the best shot of staying out of the hospital and flare-free. IMG-6382

Cheers to the next 365 days and beyond! Thank you for following my journey and for your support through the years. This blog is like one of my babies and being able to speak to you through it is one of the most cathartic aspects of my patient journey. If you’re feeling like you’re in a bit of a rut or a funk, remember self-care is not selfish. Now I just need to practice what I preach.

Finding your voice with Crohn’s: How music helps Anna Tope cope

Songwriting has been a coping outlet for 22-year-old Anna Tope, for as long as she can remember. When she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in June 2019, she worried if her aspirations of sharing music with the world would be silenced. COVID-19 hit during her final semester at York College of Pennsylvania. She looked forward to and worked hard for her senior recital all four years. The event was scheduled for March 13th, right when the world started to shut down. IMG_6972

Luckily, the music faculty were able to work things out and held the recital before campus had to be cleared out. Anna gave the best performance she ever had. The whole audience was on their feet, followed by a huge line of people waiting to greet her afterwards. The moment was a dream come true. Check out her recital performance here.

The song inspired by Crohn’s

“My favorite part was being able to end my recital with a song that I wrote about my Crohn’s Disease journey called “Renewed.” This is a song that has moved people to tears, and people have told me how much the song has impacted them, especially during the pandemic,” said Anna.

Anna wrote “Renewed” in January 2020, while sitting at a Barnes & Noble. Click here to listen to the song.

She says quarantine has enabled her to focus more on creating music and writing.

“My songwriting is essentially reflecting through some of the hardest times of my life, such as my illness/diagnosis, but also showing how my hardships have been so eye opening and influential,” says Anna.

Finding joy through the suffering

Anna’s main goal with her music is to bring joy and hope to those suffering from chronic illness. The unpredictability of Crohn’s often leaves Anna feeling worried about whether IBD is going to rob her of her musical dreams, but not only that—like many of us, she worries about her future. Two of her biggest fears are finding love and being able to have kids one day. Ann is incredibly grateful for her amazing support system and how her friends and family have rallied around her since diagnosis.image0 (1)

She wants to use her voice, energy, and the broken parts of her experience to bring comfort to those who feel alone.

“IBD has impacted me in so many ways. It’s turned my life upside down, but at the same time it’s given me even more of a passion to sing and to help others.”

Use quarantine to your advantage

Living with a chronic illness in the middle of the pandemic is complicated and challenging, but Anna hopes others use this time to explore their talents and see beyond their IBD. IMG_6121

“Go write some songs or poetry. If you want to learn an instrument, now is the time! Go write that book you’ve been wanting to start. Do whatever brings you a feeling of accomplishment, joy, and comfort.”

The success of Anna’s senior recital pushed her to continue writing. At a time when many of us feel tapped energy wise—mentally, physically, and emotionally, try and find what motivates you outside of your illness. And like Anna, you’ll see, while IBD may change the course of the path you’re on and re-direct you for a bit, just because you have Crohn’s, doesn’t mean you can’t follow your dreams.

Connect with Anna

Instagram: @myvoice.myjourney

Facebook: Anna Tope Music

Twitter: @annatope_

YouTube: Music and Covers

 

 

Living life unapologetically as a Black woman with Crohn’s disease

When Melodie Blackwell was initially diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in October 2018, she felt alone. Not because of how isolating IBD can be, but because she couldn’t find many people who were speaking about their journey from the perspective of what it’s like to be a Black or Brown woman in the IBD community. JPixStudio-8924 copy

When I looked for information from the IBD organizations, I felt like there was little to no one who looked like me. Sometimes, and history shows this, we can’t be unapologetic about being a person of color. We must tell our stories in a way that seems more digestible to White America. When I started sharing my journey, I wanted to reach those in the minority community from various walks of life who felt isolated or alone, to let them know they weren’t by themselves and there is a space where they belong. With my non-profit Color of Crohn’s and Chronic Illness (COCCI), I believe that’s what I have been able to do,” says Melodie. 

Dealing with feeling “uninvited”

As a wife, mom, entrepreneur, Black woman, and Crohn’s warrior; Melodie’s view of the IBD community has multiple perspectives. At this time, inclusion and diversity isn’t one that’s at the top of the list. “In order for any organization to be inclusive, they have to have to have a deeper understanding of a community. And when it comes to those who are in the Black community, most people don’t go where they don’t feel invited. Where does that thought process come from? Let’s talk about history and “whites only” venues, seating on the back of the bus, segregation ending less than 100 years ago, and the Tuskegee Experiment to name a few things. Many of us still have family members who can discuss all of the aforementioned like it happened yesterday.” IMG_4657

When it comes to Melodie’s thoughts on not feeling invited, “I am fine with that, because personally, I go where I am not invited. Not having an invitation doesn’t mean that I don’t belong. But as a culture, that’s not a resounding thought process. I know that that can seem odd, it’s a systemic issue. If you don’t know the culture, cultural differences, and historical oppression, you won’t understand that. There are some deeply rooted healthcare adversities – they live on today.”

Leading up to her diagnosis and even today, Melodie has dealt with ignorant physicians along the way. Her Crohn’s presented differently than most. It started with random body parts swelling. She had a doctor tell her she just needed to “squeeze those parts to help the blood flow”. She’s had doctors display their implicit bias and not listen…which resulted in abscesses bursting in her colon and emergency surgery.

Health equity isn’t given, it’s fought for

It’s the inequity that has inspired Melodie to go above and beyond and amplify her voice to show others they can do the same. She launched Color of Crohn’s and Chronic Illness (COCCI) to help lift people up and let them know they aren’t alone and they didn’t choose the challenges before them. She’s received countless messages from people embarrassed about their symptoms. Melodie is driven to show there’s no reason to feel ashamed about your IBD and she’s focused on creating a space that feels safe to get answers and receive help physically and mentally. IMG_1783

I want to empower people of color and beyond, to take control of their healthcare and not feel like they are a victim. I want them to have the resources that they need. I want COCCI to be readily available to help them find doctors, learn more about healthcare, provide a safe space to express their thoughts, help them advocate/lobby for their needs – I want health equity and to decrease the undeniable disparities in this community.”

Don’t be afraid to live

As an IBD mom and patient advocate, Melodie’s main advice is to live. IBD and chronic illness causes all of us to make changes and adjustments throughout the process, but we are still here, and we still can have full lives.

Some days will be tougher than others, but a mindset that says, “I choose Life” every single day, will change your life in the absolute best way,” says Melodie. “You set your limitations, and you determine your victories; don’t let IBD take that away from you.”

You can follow Melodie and COCCI on Instagram:

@melodienblackwell

@colorofcci

Check out her website

 

Digging in the Archives: Emails I wrote following my Crohn’s diagnosis in 2005

When I started my blog, Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, four years ago, my main mission was to be the voice I desperately needed to hear upon diagnosis. As I reflect on my 15 year diagnosis anniversary, I thought it may be helpful to give you a behind the scenes look at some of my email archives from 2005…days after finding out I had Crohn’s disease. I’ve never shown these to anyone (other than the recipients, of course!)…but my hope is that in sharing private feelings, you’ll be able to see how my perspective about life with IBD has shifted and evolved since I was a 21-year-old girl feeling up against the wall with nowhere to turn.

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Photos taken in May 2005 (prior to diagnosis) and September 2005 (while on 60 mg of prednisone).

This article is dedicated to the newly diagnosed. We’ve all been in your shoes. What you’re thinking. What you’re feeling. What you’re struggling with. We get it. It’s not fair to compare where you are in coping to someone like me who has been dealing with Crohn’s for 15 years and been in remission for nearly five.

Here are snippets from my emails to friends. Reading the pain in my words and re-living this difficult time can be a trigger, but reflecting and seeing how far I’ve come is also incredibly empowering.

“I’m having a really hard time with this, harder than I ever could have imagined or dreamed…and I’m having a hard time trying to act like everything is great on the exterior. I feel like I’m on the brink of a breakdown…the drugs are getting to me so much. I woke up with visible shakes this morning and have been shaking all day. My moods aren’t me. I feel like I am a different person and that as much as I want to be the old Natalie, it’s just so hard to wake up smiling and happy. I’m getting tired of my family constantly asking me if I’m doing ok and feeling ok and everyone staring at me while I eat…I just feel like a pity case to so many people. I feel so alone in all this. I’m trying to be upbeat…and I know that it is going to take time to get acclimated to the lifestyle changes and everything, but right now I’m just having a difficult time figuring out who I am and where I’m supposed to be in life. The insomnia has left me up every night just thinking and wondering what the future holds and if I am ever going to feel normal again.”

“I try so hard to be strong and tough about this and it just all stays bottled up and I just started crying and am having a hard time stopping. It’s just so hard. I look at pictures and think back to even graduation time and it just freaks me out that I went from living a carefree, healthy life…to this. I know it is something that I will always have and that I have to get used to it…but it’s hard for me to handle at times. I don’t mean to complain or worry you or anything, I just feel as though I need to get out some of this frustration before I go to bed. I’m scared of getting sick again and having to go in the hospital sometime again…and I just feel like I can’t go a day without a thinking about all the what ifs. You know I analyze so much…haha…it’s like a living nightmare!”

“I’m sorry if I talk about this too much. I’m sure it isn’t the most appealing or attractive thing to have to hear from your gf…but sometimes it becomes a little overbearing on me…and I can’t hide my fears when it does. I mean I refuse to let this change who I am and the life I will lead, it’s just at times it seems so much bigger than me, and so much larger than life. I know I have been complaining a lot about my puffy cheeks and stuff…and I know that prob gets old…I just get so self-conscious about it…and it just sucks that I have exactly 2 more months left on the steroid. As my dosage gets lower and lower the side effects should stop and start to go away…I’ll believe it when I see it!  I guess it’s just scary to me to see the effects of a drug that are helping me on the inside and hurting me on the outside. I just want to look the same to you as I did the last time you saw me.”

“What I won’t ever apologize for is this summer, because I was going through a living hell, and I saw which friends were there for me and which weren’t. I was ridiculously ill from June 5th-my bday (August 24) and you were angry with me for not keeping in touch. I couldn’t even stand to get myself a glass of water for weeks and was hospitalized for days. I never heard anything from you. I know that people handle those types of situations differently… but that was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life, and I really needed a strong support system. Battling with a disease and feeling like I completely lost myself has made me have to be a little selfish these past few months. I’m just coming to grips with it all now and thank God I’m feeling well…but it is still an adjustment and has given me a complete different perspective on life.”

You guys. I’m sitting here crying. I’m that girl. I wrote those words. That was 15 years ago and thinking about that time still feels like a knife in my chest. Even though this disease has enabled me to gain so much gratitude and perspective, it still robbed me of a lot. It still hurts…sometimes more emotionally than physically these days since I’m in remission. These diagnosis anniversaries stir up a lot of memories. While I choose to think of it as a time to celebrate another year of taking this disease on with all the strength I can muster, it’s also a time that takes me back to some of the most challenging and difficult moments in my life.

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I colored this in my hospital bed after being diagnosed with Crohn’s.

I wish I could hug that girl and tell her it was going to be alright. The career, the love, the family…it would all happen. If you’re in that difficult space right now coming to terms with your newfound identity following diagnosis or getting over a flare up, please know this disease ebbs and flows. It’s not a constant. The good and the bad moments are fleeting, but your resilience and your confidence in coping becomes so much a part of who you are, it’s hard to recognize who you were before.