Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Ulcerative Colitis Relapse : A Wake up call to a Healthy Lifestyle

23rd May (exactly one year before), is a special day in my heart for two reasons: 
1) My mom’s birthday 
2) The Day of Remission from my first Ulcerative Colitis Flare

I enjoyed symptom free life for almost 8 months. I felt having conquered ulcerative colitis through VSL3 probiotic supplement / Ayurvedic supplements.  However, since November 2016, there were days I retracted to not-so-good lifestyle such as imbalanced work-life balance tilting more towards work, gluten and cheese finding a way back in my diet ( at least once a week ), irregular lunch / dinner hours,  reduced walking / meditation time, and inconsistent sleep cycles. The result of violating best health and lifestyle practices - I met with an unwelcomed relapse visit from Mr. Ulcerative Colitis towards end of January 2017.

The Traditional Medicine Dilemma

My Gastroenterologist wanted me to go on regimen of an anti-inflammatory/immunosuppressant suppositories. As expected, he had a dismissive views on diet and lifestyle changes to counter the autoimmune condition. It’s an irony a digestive health specialist favoring drugs over food, but It’s not their fault - they have been taught in medical schools about doing procedures, studying different chemical drugs, and very little about nutrition.

Most of the specialized MDs look and treat human body similar to blind men in a room looking at an elephant from different angles, interpreting different things. They fail to acknowledge that all systems in human body are integrated as single system. Hence there are serious side effects arising from the traditional medical treatments. For example, a dermatologist would prescribe treatment for psoriasis that fixes symptoms of skin inflammation, but since it does not fix the root problem, the inflammation in body may move to colon leading to Ulcerative Colitis. Now, the patient is referred to a Gastroenterologist, who starts a treatment of steroids or anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the colitis symptoms. Since these drugs only mask or reduce the symptoms, the root cause is not fixed, and the inflammation might move to joints causing Arthritis. The patient now gets referred to a Rheumatologist, and it goes on. Sometimes a person has multiple of these, and a single specialist may not be optimal for correct resolution.

There is a cycle between commercial food industry, medical establishments, insurance companies, and pharmaceuticals to bank on sick people and fill their deep pockets, with little emphasis on “true” health. For example, FDA approves biologics like Remicade which hides the symptoms of IBD with serious side effects, but FDA does not approve VSL#3 probiotics even though it is clinically proven to treat IBD successfully.  

However, there is an increasing population of medical doctors who are genuinely interested in seeking long term health solutions, and take a balanced approach of holistic and traditional treatments as “one medicine”.  Most of pediatricians, Family Medicine doctors I’ve seen fall in this “balanced” category. There are even some Gastroenterologists I’ve read about who treat digestive problems with “food as medicine” approach. The point is there are great doctors who are open minded striving for true health - the problem is they fall into less than 15% of doctors out there.

The Downward Symptom Spiral - Once Again

Once again, I decided to embark on journey to heal my colitis the natural way, and I knew the road will be rocky just like last year. I went back on Ayurvedic diet / supplements, since this treatment coincided with my first days of remission last year. I was surprised to find out it didn't work, and my symptoms were slowly escalating. I didn't care to try Homeopathy treatment, since didn't work for me last year. In summary, alternative medicine failed for my Ulcerative Colitis. 

Not losing hope, I felt the reason for my remission last year was probably foundation of juice / smoothie : specific fruits and veggies based diet as outlined in Dave Klein's book Self Healing Crohns and Colitis.  I tried restrictive diet for 3 weeks, and got into rapid detox state which never seem to reverse increasing my bleeding in stool from 1/2 teaspoon to 1-2 tablespoons. Even meditation wasn't helping to calm the stress at this point. It was getting scary, with no clear direction to take.  Once again, I was approaching state of Pancolitis, a state where 70% of colon is inflamed.

The downward spiral of bleeding symptoms extended to end of March 2017 (almost 2 months since the flare began), and had my families in India worried. Within 6 weeks, my weight reduced from 125 to to 101 pounds. My well wishers suggested me the traditional medicine approach. However, my firm determination and strong will power didn’t want me to drift from my belief ‘YES to diet and lifestyle, NO to medicines (traditional or alternative)’. The only support I got for this belief was from my wife, Vijeta. 

I tried out new supplements we had researched. I went on extremes of eating only bananas in a day (yes, was eating half dozen bananas at times) or drinking only coconut water / zucchini soup. This reduced the symptoms to some extent. I was feeling pessimistic and more worried - a mental block adding stress to my body - a key reason I was not recovering. I knew I was missing something very fundamental, and need to dig in deeper to find root cause for my problem. 

The Search for Root Cause - Understanding the AutoImmune Process

In beginning of March 2017, Vijeta picked up an interesting book Autoimmune Solution by Dr. Amy Myers, one of the well known MDs practicing the approach of functional medicine. The book introduced me to details of working of immune system in our body, and primary reasons for immune system disfunction that results into autoimmune spectrum marked by diseases such as hypo/hyper thyroid syndrome, Crohns, Ulcerative Colitis, Diabetes, Psoriasis, Hashimoto, Autism, etc. The book made me realize several things:
  • Our Immune system, a sophisticated Intelligent System, also called “Body Intelligence” the ultimate doctor, always strives to protect us from harm from pathogens and toxins.
  • One can become his/her own enemy if he/she fails listen to the signals the body sends in terms of mild inflammation, rashes, itches, back pain, fever, etc. These are the indications the body is fighting pathogens/toxins. We typically ignore such indicators and shut down our immune system through NSAIDs, pain killers, antibiotics, etc. Instead of finding/fixing the root cause, we take shortcut of going after either traditional (medical drugs, antibiotics) or alternative (Ayurvedic, Homeopathy) medicines to clear the symptoms. Antibiotics wipes out the good gut bacteria leading to serious gut flora imbalance - Have you ever wonder why you have tummy ache, or vomiting after taking heavy antibiotics ? To fix autoimmune conditions, traditional medicine attempts use of steroids, or anti-inflammatory drugs - all of these come at a cost of serious side effects related to liver, pancreas, kidney, skin, etc. Further, they add to toxin load to the body, and hence increase the immune stress. Eventually, the traditional medicine approach goes to extent of suppressing immune system through Immunosuppressants or Immunomodulators, which may lead to a flare outbreak in other part of the body as the body is finding alternative ways to get rid of toxins, thus causing multiple autoimmune conditions. Any undetected or incorrectly treated autoimmune condition can even open doors to the most feared man-made disease - Cancer.  
  • Grain cultivation in modern age, GMOs, use of pesticides, processed/pasteurized foods, etc. gives rise to many known and unknown toxins that disrupts our body’s immune system and physiological processes in long run, resulting into gut flora imbalance.  The modern food industry, in favor of producing food in large and fast quantities, has compromised the essence of healthy nutrition.
    • Most of the processed and junk food contain high amounts of High Fructose Corn Syrup, and other complex sugars that feeds the pathogens in our body, thus contributing to more digestive problems such as SIBO, candida, gas, bloating, etc. 
    • Gluten (mocked as Glue tendency) from modern hybridized wheat cultivation stresses out our digestive system, and along with other processed foods, tends to cause Leaky Gut Syndrome where undigested food particles enter bloodstream in our gut causing a false immune response.
    • Pasteurized dairy eradicates helpful bacteria that can digest Lactase, thus resulting into the common cases of Lactose intolerance we see these days.
    • Even though one washes GMO produce thoroughly, there are still large traces of pesticide components present in them. Such components yield to heavy metals in-take in our bodies. If the intake of such foods is continued over long time, the body cannot keep up with expelling them out, and can lead to carcinogenic build up in the cells.
  • Environmental factors such as presence of molds, metal exposure in air, pollution, modern day toiletries / cooking vessels, extra sanitization etc also alters immune system functioning. A combination of dietary and environmental factors can lead to an overworked immune system, therefore impacting nutrition absorption, hormonal balance, and genetic makeup  of cells leading to mild to severe forms of modern diseases. For example, think of an army of soldiers not sleeping for several days - they may tend to open fire at any enemy in sight and accidentally destroy innocents, and walls of the fort they are protecting. Same things happens with overworked immune system - it becomes weak and goes rogue by accidently attacking healthy cells and organs.
The Autoimmune Solution book is great to understand the scientific concepts on physiology, but it feels short when it comes to its prescribed 30-day diet plan. It is heavily biased on Paleo diet, which is not fit for vegans / vegetarians like me. The book mentions legumes / gluten free grains having toxins (e.g. saponins) that lead to inflammation - however I read from other reliable books/articles that soaking them before cooking (like ancient days) reduces the toxins in them, and make them viable sources of proteins and carbs. The book's bias towards grass-fed meat fails to account that even grass-fed raised animals can have traces of toxins in their bodies coming from vegetation that may be a GMO.

Embracing the Functional / Integrative Medicine Path

The Autoimmune Solution introduced me to an emerging medical field called the Functional/Integrative Medicine, which takes an approach to treat the body as single functional unit, correlating all systems together to figure out root cause to a health problem. An astonishing fact is most of these functional medicine practitioners are MDs or DOs, who are keen on doing the right thing by through treatments involving diet changes, lifestyle changes, supplements, and sometimes even medicines without side effects. In essence, they are “immune system specialists”.  The approach is neither “traditional”, nor “alternative” - it is scientific driven on basis of immunity and human physiology as first class citizens. It integrates solution from traditional and alternative approaches as “one” medicine.

I knew I need to see a MD/DO who is a good functional medicine practitioner. I managed to book an appointment in first week of April with a functional doctor, who previously was a successful Family Practitioner in a renowned Austin clinic. Being an MD, and also having studied functional and integrative medicine, her knowledge in different sectors of medicine was vast and amazing. In my first visit, she listened carefully to every word I mentioned for 90 minutes, asked relevant questions on my health history, right from how I was born, how was I feed as baby, childhood days, teenage days, and current life. We realized there is a long term stress I’ve accumulated over time. She also felt my restricted diet may have caused lack of healing materials my body needed to overcome the ulcerative colitis flare. 

Then we started on myriad of tests that gauge nutrition levels, food sensitivities, stress levels, presence of pathogens, presence of good gut bacteria, genetics, presence of heavy metals, etc. All of these give an indication of high probability causes and effects of multiple autoimmune problems. Until my results arrive, she advised me to take Protein Shake (designed for UC patients) for nutrition until I start back on normal diet, a specific turmeric concentrated capsules to reduce inflammation, addition of friendly yeast Sacro B via capsules, and 1 mg LDN to boost immune system. She mentioned LDN takes opposite approach of traditional IBD medicines, and attempts to strengthen and boost the immune system at cellular levels. It may sound confusing, but it works by essentially fixing out the stress in immune system and helping it to be optimal. An optimal immune system does not tend to attack own organs and cells. My research on LDN confirmed her facts. 

In addition to her prescribed plan, based on my research I started use of L-Glutamine, Omega-3 vegan capsules, Apple Cider Vinegar, and Manuka Honey. I used to take L-Glutamine and Omega-3 last year, and very well knew its role in repairing damaged gut lining and controlling inflammation. Apple Cider Vinegar took care of my heartburns/acid reflux and over time reduced the abdominal cramps. Manuka Honey is anti-microbial and is known for healing burns and ulcers in any internal or external organ. I saw its benefit in treating my occasional sore throat and external rashes

The plan above reduced my symptoms drastically. What about diet ? Based on my research from many health books and blogs, and advice from my functional doctor, it is clear that everyone’s body is unique, and certain things that work for someone may not work for others. Hence, the best approach is to listen to one's body and gut.  Best option is to start with elimination diet, make diary notes on symptoms felt, and devise a custom plan. Always be open and listen for ideas, but embrace the ones that agree with the gut and body.  Her advice on diet was simple - except gluten and pasteurized dairy, try to introduce other foods gradually. Her ultimate goal was to treat “food as a medicine” and be free even from the natural supplements.

I was able successfully consume rice, millets, potatoes, nightshades like tomato/bell peppers, quinoa, spinach, chick peas, onion, garlic, ginger, etc. and got back on home made almond and seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame) milk, etc. I was starting to feel healthier from inside. Any of the probiotic foods (kefir, tempeh, kimchi, curd, buttermilk, sauerkraut, etc.)  was part of my lunch and dinner. 

Thanks to the book Eat Dirt from well-respected nutrition expert Josh Axe, I got introduced to some interesting food recipes, recipes to make natural homemade products (soap, detergent, cream, etc.) from essential oils, and other healthy options I could try. There is nothing new he is doing, but he is very effective in compiling the natural methods in easy to comprehend manner. Like others, I’m little skeptical about his claims on weight loss or treating cancer - however his articles on digestive health (SBOs and other probiotics, Bentonite Clay, Apple cider vinegar, Manuka honey, etc.) makes sense scientifically, and is also backed by external studies - above all I’ve seen it work for me.

After 3 weeks, i.e. end of April 2017, my functional tests arrived. I had high levels of H.Pylori, extra levels of undigested glucose/insulin, hyper-functioning adrenal levels during mid-day, deficiency of certain vitamins/minerals. After detailed study and conversation with the functional doctor, it became clear that the gut imbalance was initiated by work stress and increase of H. pylori, which further went worst due to improper diet and other lifestyle habits. Effects were improper absorption of minerals, lack of protein for rebuilding purpose, eventually leading to high toxin build up in cells - eventually resulting into hormonal imbalance and chronic inflammation over span of few months. We decided to treat H. pylori through use of Manuka Honey, and natural supplements (GI Microbex herbals and Gastromend).

Controlling Stress - Ultimate Treatment

As my test results suggested, the key element for me was fixing stress in all aspects. I knew I need to control and manage mental, emotional and physical stress going in my body in order to achieve remission from ulcerative colitis. The functional doctor devised a simple plan for me to fix my stress : double down on my breathing exercise, make use of Ashwagandha / adaptogenic herbs, and apply Glutathione topical cream.

Having positive attitude and being more optimistic leads to stress management on its own. If one manages to control their mind from ill thoughts, worries, pessimism, and dismissive surroundings, it automatically leads to stress relief from the cells in the body. Meditation is one of the tools to calm the mind, and can be harnessed through simple things as walking in the woods, listening to birds, sleeping with a smile on, playing with kids, doing favorite charity work, breathing in quite surrounding, etc. If one can control and calm their mind through any of these activities, they may not need to attend any Yoga seminars, or meditation courses.  A strong will-power and self belief is a necessary ingredient.

Based on this principles, I got back to walking habits, doing occasional breathing exercises. I would sit in a peaceful location with soothing music, and let go any negative thoughts like a stream in river - this simple yet powerful meditation technique comes from Jainism practices I learnt in my childhood days in Kutch - Later on, I experienced similar techniques in self-help programs such as Art of Living, etc. I knew that Jainism, is way beyond memorizing verses and following diet that excludes roots. The Jain literature I had read in past explained aspects of wisdom, an optimistic living style that is simple / stress-free, non-violence acting as agent of calm mind, etc. Revisiting the Jain literatures helped me to be optimistic and aid me in my stress management.

In mid April 2017, my current project at work was dismantled, and we were moved to a new project. Instead of getting worried, I saw this as an opportunity to free myself from work stress, and start a new path of learning new things at work in terms of technologies used in new project. This positive attitude marked the beginning of my remission. On May 4, 2017, The “Star Wars May the 4th be with you” DayI saw zero symptoms. Yes, it felt like my internal force had awakened and my Tai Chi was in full swing :) In next 15 days, I gained back 10 pounds.

Looking Forward

An auto-immune flare is no fun ride. I’m grateful to have achieved remission once again within span of 3 months, thanks to persistence to a holistic and scientific approach. I’ve learnt an important lesson not to take hard earned health for granted, and need to maintain it like a garden. Thanks to my wife, I was able to maintain composure during difficult times of my flare, as well as have strong will power on the natural approach. If I could do heal myself from natural paths and self belief, I believe anybody can do the same from any of their health problems. Hopefully I can maintain this remission for long term - luckily my wife is ensuring I am sticking to healthy lifestyle and diet regime :)

Final Thoughts 

Like I said in my blog one year ago, do not give authority for your health to any doctor, or a family member  - listen to everyone’s advice, do your research, and take actions based on what it feels right for your body. Always ask if there are long term implications or side effects to any treatment. If there is no satisfactory answer or serious risks, seek different solution. Pick a doctor (traditional, alternative, or functional) that is genuinely interested in your health. For example, I would stay away from doctors who straight away goes to suggest antibiotics for simple ailments. A “litmus” test is to ask a doctor about food and lifestyle change recommendation, and side effects of prescribed medication - if they have a satisfactory and logical answer, consider their suggestion. Remember, you own your health, and have final authority on what goes in your body.


Don’t worry about having to spend money on right food, or treatments designed for long term health. Eat whole organic foods, weed out any stressors in your life, and listen to signals your body provides taking appropriate healthy actions. Keep positive and optimistic approach to life. You will eventually realize that if you take right care of your health and lifestyle, you are saving future money on high hospital costs, nasty medicines with side effects, etc. 

Health is the ultimate wealth - nothing trumps it.

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