Gabrielle: Overcame Ulcerative Colitis

Updated November 3, 2016

Gabrielle overcame ulcerative colitis and will never return to her old eating habits.

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Gabrielle Fennimore

I am a “foodie” both by nature and nurture. Born with a passion for food, I’ve relished eating out in upscale restaurants, trying new creative animal protein based creations, enjoying 8 course meals through the holidays, and treating myself to all you can eat sushi weekly. For me it has always been about “living to eat”, rather than “eating to live”. Food has been tied inextricably to social time with family and friends, in addition to forming bonds with new acquaintances. It’s not just about the amazing flavor that specific foods bring to my palate; but the camaraderie it forms between those around me with whom I am sharing a meal with in that moment. For as long as I can remember, my family and I have gone to nice restaurants, falling in love with the food, and returning multiple times a month becoming close friends with the owners and the staff. Rich, savory meat based meals became the basis for making new friends and socializing with old. The comforting taste of rich foods not only provided great flavor but a sense of home and security being a big part of my culture.

The rosy picture painted above is not without its thorns. As a young child I was never into junk food and I was always praised for being a good eater and finishing my adult sized meals. I never had a weight problem. However, almost always after one of these great dining experiences I suffered from a horrible stomach ache that had me curled up on our living room couch for hours. The doctor visits offered me no relief, and despite the inevitable pain that would follow, I continued to stuff myself during many delicious meals.

Ten years ago, overwhelmed by stress from a difficult dental hygiene school, I felt increasingly ill with awful twisting pains in my abdomen. The pains were only relieved by frequent loose bowel movements. I shrugged off and blamed the 8 to 10 daily bowel movements on my anxiety, until the bowel movements were accompanied by blood and mucus. This ultimately led to the diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. Even that didn’t stop me from eating out and enjoying all my favorite foods because my doctors told me that my condition had nothing to do with my diet and everything to do with my stress load. Maintaining my usual active and social life became difficult until I began taking medication. My doctors promised me that I could eat and drink whatever I like and I would go back to living a normal life as long as I stayed on the prescribed medications. So for the next 9 years, even though I’m not a big fan of pharmaceuticals, I took different types of mesalamines, as I was told I had no choice. During the occasional flare ups they moved me from one brand of mesalamine to another brand and tossed in some steroids. During this time I always had diarrhea accompanied by mucus and trace amounts of blood, but I ignored it because I felt no pain. Multiple colonoscopies demonstrated that my condition was worsening, and my doctor wanted to start me on an immunosuppressant. But again, feeling little pain, I held off. My condition worsened to the point where I was in constant pain and heavier bleeding accompanied every bowel movement. I no longer had the stamina to bear the pain associated with dining out or spending time in a bar with friends, it was tough enough just getting through a work day. Fun had disappeared from my life, and sometimes even the smell of delicious food would send my stomach into spasm.

My gastroenterologist pleaded with me to go on azathioprine, an immunosuppressant with known side effects of increasing the risk of lymphoma and the susceptibility to the flu and other viruses. I resisted, even though he told me it would help me feel better and keep me from needing a colectomy. I tabled taking the drug to find another answer.

I learned of a nutritionist in New York who had helped many patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis simply by changing their diet. He put me on a diet free of wheat, soy, corn and beans. He recommended I follow a low fat diet and to replace canola and vegetable oils with grapeseed oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. I was able to follow his recommendations, but felt famished most of the time. To feel full I found myself dousing my vegetables in grapeseed oil and eating more and more meat. The diet helped at first, I think mostly because I stopped eating in restaurants, but I never felt complete relief. Then, suddenly, I spiraled into an even worse flare up than before this diet causing my inflammatory markers to rise. My C Reactive Protein went from a 5 up to 7.9. (1-3 is normal). My health was getting worse, I no longer enjoyed social events and concerts due to my frequent trips to the bathroom. I was feeling frustrated at my lack of progress and depressed. Especially when friends and family started to comment on how thin I looked and that I seemed to have lost my joie du vivre.

One particularly bad morning at work, my employer, a dentist of extraordinary talent, good looks, superior intellect, charismatic personality and unbridled generosity, (he made me say all that), presented me with the China Study and introduced me to Dr. McDougall’s low fat, whole food plant based diet. Skeptical at first of yet another new diet, I read multiple testimonials from ulcerative colitis patients who found relief from his diet. I was able to take a leave of absence from work to attend the McDougall 10 day Live-in Program. Throughout the program, my symptoms persisted and worsened as by now my colon was too damaged to eat any of the delicious food served at the program. As my CRP levels elevated to 14, my attending physician, Dr.
Anthony Lim, transitioned my diet exclusively to a blend of zucchini and squash soup, and slowly the pain and bloody diarrhea subsided. Ten days wasn’t nearly enough time for my body to fully heal so I was transitioned to True North Health Center where Dr. Lim continued my care. After 10 days at True North, I had my first entire day of solid bowel movements in years. The team at True North then tapered me off my medications and by way of an elimination diet, slowly reintroduced new foods till we discovered what I could eat without symptoms. The emotional support and encouragement I received allowed me to stay the course and heal. My CRP levels at one point reached 20, but I left True North after one month and went home with a couple of foods that I could eat over and over without symptoms.

A doctor I see in New Jersey to monitor my progress had anticipated starting me on Humera in the weeks to come. He did not believe a change in my diet would rid the inflammation in my colon alone. He felt I needed the extra support from Humera because of my CRP reaching a dangerously high level of 20.

Over the next month using the techniques I learned at the McDougall program, I slowly reintroduced one food at a time each week, having great results with no pain and my stool remaining fully intact. One month of being home I took another blood test to check my inflammatory markers. My skeptical, but concerned physician, called me with the results right away wanting to know what in the world I was taking as my levels had fallen to 1.3. In the ten years of being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, I never had a CRP level below a 5.

It is now 4 months after changing my diet. I am now eating 15 different plant based wholefoods and experiencing no pain, urgency and zero presence of blood in my stool. It has been a very challenging journey to good health. One in which stripping my enjoyment of rich buttery meals and all types of animal based dishes in fancy restaurants, has come to an end. However, I am currently changing my entire lifestyle around so that I can still enjoy food but I can enjoy it in a more healthy way. I take friends and family on picnics now, instead of restaurants, to make new healthier memories. My new motto is “I eat to live” no longer do I live to eat. As the days go by I feel even more healthy and it becomes easier to eat a wholefood plant based diet. My skin is glowing and I am totally pain free. I have no desire to go back to my old eating habits because of how good I feel. I didn’t know just how bad I was getting until I took notice of how good I now feel. To make a long story short, it is the FOOD that healed me. Thank you Dr. McDougall, thank you Dr. Lim, for showing me that indeed it is the food! And for saving my life.

Gabrielle Fennimore