Friday, October 9, 2009

UC, diet, health, recipes and a girl called Penina

You may remember a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post called ‘Why me?’ Well, amongst the comments was this one from someone called Penina:
I agree. I used to think "why me" when I was first diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, but getting "sick" helped me discover my passion for nutrition. Now I am working with clients with digestive issues to help them regain their quality of life, which is more rewarding than any corporate job I used to have. So I guess in the disease was a blessing...
It sounded interesting. Penina had put her name to the comment, and it was in blue and underlined, which is always more fun, because you can click on it. This is the internet equivalent of stepping through the wardrobe; you never know where it may lead you, but you’re hoping it doesn’t involve rubber gimp masks and hamsters. (Or maybe you are?)

The click-through took me to a very lovely website called Feed Your Roots, which is written by Penina. It was immediately obvious she has no interest in rubber gimp masks and hamsters, but is clearly passionate about food and diet and the role it can play in our health. I thought it would be good to know more, so I emailed Penina to see if she would be happy to answer a few questions. She said yes. So I’d like to say a big thank to Penina for taking the time to do the Q&A.

Could you tell us a little about your history with ulcerative colitis?

Absolutely. In November 2006, I developed symptoms similar to a stomach flu and I could not seem to recover. Once I started bleeding, I was tested for a number of different illnesses and issues including parasites, but every test came back negative. It took about a month before I finally had a colonoscopy and that was how I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis. My doctor said I had a mild case and that with the help of medication I should be in remission “in no time”. Six months later, my quality of life had not improved and I started looking for other options.

In June 2007, I found a health counselor in New York City (where I was living at the time) who specialized in digestive issues and scheduled an appointment with her right away. We discussed my current diet and lifestyle. I thought I was pretty healthy - I exercised regularly, ate well and was not overweight. She gave me several recommendations to start on immediately and this was the beginning of my healing process. Some of the recommendations were harder than others. Omitting coffee and beer from my diet was probably the most difficult. Once I got over the hump of my caffeine withdrawal haze, I could feel a positive difference in my body, but I still had a long way to go. Over the next several months, my health counselor helped me understand my body and my disease and how food can be used as medicine. My life was never the same again.

My illness helped me find my passion – nutrition. I am now a Certified Health Counselor and work with clients to meet their health goals to live a healthy fulfilling life.

I was fortunate to have the support of my friends and family. I could not have made these permanent life style and dietary changes without their love.

You were taking conventional medicine for UC, but you only started to improve once you changed your diet and lifestyle. What changes did you make?

That is correct. I tried medicine without making any diet or lifestyle changes for six months and did not show any signs of improvement. My diet today is plant-based with an emphasis on whole, nutrient dense foods. Whole foods have not been processed or refined and do not contain added ingredients like salt or sugar. They cannot be made in a plant or factory. I exercise regularly and incorporate stress-relieving activities like yoga into my routine.

It can be easy to get disheartened if you don’t see results straight away, how soon did you start to see an improvement in your health?

I think we live in a society that demands instant results. Everyone is looking for a “quick fix”. I think that is why fad diets and diet pills are so popular.

It takes time to undo the damage you caused your body over the years. Our bodies know how to heal if we give them the right equipment to do so. I started feeling more like myself again after a few weeks but it took several months before I went into remission.

And what’s the current situation with your UC? Presumably you still take some medication?

I am the healthiest that I have been in years. I am on a small dosage of Lialda, which I hope to eventually taper off of completely. I’ve been to 3 doctors since my initial diagnoses and none of them have been able to give me an explanation as to why my colon is pink and healthy.

It seems your approach is tailored to the individual and requires you make some pretty big changes to your lifestyle, what would you say to someone who would like to make those changes, but whose family is less than enthusiastic to swap their ‘normal’ diet for a whole food one?

I would also tell them that just a few years ago I was in their shoes. Some of family members did not understand why I was working with a health counselor. They always supported me, but did not understand. Then they saw how my quality of life improved and became “believers”.

I would also suggest that the individual schedule a Wellness Consult with me so that we could speak about their specific concerns in more depth. This is a 50 minute complimentary session where we discuss that individual’s heath history and how we could work together to start making changes for them to live a more fulfilling life. I work with clients by phone, Skype and in person and can be contacted at

When I was first diagnosed with UC I asked the doctors about whether a change of diet might help and they pretty much dismissed the idea there was any link between diet and UC. Do you think this is a belief the US medical profession shares or is it just a UK thing?

When I was first diagnosed my doctor also told me that I did not need to make any changes to my diet. I needed to experiment and see what worked for me because each person is different. While I agree that each person is different, we are also alike in many ways. How can food not play a significant role in a digestive disease?

I think many if not most medical professionals in the US do not think that diet and lifestyle play a significant role in “incurable” diseases like Ulcerative Colitis. I strongly believe that this is starting to change. There are many physicians who are leaders in their fields who believe food should be incorporated into medical treatment and I believe this already has a ripple effect. My father is an OB/GYN and initially did not agree that changing my diet and lifestyle could improve the symptoms of my disease. He has seen 2 of his 4 children develop UC and change their quality of life through diet and lifestyle. Today, he is studying to incorporate nutrition into his practice.

Stress and UC are quite often linked. Before becoming a health counselor, you had a job in the corporate world with a lifestyle to match; do you think this played any part in your illness?

For me, addressing and controlling my stress has played a huge role in the overall maintenance of my UC. I first started to show symptoms of UC during a very stressful period at work. A year later I had a terrible flare up which also happened to coincide with another stressful period at work. By working with a health counselor as a client and then through my training and education to become a health counselor, I have learned how to reduce my stress and what I need to do when life does get stressful so that I don’t flare. We all have stress in our lives, this is unavoidable for most, but the important thing is to learn how to deal with it before it controls our life.

I’m a big fan of the occasional curry, can you recommend a recipe?

Unfortunately, I don’t. Curry dishes typically have dairy and a lot of spice, which I avoid in my diet. I’ve tried curry-style recipes in the past that were dairy free, but I have not found one yet that I like enough to recommend.