Sounds angry right? Ulcerative Colitis. Well, it kind of is. I like to call it my angry colon.
I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (UC) in 2003 and have been on this crazy roller coaster since. This disease is invisible to those who don’t know you have it. On the outside we look normal and function everyday just like everyone else, but what’s going on inside is a different story.
UC effects almost 1 million people in the United States, but it is rarely talked about. People often feel embarrassed or ashamed about what they are dealing with and I get that…who wants to talk about what’s going on in the bathroom?!
Lucky for you, it’s something I’ve gotten very comfortable taking about over the years and that’s why I want to share my story. I want to shed some light on what can be a scary diagnosis and hopefully show that this isn’t the end of the world, more like a manageable inconvenience. Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
What is UC?
UC is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes irritation in the inner lining of the large intestine. Symptoms of inflammation often include any of the following:
- Loose and urgent bowel movements
- Blood or mucus in stool
- Abdominal pain
- Feeling tired
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Well that’s no fun, right? While these are common symptoms, it should be noted that this doesn’t always happen all at once and it can often come and go in waves called “flare ups”. The good news is that it is possible to function and even thrive with this disease. I like to think that I’m living proof of that.
I do want to point out that there is a big difference between IBD (UC, Crohn’s, etc…) and a very common diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). IBS affects the muscle contractions of the colon, but does not cause inflammation or lead to damage of the GI tract. This is much more common than IBD and it is estimated that IBS effects around 10-15% of adults in the United States. You can read more about IBS here.
What Causes UC?
The most frustrating thing about UC is that there is no known cause. There are many theories, but nothing definitive. The three main factors currently believed to cause the disease are: the immune system, genetics and environmental factors.
An autoimmune disease is when there is an abnormal immune response to an otherwise normal body part. In the case of UC, the body’s immune system is overly stimulated and attack the lining of the colon. This leads to inflammation and ulcers and all the other fun symptoms that come with it. This overstimulation could be the result of a virus or bacterial infection of the colon and the immune system hasn’t properly “shut off” its defenses. It could also be the caused by foreign substances (antigens) that make their way into the colon and kick the immune system in high gear to get them out.
Another factor could be genetics as some abnormal genes have been found in people with UC, however a clear link has not been established. I’m a prime example of that since I am the only person in my family that has any form of IBD.
Then there are environmental factors. This is something I feel very strongly about as being the main cause for UC, but unfortunately the research does not support that. Pharmaceutical products such as NSAID pain relievers, antibiotics and oral contraceptives (all things I used to use on a regular basis) and high-fat foods could increase the chances of developing UC.
Other things like food and stress, while not a cause for the disease, definitely contribute to flare ups. There are certain foods that I can no longer eat like cucumbers, squash, melons, peppers and eggs as they all cause bad flares.
How is UC diagnosed and treated?
If you have any signs of IBD or even think something might be slightly off with your digestive system, talk to your doctor. Don’t wait, just have a conversation. Please, just do it.
I made the mistake of waiting, a long time, in the hope that things might improve on their own or that maybe I could fix things myself. This has led to some horrible flares and most likely a faster progression of the disease. Don’t make that mistake.
After a physical exam and probably numerous lab tests, a colonoscopy is typically performed to give a definitive diagnosis. While not the most pleasant experience (actually the prep is much worse than the procedure), colonoscopies really are no big deal. Think of it as a nice little nap.
Treatment will then depend on the severity of the disease. Options include oral medications, localized topical treatments, injections and infusions. Everyone responds differently to different treatments, so it’s often trial and error until you find what works for you. Diet changes are often necessary and can help reduce the severity of flares. I’ve found that by eating more whole foods and incorporating good, clean supplements into my diet have drastically helped the way I feel and keep my energy levels up.
So there are the basics. Stay tuned for more of My UC Story and how I am not just surviving this disease, but thriving…and you can too!