How a new diet has given me my life back after Irritable Bowel Disease
Having tried and tested medication to help with her debilitating stomach condition for years, Victoria Young found the specific carbohydrate diet - and hasn't looked back
When you see someone ordering food in a restaurant, putting a waiter through their paces, asking if something is gluten/dairy/sugar free - the chances are you roll your eyes and wonder what hell kind of fun that high-maintenance person is having and why they even bothered to come to a restaurant in the first place.
I don't blame you. It's what I thought for many years, until I became that person ordering myself.
I ignored my symptoms for months - bloating, severe stomach cramps and diarrhoea. But then I noticed blood and an increased urgency to find a loo within about 30 seconds. My lowest point was when I had to cancel going to a friend's fabulous birthday picnic - because I knew I'd need to be near a loo. Was this really what my life had dwindled to? I wasn't even 30.
My GP referred me for a colonoscopy. Being diagnosed with anything that contains the word 'disease' takes some getting used to. For me, a 20-something single girl about town (I'm now 42), being told I had ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune condition and a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), pretty much felt like the end of the world.
Then came the good news: take these pills, the consultant said, and you can carry on as you were. When I asked about diet, the doctor said medication was the only solution. I wanted it all to go away so badly that that sounded ideal.
But once the shock had worn off, I did my own research. Many people with IBD, it seems, start with medication (I was taking Asacol - a form of mesalamine) which reduces inflammation in the colon. When that stops working, steroids are introduced and when those stop working, surgery to remove part of the colon can be next.
With medication, my symptoms mostly disappeared, with no side effects. I made no lifestyle changes, and continued to survive on a diet of mainly pizza, pasta and Pringles (I was in my 20s remember). I had occasional flare ups, at which point my doctor adjusted my dose.
I probably would have continued on that path, but then I developed a hacking cough that several rounds of antibiotics couldn't even banish and a colleague practically forced me to go and see a naturopath called Sarah Bowles Flannery in Richmond, London. I was as sceptical about anything vaguely 'alternative'. But I was also desperate.
Sarah instantly linked my cough to the same inflammation that caused my colitis. She concocted some foul-tasting herbs with unpronounceable names which amazingly cured my cough within days. She also told me about the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) - which consists of unprocessed food that is grain-free, sugar-free, starch-free - and how it can help with my condition. She had several patients on the diet who'd been symptom-free for years, so I felt I had to give it a go.
Developed in the 1940s by an American doctor called Sidney Haas, the principle behind the SCD is that carbohydrates are classified by their chemical structure: monosaccharide (including fructose, so many fruits, and honey, as well as glucose), disaccharide (including sucrose - which is sugar - as well as other forms of sugars such as lactose in dairy products) or polysaccharide (including starch, so potatoes and cereals, as well as dextrin, also produced by the body during digestion, cellulose (found in bran) pectin (which is in some fruit and vegetables) and glycogen (found in oats)).
On the diet you can only eat monosaccharide carbohydrates as the others require extra digestion steps. Any food that's not properly digested causes bacterial and yeast overgrowth, which causes irritation and inflammation, which can lead to conditions such as Colitis, Crohn's, celiac disease, and IBS.
Although not a huge amount of research has been done on the SCD, a study last year by Rush University in Chicago concluded that it's effective, stating: "At least a subgroup of patients with IBD may notably improve as a result of following the SCD."
It sounded crazy, as this is what I had to give up: refined sugar; all grains (so, no bread, pasta, polenta, rice or even quinoa); cream, milk, chickpeas, sweet potatoes and potatoes, soya, soft cheese (because the lactose has not been digested by the bacteria in the cheese) - although hard cheese is fine.
I can still eat most fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, spices and herbs, oil and butter - and hard cheese plus home-made yoghurt, nuts, seeds, honey and red lentils.
I can also drink some alcohol - dry wine, vodka and gin - in moderation. But, ruinous as it was to my social life, the diet worked.
After a few months I felt confident enough to stop taking my medication to see how I fared without it. Since I had been told my diet played no part, this was a decision I had to make alone. That was seven years ago, and I have been medication-free since.
I still go for occasional check-ups at the IBD clinic. The medical staff there tell me that they know the diet works for some people but they don't endorse it because it's so difficult to follow and relapse levels are too high.
I have had flare-ups, once or twice a year, but although the same symptoms recur, they're less frequent, and less extreme and debilitating.
Since I was having flare-ups on medication too, this approach still feels preferable, even though eating out can be a minefield and, at home, I have to cook everything from scratch, which is a faff.
But there has been an upside; I've learned to cook - really delicious food - despite the limitations of my diet. Although there's a lot I can't eat, I focus on what I can. Now, I make mouthwatering cakes and pancakes using ground almonds, butter and honey; pizzas using cauliflower (sounds horrid, tastes delicious); soups, stews and even cheeseburgers and fry ups.
Slowly, I have stopped feeling deprived, and begun to be excited about food again. I wanted to show others that it is possible to enjoy eating even when your diet is severely restricted, so started my blog How To Eat (when you can't eat anything at all).
When you are diagnosed with a condition like mine, it feels that life as you know it is over. I wanted to give some hope that it's not. Difficult to follow as it has been, this new way of eating as given me my life back.
Health & Living