When I graduated from medical school in 1997, I was blessed with good health. I was grateful not to have suffered any disease personally. Years earlier, I worked on my own health through a natural foods diet called “Macrobiotics,” and I admit that I had certain illusions about my choices being appropriate for everyone. When confronted with my first cases of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), despite my medical knowledge from textbooks and lectures, I did not fully respect just how debilitating this condition could be. I also learned how my diet—though great for me—wasn’t always good for this particular group of patients.

 Treating IBD in the clinic: early findings

When IBD patients came into the clinic with acute abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, anemia, and weight loss, I was struck by how inadequate many of our natural treatment methods were to control the acute symptoms. I quickly developed a healthy respect for steroids when I needed them, however disturbing the side effects. I was further humbled by how ineffectual these drugs could be in controlling the disease.

My IBD patients soon taught me that their discomfort could be so profound that many would do anything—even have their intestines removed—to alleviate their suffering.

In practice I saw many cases respond well to naturopathic treatments – dietary strategies, support of adrenal gland function, supplementing gut microbiota, herbal medicines and researched plant medicines like curcumin. Other patients responded positively to acupuncture, correcting nutritional deficiencies with I.V. solutions, or supporting weak areas of digestion with betaine hydrochloride or digestive enzymes. Some patients needed low dose naltrexone, others natural adrenal steroids.

It became evident that the same treatment plan that worked for one patient did not work for another. It also became clear that the same dietary strategy did not help all of my IBD patients.

The Anti-Inflammatory Diet for IBD helps, but can fail for some.

With my training, I had become accustomed to prescribing the so-called “Anti-Inflammatory Diet” for most inflammatory conditions.  This diet consisted of basic, whole-foods, low allergenic, low animal food choices. When implemented with IBD, this dietary approach did help some of the people treated, even putting one case from around the year 2000 into complete remission within a week. However, I was also struck by how many cases did not improve with this diet. It was an anti-inflammatory diet, but often didn’t stop the acute  inflammation of IBD!

The Specific Carbohydrate Diet shows promise.

When I learned of Elaine Gotschall’s Specific Carbohydrate Diet, because of my own aversions to dairy products and meat, and the abundant research on the relationship between animal fats and inflammation, I was very apprehensive about utilizing this diet in the care of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

This all changed when a young boy with Crohn’s disease came seeking my help to mange acute symptoms and find alternative solutions to the drugs he was taking. His mother, Julia, a health practitioner with clinical experience assisting IBD patients with implementation of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, was very educated about alternative treatment perspectives. She wanted to find a doctor who would work with her implementing other alternative complementary strategies for her son.

It was actually Julia who convinced me to support her son adhering to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. Despite my theoretical and personal bias against it,  this turned out to be the strategy most positively influencing the course of her son’s disease and the remission he now enjoys.

Now six years later, Julia’s son goes off to college healthy, happy, and free of any troubling symptoms of his Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Best of all, it is without the need for any pharmaceutical medications.

An integrated approach works.

Julia and her son influenced me strongly, informing the strategies I now use in our IBD complementary and alternative care program.  This approach is about individualizing care, and finding solutions that work, on a case by case basis.  At the same time, the approach requires providing maximum support. This means involving gastroenterologists, natural health care providers like myself, and individuals with experience of the disease and implementation of lifestyle and dietary strategies, as with Julia. 

My own story, and Julia’s have come together as I have learned that it takes a team approach to help patients with IBD. This is why we support the integration of conventional and alternative and complementary methods in the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases.