When Food Attacks: How I Roll With the Gut Punches of Ulcerative Colitis

For HealthCentral's Highs and Lows series, Mandy shares how she learns from her low moments with inflammatory bowel disease

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Chronic conditions bring complications to everyday life. My ulcerative colitis (UC), for example, can throw a wrench into things, even when I least expect it. When my UC decides to steal the show, I've learned the best thing to do is to find a way, no matter how difficult it is, to laugh about it and learn from it.

For instance, traveling seems to always set off my UC, and this year was no different.

A vacation adventure with UC: Food choices gone awry

Every year, my fiancé's family goes to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, for vacation, and I've been lucky to join them on the last two trips. His parents are so accommodating when it comes to my UC: For example, they make sure to get everything on my grocery list, so I have access to my safe foods and enough water to stay hydrated while we're there. I usually never sweat it.

This year, however, we ran into a lot of travel issues. Our plane was delayed from Chicago, which caused us to miss our flight to Hilton Head from North Carolina. We thought we'd be stranded in North Carolina until the next day. After wandering around the airport and going from car rental company to car rental company, we finally found an available car and made the four-hour drive to the island.

We stopped late in the evening for food, and I treated myself to a Wendy's spicy chicken sandwich. I wasn't really thinking about it. My nerves were shot from traveling (I despise flying), and the panic of almost needing to spend a night in the airport still had me reeling. I topped off my sandwich with a chocolate Frosty, because, why not? I felt fine afterward, but I was exhausted. I had never been more thankful to see a hotel bed that night.

The next morning: UC symptoms strike

I woke up around 6 a.m. to my stomach churning. I rolled over to lie on it, hoping the pressure would help the pain dissipate somewhat. Sure enough, it didn't, and I immediately ran into the bathroom. Over the course of the next four hours, I would not only make 15 trips to the bathroom, but I inadvertently held us up and delayed us getting out to the beach.

I was also mortified that I had to consistently end my conversation with my fiancé’s parents, sometimes mid-sentence, to run to the bathroom. When there seemed to finally be nothing left in me, I felt weak, shaky, and exhausted. That was the first time I had ever used the bathroom that much in front of my soon-to-be in-laws, much less my fiancé. I'm usually open about my UC, but in that moment, I felt insecure and embarrassed.

UC lessons learned

After my episode had finished, I recalled a previous incident when I had eaten Popeye's spicy chicken and spent the majority of the next day, Christmas Eve no less, in the bathroom. Stupid spicy chicken. I should've known it wasn't a good choice for me — much less to indulge in dairy with a Frosty, which I rarely ever do. Both of these foods trigger my UC and send me straight to the porcelain throne.

I was at least able to brush off the sudden urgency by putting the blame on the chicken and the Frosty. My fiancé and I even made a few jokes about it. But, in retrospect, I should've paid closer attention to my mental health during this whole experience, too. I was so shaken from flying and dealing with flight delays, turbulence, and the car rental situation. All of this stress can increase the likelihood of flares with IBD.

With the symptoms behind me, I tried to learn from the experience. On the way back home to Chicago from Hilton Head, I made a point to relax at the airport, as best I could, and my fiancé helped keep me in check when it came to food. No matter the situation with your UC, always try to make sure you have some kind of support system established. By having my fiancé keep tabs on me when we were eating, and letting him know how I was feeling, I actually enjoyed our trip home and experienced a lot less stress.

UC forces a learning process. Life with this chronic disease is highly unpredictable, but at the same time, you can lower the chances of flares when you make choices that you know aren’t going to destroy your guts.

The moral of the story? Chill out when you can, blame the chicken when you can't, and roll with the punches of UC. It's a learning experience each and every day — the best we can do is apply those lessons in the future (and stay away from the chocolate milkshakes).