January 03, 2023
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Photography by Nadine Greeff/Stocksy United
Changing old habits and building new ones can be challenging. I found success with habit stacking, accountability, and breaking things into bite-sized pieces.
When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 19, I didn’t know how to juggle a new diagnosis while also continuing to live my life as a college student. I also didn’t know exactly what I needed to change to make life a little easier with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Now as an adult in my 30s, I have a clearer understanding of the things I can do to live well.
For the past 8 years, I have been taking a proactive approach to my health and really focusing on building one healthy habit at a time. Here are the ones I’ve developed — and how I made them stick.
I found that managing an autoimmune disease like IBD was a lot easier when I began building an entire anti-inflammatory lifestyle. This includes: a nutrient-rich diet, quality sleep each night, daily movement, lowered stress, a positive mindset, and plenty of water each day.
I know that this sounds incredibly overwhelming. I know because when I first thought about doing this, my first thought was, “Where do I even start?”
Creating an anti-inflammatory lifestyle is a little like building a house. You first need to create a solid foundation, laying one brick at a time — or developing one healthy habit at a time. The foundation of healthy habits provides you with the support you need to fight IBD, as well as a long and healthy life.
This list is by no means exhaustive (I’ve been developing habits for years now!), but these are the most crucial habits that have helped me manage IBD, both during a flare and in remission.
With IBD, I used to experience a lot of anxiety, restlessness, and frustration due to the unpredictability of the disease. I felt anxious about leaving the house and finding the nearest bathroom, and frustrated when my symptoms felt like they would never go away. I knew meditation would be a great way to calm my thoughts and start my day on a positive note.
This was one of the more challenging habits to stick to. Because I had difficulty sitting still at first, it was always the first part of my routine I’d skip. To make meditation stick, I used a tactic called habit stacking. I found an established habit in my routine — in my case, making a cup of tea — that I could build on. So, I began to meditate immediately after I drank my cup of tea in the morning.
Now, I love having meditation available to me as a helpful tool any time of the day when I am feeling stressed or anxious.
I was an athlete growing up, so this isn’t a difficult habit when I am healthy and in remission. In fact, it’s something I very much look forward to every day. However, the challenge comes when I’m in a flare and don’t feel like moving at all.
It was challenging to start this habit when I felt tired and weak. To help me overcome this hurdle, I listened to a podcast that was the same length of time as I intended to move my body.
To further cement this habit into my routine, I combined it with my lunch break. I would go for a walk or stretch or do yoga for the first half of my lunch break and then eat my lunch afterward. This really helped me stay consistent with moving my body during a flare. I noticed, too, that daily movement helped with bloating, slightly increased my energy, and improved my overall outlook on the day.
When I was first diagnosed, I was closed off and private about how I was feeling. I only talked to my parents about it when they asked, and even then I wasn’t quite sure how to communicate how I was feeling.
When I got married, I realized quickly that I had a partner now and couldn’t be shut off the way I had been previously. I didn’t need to suffer in silence, and besides, now I had someone to help me through the challenging times with IBD.
I started by checking in with myself each morning. How am I actually feeling today? Does anything feel off? Do I need support getting things done today? To make this a routine, I did an internal check-in during my journaling and tea time, when I felt most introspective. It was also the stillest and quietest time of my day, so it seemed like the best time to actually notice how I felt.
Then, as I felt comfortable, I would share with my husband how I truly felt that day. This would give him a clear picture of what to expect from me each day.
If you aren’t quite ready to offer this information on your own or are afraid you may forget, you can always ask your partner or loved one to ask you each day.
Communicating how I’m feeling helped to temper expectations for the day and relieved me of any guilt about canceling plans. I knew I could say something like, “Today I feel great and would love to go for a long hike” or “I’m really low energy today and in a lot of pain. I know we had plans today, but I need to reschedule.”
In my 20s, sleep was not a priority. I stayed out until all hours with friends and stayed up too late watching TV shows, never considering the connection between the quality of my sleep and IBD.
A few years ago, I began to notice that connection: My digestive issues always felt worse the day after I got little sleep. Finally, I decided that it was time to adjust my sleep routine. Good thing, because research shows that good sleep helps reduce inflammation throughout the body.
To help break the old habit of staying up too late, and to help imprint the new, healthier habit of an earlier bedtime, I did two things: I started going to bed when my husband goes to bed at 9 p.m., which helped me by being accountable to another person.
Second, I committed to not touching my phone or laptop once my head hit the pillow and fully allowing my body to fall asleep. This was a tough habit to break, but I gave myself grace when I didn’t follow this habit perfectly in the beginning.
Ultimately, I discovered within a few days that getting at least 8 hours of sleep helped my digestive symptoms improve.
I grew up eating relatively healthily and thought that was enough, so I had zero interest in making any new changes to my diet when I was diagnosed. I actually cried when I tried giving up sugar and saw someone eating an ice cream sundae.
Later, 5 years into my diagnosis and countless hospitalizations later, I was ready to explore the world of nutrition and see if it could positively impact my health.
Focusing primarily on nutrient-dense foods seemed daunting to me as I began exploring nutrition. I knew it wouldn’t stick if I tried to do everything all at once. So I broke it down into more bite-sized habits. I cut out one inflammatory food item at a time and let that stick for a couple of months before moving on to the next item.
Ultimately, I gave up refined sugar by swapping out my sweet treats for fruit when my “sweet tooth” hit. It was really difficult to give up the foods I loved so much — especially something as tasty as sugar. However, I found that the longer I kept refined sugar out of my diet, the easier it became to keep it out.
I have found building healthy habits to be extremely helpful in managing my IBD, and truly wish I would have started sooner. Having these habits in place now helps me provide the building blocks my body needs to recover from a flare and maintain remission.
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