“I believe absolutely that it is in sharing the most vulnerable aspects of our journeys that we support each other to find grace and strength and healing during equally challenging times.”
~ Baden Lashkov
Living a Resilient Autoimmune Life
Autoimmune disease often strikes people at a very young age and changes their life forever. Laura Scaviola was only 25 years old when she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC). Amazingly, her doctor recommended the paleo diet. How cool is that? She’s been paleo ever since. Over the past year she’s been able to reduce her autoimmune medication, go off steroids, and has learned first-hand the impact stress and poor diet can have on her illness. By the way, do you believe in synchronicity? I contacted Laura for this interview, without realizing that today (May 19th) is World IBD Day. What better day to hear her success story?
What were your first symptoms? When did you learn what it was?
I first noticed symptoms of ulcerative colitis (UC) when I was frequenting the bathroom a bit more often than normal for an extended amount of time. I was bloated, gassy, and could not digest properly for over a week. At first, I thought I just ate something that didn’t agree with me. After a few more days I noticed blood in my stool and knew it was something more serious. Eventually I was “going” over 20 times a day with an alarming amount of blood. I lost 7% of my bodyweight in 6 days. Symptoms got uglier and uglier until I was very malnourished and dehydrated.
The undiagnosed disease brought me to the emergency room where the ER doctor mentioned colitis and referred me to a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy. After some tests and the colonoscopy my gastroenterologist confirmed it to be ulcerative colitis throughout my entire colon (pancolitis). This was March 2013.
Can you describe what it was like for you, when your condition was at its worst?
My condition was at its worst during my first flare up. I didn’t know what it was at the time, because I had yet to be diagnosed. I was scared, frustrated, alone, and embarrassed. I was scared that there may be something seriously wrong with me – that it could be life threatening. I was frustrated because there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to help my symptoms. Going to the bathroom was embarrassing, especially for a lady. Probably the worst feeling was that I was alone. Toilet troubles aren’t something people share often so I felt that I was the only one going through this problem and no one could truly understand what it felt like.
What treatment methods did you try before dietary intervention – conventional or alternative?
Luckily, I learned of paleo the day of my diagnosis. So, I began eating clean within hours of leaving the hospital.
Which healing diet(s) did you choose?
The paleo diet was recommended to me by my gastroenterologist. After a year of paleo I am just now experimenting with the autoimmune protocol to see if I notice an even stronger difference in my health.
How fast did you see results?
Immediately. Because I began strong medication in conjunction with the diet it is hard to tell exactly how fast the paleo diet had an impact on my disease.
With that said, I am confident the paleo diet allowed me to wean myself off steroids sooner than prescribed. And I didn’t gain any weight from over 10 weeks of steroids. None!
What symptoms still remain?
Most days I do not experience any symptoms. When I do, the most common are inflammation and bloating. Occasionally I will experience symptoms when I am stressed, tired, or not conscious about my clean eating regime. I have had minor flares which consist of frequent bowel movements that contain blood. They are hard to tame when I am under stress or traveling a lot, mostly because of my sleep schedule and absence of home cooked meals. Overall I am healthy and in control of my disease.
What other areas of your health improved simultaneously?
What hasn’t?! Check out my laundry list of health improvements:
- My skin developed a glow. It also cleared up my Granuloma Annulare (an autoimmune skin condition) that I have had on my arm for 14 years.
- A fibroadenoma in my breast has shrunk since the diet which gives me one less health problem to worry about.
- My everlasting lower belly fat disappeared.
- My nails and hair grew longer and stronger.
- I can think clearly and my mood is almost always positive.
- Paleo also gave me more energy which has brought me to join CrossFit.
What areas feel immune to the effect of diet?
Sleep, water, and stress have a strong effect on my UC. There are times I am strict paleo but I could be extremely stressed, busy, and not sleeping well. Those factors will upset me a lot. If my diet is inconsistent along with stress and poor sleep then fuhgeddaboutit! My gut will respond poorly. As important as diet is I also believe strongly in a well-rounded and balanced approach to health.
What other things do you do outside of diet to support your health and healing?
This is an area that is not my strength. I am terrible at relaxing. I always have been. However, I recently started CrossFit and it’s a great outlet for me. Never having been a gym person before, this was very different to my daily routine. It not only has made me physically stronger, but it is a reminder that my body can still look and feel strong even with an autoimmune disease.
Are you on any medication now?
My flare up got into remission with the help of medication, but stayed in remission because of my paleo lifestyle.
Currently I am taking a maintenance drug (mesalamine) for my ulcerative colitis. However, I am now taking half the dose I was first prescribed. Against doctor’s orders I was medication free for two whole months. I felt great, but after traveling for work and stress of the holiday season last year, I flared. After prednisone doses and hitting the restart button on my diet (bone broth, etc.), I went back into remission.
It is a goal of mine to be able to manage remission purely through supplements, diet, and alternative approaches, but it has only been just over a year since my diagnosis. I am still learning (and listening) to my body. Two months off medication has taught me how sensitive my disease is. If I am ever in remission comfortably for a year then I would definitely consider tapering further. My first remission lasted 8 months. As eager as I am to be medication free, I am in no rush. My priority is to stay in remission for long periods of time, however possible.
How strict were/are you on the dietary protocol? Any “cheats”?
In the beginning I was so strict I would not even think about touching a non-paleo food. When the decision was made to eat paleo, I knew I wouldn’t stick with it if I allowed any cheats or gray areas. After I was in remission for a few months, I began slowly reintroducing different foods in controlled experiments, so I could see how my body responded. Luckily, goat cheese is something I can tolerate in small quantities. That’s key. If I know I can tolerate goat cheese and ghee then I don’t push my limits. I enjoy it in small bits. Grains, however, are something that still upset my digestion. Corn, rice, and many gluten free products usually cause me trouble when I try them. My motto is if the food looks the same going out as it does going in then we probably shouldn’t be eating it! As for cheating, I got too confident recently and started eating a cheat meal about 3 times a week. This caused a minor flare, which taught me that cheating’s not a good idea.
Do you intend to do this diet forever, or do you hope to wean yourself off it eventually?
Forever! I cannot imagine my life eating the way I used to. This has my new lifestyle for over a year and I extremely passionate about it. So, why change?
What were/are the challenges for you in sticking to the diet?
The biggest challenge is having to cook everything I eat. Also not being able to eat pasta and cheese! Not only do I live in an area that is not conducive to clean eating, but I come from an Italian-American family where pasta, bread, and cheese are staples in the cuisine. Before my shift to paleo, I definitely took for granted the convenience of being able to grab dinner on the way home from work….Or order a normal meal on a date without having it turn into a conversation about my disease and why I can’t eat pasta. Oh, and I really miss pasta and mozzarella cheese. Did I mention that?
Who supports you in your healing journey?
My family and close friends are the people who have been my biggest support. My parents, brother, and sister-in-law are always making paleo food during the holidays, but that’s only a fraction of the support from them. My friends are also very accommodating to my diet and are great at knowing just how to boost my spirits. I love them all.
Additionally, strangers have actually been an amazing support to me as well. It also sounds silly when I say it, but the network of support I’ve built through social media has been amazing. I mean, I’m talking about people I have never met in person. They are complete strangers who share a connection through diet and/or Inflammatory Bowel Disease. They support my journey by sharing tips, send smiles, and holding me accountable to maintain my health through diet. It is so humbling and motivating to have them thank me for being a voice for people with ulcerative colitis.
What advice would you give to people with autoimmune disease who are just starting to consider diet and lifestyle changes?
Firstly, I would applaud them for shifting their lifestyle to one where food is medicine. Changing your diet all depends on the person. Know that there isn’t one diet that’s perfect for you. You create it. Find what works for you and commit to that. Depending on the type of person you are it may benefit you to dive right into a diet like I did. Or you may find it better to take baby steps by removing gluten first and then grain, and then dairy, and then processed food, etc.
Do research. Ask questions. Keep a food journal. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t work. Reward yourself when things do. Foster a relationship with your doctor. Share your story. Smile.
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This is part of a series of autoimmune success stories. Click here to see the full list. They are also a regular feature of my podcast: Phoenix Helix.