**Post originally uploaded March 2017**
I’ve been struggling with how to write this blog post for weeks now. Having been candid in my thoughts regarding the IC Diet, I knew I wanted to write about the nutritional approaches I DO recommend for managing interstitial cystitis. I receive quite a lot of enquiries from IC sufferers and in general they have had no dietary advice from their doctors or specialists, nor are they aware that their condition may be very much improved with some adjustments to their eating habits (beyond the avoidance of orange juice and coffee). Having been passionate about nutrition since my late teens, as well as managing my own anxiety, tummy troubles and persistent genital arousal disorder (PGAD) with careful nutritional practices, I almost take it for granted that everyone understands the link between gut health and overall health. I also tend to assume that everyone knows how to eat in a way that will restore them to good health, whatever ails them. However, when I ask people, “Have you tried eliminating this?” or, “Have you tried doing that?” they usually sound quite surprised that this may have any bearing on their bladder symptoms.
As cystitis is such a painful condition, with IC being especially debilitating, I wanted to write a post to encourage sufferers to take a look at their diets and perhaps try a new approach to addressing their bladder health. However, these tips are certainly not limited to managing IC – they make up the nutritional foundations of addressing a wide range of chronic health conditions, including among many others:
- Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Type 2 diabetes
Although these may not seem to have anything to do with the digestion, they absolutely do and thus are very responsive to dietary changes. Obviously disorders that affect the gut directly, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are also hugely affected by what we eat and drink.
My struggle with this post has been in the complexity of the subject material. There are whole books, whole websites devoted to using dietary approaches to manage chronic health complaints, so it’s not really possible to give detailed explanations of all the principles in a couple of thousand words. I decided that the best thing to do would be to just list the principles in this post and then write separate posts for each point where I can elaborate. Also, as ever, Google is your friend, so for each point I make there will be an abundance of blogs/articles/books where you can find out more.
The following points are all things that I do myself and that I consider crucial in enabling me to lead a healthier and happier life than I thought possible. Do remember though that I am not a doctor and you must make your own decisions as to what is best for your individual situation, consulting with your own preferred type of qualified healthcare professional before making changes where appropriate. Remember also that nutrition is only one approach in managing complicated health issues and with the best will in the world, sometimes things just flare up, or are exacerbated by other factors. However, I definitely find that good nutrition can go a long way to improving most ailments, while poor nutrition can hinder a lot of other medicines and therapies from working. Whether dietary changes are the first thing you try, or the last piece of your health jigsaw, I am sure you have plenty to gain from experimenting with the following suggestions. For best results, do them all at once – if you only remove one aggravating factor, but continue with others, your health cannot improve as fully as it might otherwise have done.
Eliminate gluten entirely for at least eight weeks...
...being sure not to just replace your favourite baked products with gluten free alternatives. ‘Gluten free’ does not mean the same as ‘nutritious’ and so while some gluten free products can be conducive with good health, gluten free doughnuts, jam tarts, croissants and chocolate biscuits are nobody’s friend on the journey to great health.
Eliminate all added sugar and artificial sweeteners for at least eight weeks...
...with a view to severely limiting their intake for life. Also limit sources of natural sugars for eight weeks to really give yourself the chance to lose your sweet tooth and allow your gut to heal. It isn’t possible to eliminate ALL sugar and anyone who says otherwise is ignorant of nutritional matters. All fruits and vegetables contain natural sugars and clearly it would be detrimental to health to eschew these for a lifetime. However, if your fruits of choice tend to be things like bananas, grapes, mangoes, cherries and raisins, and you eat several helpings a day, or you drink big glasses of juices or smoothies, you can easily rack up the natural sugars. This may not be the best idea in the early stages of managing a chronic health issue and it also doesn’t give your taste buds chance to adapt to a lower sugar way of life. Likewise, eating tablespoons of honey and maple syrup only feeds yours sugar addiction to begin with. There is no reason why these foods can’t be reintroduced later when your tastes, cooking habits and health have improved, but very limited low sugar fruits are best for the short term. As for sugary junk foods like cakes, biscuits, sweets, ice creams and drinks like fizzy pop and coffee with syrups in, they are just never good things to eat. It might be unthinkable now to live without them, but live without them you can and if you give yourself a fully committed eight weeks to change your ways, you will be doing yourself the biggest health-enhancing favour imaginable long term. Artificial sweeteners, while different to sugars, are incredibly bad for health and I do not recommend their usage at all.
Eliminate dairy products for eight weeks.
You may or may not be intolerant to dairy and you may or may not have digestive symptoms that indicate this. With this in mind, giving it up for eight weeks alongside the gluten and sugar allows you to really get your gut and thus the rest of your body in order. You can always reintroduce it after the eight weeks and see if any aspects of your chronic health issue begin to get worse again. If they do, chances are you’d be best off avoiding dairy, or at least some dairy. I don’t drink milk (I can’t afford or easily get hold of raw, unpasteurised milk which is the most easily digestible form), don’t use cream and don’t eat cheese, but I am okay with butter. I’ve not had milk for a long time, but I only stopped using cheese and cream in my cooking relatively recently and I was amazed at how much of a difference it made.
Eliminate alcohol for eight weeks...
...especially for sufferers of anxiety, interstitial cystitis or bowel complaints. The more strongly you feel this is unthinkable, the greater the indication that you should do it. Although a zero-tolerance approach to alcohol won’t be required for most people in the long term, it can be very irritating to guts, bladders and mental health issues and it won’t do any harm at all to cut it out completely for a couple of months while you learn new ways of eating and drinking and give your digestive tract time to really heal. Many individuals have a deeply unhealthy relationship with alcohol, telling themselves it’s perfectly normal to need a drink after a bad day, a good day, a sad event, an exciting event, a weekend, a holiday or just about any day of the week. It isn’t normal, or necessary. The more angered you feel by what you have just read, the more likely it is that you have some degree of alcohol dependency. Your wellbeing relies on you developing a healthy relationship with alcohol.
Follow a gut healing approach to address any intestinal permeability issues or harmful bacteria overgrowth.
Chronic health problems tend to go hand in hand with ‘leaky gut’, which is where particles that shouldn’t pass into the bloodstream are allowed to do so by a compromised intestinal wall. They also frequently occur in people who have an inappropriate balance of beneficial and harmful microbes in their digestive tract. A gut healing protocol has three aspects: anti-microbial agents (for example, caprylic acid, grapefruit seed extract, oregano oil, Berberis vulgaris) to sweep out the digestive tract, so providing a blank canvas for repopulation with friendly bacteria; healing agents to seal ‘holes’ in the intestines and soothe the GI tract (for example, bovine colostrum, L-glutamine, gelatin, bone broth); and probiotic foods and supplements to reseed yourself with plenty of beneficial bacteria. There is plenty of information online and in books about this – a quick Google of ‘leaky gut’ and ‘gut healing’ should throw up lots of resources to get you started. Beware of those sorts of sites that say ‘wait – are you sure you want to leave this page’ and try to sell you some sort of branded protocol. There is no quick fix miracle to good gut health – it takes a commitment to change dietary habits and a sensible cleanse, seal and repopulate approach.
Make sure your meat and eggs are organic.
I can’t afford to buy organic everything (and there are some fruit and veg I won’t buy organic, just because I don’t want to inadvertently eat any insects!) but I make organic meat an absolute priority, closely followed by organic eggs. Dairy would be the next priority, if I ate it.
The following points are extra bits and pieces for sufferers of interstitial cystitis, though they may well be of benefit to others as well.
Eliminate coffee for a few weeks.
Its irritating effect on the bladder can linger for days after the coffee, so if you’re only drinking it a couple of times a week, you can still be causing yourself almost constant bladder pain, even with decaf. Surely it’s worth trying a while without any at all – you’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain. While coffee is not necessarily ‘bad’, it’s also not essential to optimum health, so it will do no harm to cut it out for a month or two as an experiment!
Try to eat in a way that has an overall alkalising effect on the urine.
In general, meat, fish, eggs and grains leave an acid residue and fruits and vegetables leave an alkali residue. One half of your plate should be vegetables at meal times, with a quarter your starch (be they starchy vegetables or grains) and a quarter your protein. Making a mixture of vegetables the stars of the show is not only highly nutritious, but also has a wonderfully alkalising effect on the urine, helping to relieve bladder pain. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that while I eat both eggs and salmon, I’d never have a breakfast of just eggs and salmon, because it would make my urine feel too cystitis-y. If I were to precede it with a freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juice and put some vegetables with it, however, I’d be fine.
I do appreciate that there is a lot of information to take in here and there may be some radical changes for you to make. While it can be bearable to make such changes for a few weeks, rest assured that it took me YEARS before I was able to stick to them as a permanent way of life. However, if you can commit to implementing them strictly for a couple of months, you will give yourself chance to not only change your habits, but to experience what feeling well actually feels like. The rest takes time, but in time you will learn to love feeling good more than anything you could eat or drink. Eventually, you stop noticing all the things you’re missing and start to get excited about all the things you can do now you feel better and all the things you can eat. You have nothing to lose with a short term trial of the above points (except maybe some weight – I NEVER need to diet to have a great bikini body!) and a whole lot of good stuff to gain. If after eight weeks you don’t feel any different, or it’s just too hard to continue with, at least then you can feel like you’re choosing to sacrifice a bit of wellbeing for a bit of gastronomical pleasure and this in itself may make symptoms of chronic illnesses easier to cope with. Sometimes, it’s the feeling of powerlessness and apparently random nature of symptoms that makes them the hardest to bear. You can read more about this in Part 1 and Part 2 of my Five Stages of Grief blog posts.
In the future I may write blog posts dedicated to individual points from the list, so I can go into more detail about things. For now though, I hope somebody will find them helpful and best of luck to anyone who gives them a try!
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