The universe can have a hilarious and ironic sense of humor.
Yesterday I woke up to another gorgeous Vermont summer day and decided to take my morning really slow; do some gentle yoga, journaling, make breakfast and prepare some snacks for the weekend. I rarely get a Saturday off of work from the restaurant but this weekend my wish was granted and I didn't plan on squandering it. Hiking and camping up at Lake Willoughby with Corey (my husband/best friend) and our best friend Andrew was on the agenda and I'd eagerly been looking forward to this weekend adventure out in nature.
Later that morning, I decided to lounge in my backyard and begin a rough draft for a topic I've been wanting to share for a little while now, how I cope with a colitis flare. I wrote down all my thoughts, soaked up the cool breeze and hot sun, played with my dogs, then grabbed some food and headed into the restaurant to finish up my last shift before my weekend in the woods.
Just as I was finishing up work, it hit me. The feeling I've come to recognize all too well in the past 6 years, the beginning of a flare. The first thing I thought to myself was, "seriously!?" "why now!?" I had been feeling so great all day, let alone all summer that why did this have to happen on the first Saturday I had off to spend quality time with my husband and friends? I'm sure if you're living with a chronic illness or have even just gotten sick on a really important event, you've thought this way before.
Well, cause that's life people. Your body doesn't know or care that it's the weekend or that you wanted to go out and have fun. It decides whenever it's ready to get sick or get better and you just have to role with the punches. If anything my body chose a great time to start a flare since I'll have the next day and a half free to rest and support my body to heal as quickly as possible.
I'd be lying if I said I came to this conclusion and positive mindset immediately because I didn't. You know what I did first? I cried. A lot. Because my disease (like many chronic diseases) is painful, frustrating and demoralizing. I work so hard to support my body to be the healthiest it can be and while I'm not perfect, I try pretty damn hard to be balanced, at the very least. So when something like a flare comes along and puts me on my ass, out of the blue, it's upsetting.
And sometimes you just need to have a good cry about it.
So as I write this, Corey, Andrew and our pup Tron are on their way up to Lake Willoughby for a fun day of hiking, camping and swimming.* But hey! I get to lay in bed with AC, my old dog Ru, drink lots of bone broth and express my thoughts with you awesome people! Ironic how the day I start writing about how to handle a flare, I get a flare huh? Guess the universe wanted me to get prepared!
*For the record, my husband is amazing and didn't abandon me. I wanted them to go without me. I honestly would have felt worse if they missed out on an awesome experience on my behalf.
Lets Cover the Basics Real Quick
What is a "flare" anyway?
If you have an autoimmune condition, you're probably so used to using the word "flare" to describe the common symptoms of your disease, that you may not even realize that many people don't understand what "having a flare" really means. You may not know that autoimmune conditions and disease don't really get cured, they go into a remission. Someone can be in remission until their condition is aggravated by something which is what typically causes a "flare" of symptoms. Flares can last for days, weeks, months or years. For people with Crohn's and Colitis, typical symptoms include pain, frequent bowel movements, blood in the stool, dehydration and fever. While other autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus may involve a rash, joint or muscle pain and a general feeling of malaise and fatigue. Keep in mind this is the short list for possible symptoms people with an autoimmune condition may experience. Everyone is different and experiences flares in their own very special way. Migraines and joint/muscle stiffness also typically accompany my colitis flares, fun stuff!
What causes a flare?
When you live with an autoimmune disease it can feel like just about anything and everything can trigger a flare. Most of the time it's hard to pinpoint exactly what could have been the culprit. In a nutshell, pretty much anything that stresses your body out can cause a flare. Common triggers can include:
- Stress (emotional,chemical, physical, biological, etc.)
- Lack of sleep and poor quality of sleep
- Exposure to chemicals or toxins
- Dietary triggers (gluten, sugar, nightshades, rancid oils, alcohol, etc.)
- Underlying issues that have remained unaddressed in your treatment plan (leaky gut, SIBO, weakened microbiome, Celiac disease or gluten intolerance)
How do you recognize the beginning of a flare?
I'd say 85% of the time I can recognize when a flare is about to hit me. The other 15% of the time is a total crapshoot (case in point this weekend). My ability to recognize the beginning of a flare comes from a rigorous practice of listening to my body. I am constantly checking in with myself throughout the day. Even if I don't write it down, I'm taking mental notes about everything; how every piece of food feels in my body, if I feel well rested, energetic, lethargic or stressed. Not only do I take this inventory but I try to figure out the root cause of it. Did I spend too much time in front of my computer before bed? Am I stressing about money or my health? (irony again) Have I not been getting enough exercise or maybe it's the opposite and I'm demanding too much from my body. This is the dutiful practice of being mindful. It's not hard but it does involve some discipline to master but once you do it's so rewarding to be able to be in-tune with your body on such a deep level.
I've also found that I most commonly have a flare when I'm thrown off of my normal routine, for example if I travel or if I have people visiting. When this happens and I'm exposed to different environmental toxins, bacteria, foods and drinks that I wouldn't normally consume, I almost always take a preemptive approach and give my body the extra support it will need before and after my irregular routine occurs.
6 Steps I Take to Calm A Flare*
*Disclaimer: Remember that this is what I've found works best FOR ME. Some of these things may help you but some may not. Always use your best judgement and when in doubt consult a medical professional for advice.
1. Drink lots of bone broth
There are an insane amount of benefits to consuming bone broth. I consume it mostly because it is a very digestible form of bio-available nutrients and it is rich in electrolytes and amino acids to help heal your gut and calm inflammation throughout the body. I always have bone broth in fridge, freezer or simmering away in the crock-pot so that I'm never without. I try to drink at least 2-3 cups per day during a flare. Bone broth is great to include on a daily basis for its healing benefits either by drinking it plain or cooking with it.
2. Simplify my diet
Think baby food. My diet basically reverts back to all things blended, pureed, mashed or juiced. This takes some stress off of your digestive system by not having to work so hard to break down food and absorb nutrients. For me this consists of a lot of soups and stews (using bone broth of course, bonus points!), smoothies, green juices, butternut squash mash, poached or soft boiled eggs and soothing teas. Definitely avoid most sugars while in a flare! I even cut way back on sugars found in fruits. If I add fruit to smoothies or juices they're either berries or citrus fruits.
3. Reduce stress
If you can take time off of work, do it. Try to reduce your commitments and focus on pampering yourself. I find that journaling or taking a long Epsom salt bath with essential oils does wonders to help me unwind and clear my head. If you can afford a massage or know a good acupuncturist, I also highly recommend seeking them out to assist in relaxing the body, mind and soul.
4. Sleep & get lots of rest
The body literally uses sleep as a time to heal itself and recover from the day. If you're not getting enough it can possibly cause a flare or make it worse. I aim to get a full 8-10 hours or more during a flare and lots of restful activities when awake. I try to avoid blue light, i.e computer screens, phones, tablets, etc at least an hour before bed to promote melatonin production and a restful nights sleep. If I can't avoid it, I wear my super stylish amber tinted glasses to dull some of the effects of the blue light.
5. Do gentle stretching and activities
Even when I'm in a really rough flare and getting out of bed seems like a struggle, doing even just a little light stretching, gentle yoga or activities such as walking around my yard can make me feel so much better. YouTube has loads of gentle yoga videos you could follow, I've frequently done a 15-minute gentle morning yoga session from Yoga by Candace but I often just move my body however feels comfortable.
6. Increase my consumption of healing supplements
I take probiotics everyday and almost always take L-glutamine and collagen peptides on a daily basis but during a flare I bump up my consumption of all of these. One particular strain of probiotics, saccharomyces boulardii, has been shown to modulate the immune system and decrease inflammation. A high quality strain of saccharomyces boulardii or full spectrum probiotic, especially during a flare can help tremendously. I typically order Klaire Labs or Prescript Assist as top quality brands. Collagen peptides are a soluble version of gelatin, the same stuff found in magical bone broth. Vital Proteins provides a very high quality, pasture-raised, grass-fed collagen protein, as well as a wild-caught marine collagen for those that eat seafood but not meat. L-Glutamine is incredibly helpful for healing the gut lining, helping with tissue repair and muscle recovery. I typically buy Jarrow Formulas L-Glutamine. If you're new to taking L-Glutamine read over this article before beginning supplementation.
I've successfully distracted myself from the fact that I feel like crap (no pun intended) and I'm missing out on this really gross view (below). But all things happen for a reason, clearly my body needed some real rest and I was blessed with uninterrupted alone time to write this post. I truly feel better writing about all of this while I'm actively in a flare that has upset me so much.
For those struggling, I feel your pain. I'm right there with you.
For those who know someone struggling, just be there for them. Whether it be in-person or in-spirit, it's the best thing you can do.
Stay healthy and happy my friends!
P.S. -- Snuggling your puppies is also very healing :)