A Tale of My Changing Food Triggers
Last updated: June 2023
After having had ulcerative colitis for over 5 years, I had begun to feel confident that I knew what food and drinks to avoid. More than that, I thought I knew when to avoid these triggers and when my symptoms were well-managed enough that I could handle having the occasional trigger food or drink without doing damage.
I thought I had my UC triggers all figured out
For example, alcohol was a complete no-no during a flare or any period of increased stress, though I do admit to breaking this personal rule several times. Aside from the need to avoid alcohol during flares, my body was generally quite resilient to my food and drink choices, which I know made me incredibly lucky in contrast to many with UC or Crohn's.
This process of not only identifying diet triggers but making difficult choices around them – when to avoid and when to splurge – can take years of trial and error. It can also take time to come to terms with the new limits, and I know I spent years trying to push myself beyond them and wanting to just be "normal." Recently, I've also learned that even when you think you have this diet triggers thing all figured out, your body and its needs can change and surprise you.
Enter a different kind of trigger: stress
In the last year or so, I've experienced a number of stressors and along with that has come a couple of flare-ups. Quickly, I went from giving my diet choices almost no thought to investing much more time and energy into eating and drinking things that made my body feel good.
In addition to needing to avoid alcohol, I realized that caffeine was making my symptoms much worse. While I've never been a huge coffee drinker, I did enjoy my once- or twice-weekly fun Starbucks order. I loved trying a new drink or adding unique customizations, but I noticed that my morning coffee order increasingly meant I would need to make several urgent bathroom runs.
No coffee, no spice...
For a while, I kept pushing it and ordering coffee anyway, but lately, I've accepted that caffeine (at least in that high of a quantity) does too much damage to be worth it for me. I grudgingly began to realize that coffee was a new trigger for me.
Unfortunately, coffee wasn't the only new trigger I had to acknowledge around this time. While navigating my recent flare-ups, I found that anything even remotely spicy would send me running to the bathroom. I had previously somehow been one of the lucky few who could have spicy foods without creating GI torture. Given that one of my favorite restaurants is the local Thai spot, I was disappointed to now have to avoid one of my favorite places.
For several months, I struggled with accepting the new changes in diet that my body was forcing me to adopt.
Feeling limited with UC food restrictions
Throughout this time of adjustment, I found that the hardest part of having a new trigger food or drink was feeling limited.
Although cooking is a chore for many, I've always enjoyed the process of making something delicious and satisfying. Similarly, sharing food with others is one of the cornerstones of my social life. With my new triggers, I had to grudgingly cut out some of my favorite recipes or pass on offers to go out to dinner with others.
I certainly still feel the urge to order that morning coffee, have a nice cocktail with dinner or pick up spicy Thai food on my way home from work, and I do occasionally give in. However, what has helped me most is finding new ways of enjoying the foods and drinks that do work well with my body.
Adapting with substitutions
While it may be blasphemy to some, I've adapted to my coffee trigger by ordering decaf or trying other drinks, like matcha and chai teas, that have lower caffeine content than the typical coffee beverage. When I get the urge for a fun cocktail, I might order a mocktail or have a bottle of kombucha instead. If I'm really craving Thai food, I might opt for one of the no-spice options.
Having an alternative that still makes me feel like I'm treating myself allows me to enjoy the moment and avoid making my symptoms worse. Within the last year, I've come to recognize that triggers can and do evolve, and having UC means rolling with the signals your body gives.
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