Crohn's Disease: 10 Years Later

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

It was sometime last year that I thought I would be great to write a post on my journey with Crohn’s Disease, and how different things were 10 years later. After my colonoscopy, diagnosis, and a brief experience with medication, I turned to more holistic methods to manage my Crohn’s in 2008-2009. I changed my diet. I studied nutrition. I worked on my stress. After 2 weeks of cutting out gluten and dairy I wasn’t in pain anymore, and for a really long time, my symptoms were kept at bay and I thrived. When I thought about writing an update post about my journey with IBD and what things were like 10 years later, I didn't imagine that I would be sharing details of new symptoms and stories of seeing a specialist.

The last time I experienced any major Crohn’s symptoms was four years ago. I noticed a reduction in appetite that persisted for a few weeks, so I tried to get an appointment with my gastroenterologist. I wasn’t going to be able to see him for about 6 weeks, and I figured it would sort itself out before that time. Then I got the flu and it was awful. Then my Crohn’s symptoms came out full force while I was dealing with the flu. And to top things off, I got my period. There was basically a flaring rager of a party happening in my body, and I was an unwelcome guest.

The flu passed. My symptoms started to diminish. I made some tweaks in my diet, and started to feel like myself again.

Fast forward to February of this year when I was on a trip to San Francisco. I was there mostly for work, but I also got to spend a few days exploring the city and soaking up the sunshine. I noticed that my appetite wasn’t showing up in its normal ways, which was especially strange since I had access to so many tasty restaurants and treats in a new city. I also had a bit of a sore throat, which I thought may be contributing to my lack of appetite and I had a canker sore or two appear in my mouth. It was all a bit strange, but I didn’t think too much of it since it was the midst of cold and flu season, and maybe my body was just fighting something off. 

When I got back to Toronto, my appetite didn’t return. I had a dentist appointment, and the hygienist mentioned quite a bit of inflammation in my gums.

Lack of appetite.
Canker sores.

It didn’t hit me quickly, but eventually I started to link these things together and came to the realization that my Crohn’s Disease was rearing its ugly head again. I think it took me some time because it wasn’t presenting as more extreme, obvious symptoms (like diarrhea, blood in the stool, urgency before a bowel movement) and I was in a bit of denial that my disease could re-emerge. “I take good care of myself! I eat well! I am resilient!”

I had a big cry and a heart to heart with my partner. Once I realized what I was dealing with, I identified a few more symptoms: unintentional weight loss over the last couple months, lack of energy, and abdominal pain after eating. I vowed to get some blood work done and make an appointment with my GP and specialist so that I could work on getting better. I talked to those close to me about what I was experiencing, and gave myself permission to slow down. I talked to my lead who was super supportive, and encouraged me to take the time I needed to figure things out and put work second. Workouts stopped. Sleep was a priority. I was going to get to the bottom of this.

And then I fainted on the streetcar during my Monday morning commute.

It started off as a normal Monday. I got dressed and made a smoothie, which I packed in my bag. I normally drink my smoothies at my desk, along with some tea or fruit, or anything else that catches my eye from my work’s breakfast catering. I walked 5 minutes to catch the TTC and got on to a pretty packed streetcar. A couple minutes into the ride, I realized I wasn’t feeling great. I was standing by the stairs and knew we were a couple stops away from a lot of people getting off, so I could get myself a seat when they exited. I started to feel hot, so I unzipped my winter jacket and had the instinct to ask someone for help as my vision started to get a bit weird.

Then I woke up on the ground with some strangers trying to help me up. I had fainted.

A couple of very lovely humans helped me off the streetcar, and one woman walked me to safety and sat me down at a bus shelter on Queen St. She went and got me juice, and helped me figure out a plan and some next steps. We were a couple of blocks away from a hospital so I thought it made the most sense to check myself into the ER and see if they could find anything wrong. She walked me there, and I was so thankful for her kindness.

I spent the morning in the ER where they did an ECG to check my heart and did some basic blood work to see how I was doing. They didn’t find anything glaring and encouraged me to connect with my doctors.

I had a neglected requisition for blood work that I filled the next day and made an appointment with my GP. I tried to get an appointment with the gastroenterologist who diagnosed me with Crohn’s Disease and I saw a few times after, but found out that if you haven’t seen a specialist in over a year, you require a new requisition.

My GP and I chatted about my symptoms, the fainting, and my blood work that had come back. It showed that I was pretty anemic again and she wanted to dig a bit more into my iron levels with some more blood work. She also put in a new request for a gastroenterologist referral, and said that any other tests would go through that new doctor. I was pretty excited when I got an email later that day letting me know I had an appointment with a new gastroenterologist, but that feeling faded pretty quickly once I realized the appointment isn’t until June.

It’s been a couple of weeks since all of this happened, and I’ve been doing my best to process it all.

To be honest, at first I was filled with a whole bunch of feelings of guilt and shame that my symptoms had returned; I really thought this was a thing of the past and had put in so much work to feel good. I’ve talked through those feelings, and have reminded myself that this is an autoimmune disease. You can do everything “right” in the world, and your body can still start attacking itself. I’m thankful for Canadian health care, but it was definitely disheartening to realize I’d need to wait nearly 3 months to see a specialist. I also figure they’ll likely book me in for a colonoscopy, and waiting for that could also take some time, which means it could be late summer or even fall before I have a full understanding of what’s going on. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared about what they’ll find - I feel like I’m back at the beginning again, ten years ago before I was diagnosed. Writing all of this down makes me feel very vulnerable, because it's all the scary stuff in my innermost thoughts, and my instinct is to spare you all of that! But it's real and I think it's important to share.

I’ve managed to work on feeling positive amid all of this uncertainty. I started seeing a naturopath to help me in the interim while I’m waiting to see the gastroenterologist. I’ve started an iron supplement that is already helping with my energy levels. While it’s not fully normal yet, my appetite has returned and I’ve been navigating what types of foods make me feel best, and which ones exacerbate my symptoms. I've been eating smaller meals more frequently, and that seems to be helping. I did a new food sensitivity test, and I’m looking forward to getting the results this week. I haven’t started working out regularly again, but I’ve been doing some gentle yoga and meditating which has been a great brain break. I can feel my Type-A tendencies seeping through all of this, along with my desire to control as much as humanly possible with a really, really great plan. I'm working through that too, and trying to be gentle with myself.

While this isn't the Crohn's Disease update I expected to be sharing, I'm ready to navigate whatever comes next, armed with all of the knowledge and experience I've gained over the last ten years. 

That Clean Life

Monday, October 15, 2018

That Clean Life is an awesome meal planner that I have become obsessed with over the last few months. I'm always looking for healthy and easy recipes to try, but sometimes feel overwhelmed by all of the choices that are out there online and have started to get away from using cookbooks. That Clean Life has become a lifesaver to provide super easy and delicious recipes, an awesome meal planner and done-for-you grocery lists.

That Clean Life healthy dinner

There's something that I really enjoy about meal planning - it's probably the Type A in me. And because it's something that I enjoy, I didn't think That Clean Life would be valuable for me. And then I found out about its full capabilities and saw it in action, and realized how well it could fit into my life. It's been a total game changer.

That Clean Life healthy recipes

That Clean Life Capabilities

That Clean Life is more than just a piece of meal planning software or a collection of recipes. Here's why I've fallen in love and use it each week:
  • There are currently more than 800 recipes to choose from and search for, with new, seasonal recipes being added each week
  • You can search by ingredient or category, and each recipe has a beautiful photo + comments from those who have made the dish before
  • Each recipe can be adjusted for the number of serving sizes, big or small
  • Most recipes are gluten and dairy free, with lots of vegetarian, vegan and paleo options
  • All of these recipes can be added into a meal planner for the week, where you can also indicate leftovers
  • That meal plan is turned into a grocery list with the click of a button, and you can indicate which items you already have on hand. You can even email the grocery list to yourself
  • You can add your own recipes into your recipe box, which allows them to be loaded into your meal plan and subsequently included in your grocery list
  • There are also a tonne of done-for-you meal plans that you can choose from, with individual focuses like kid-friendly, paleo or a spring tune-up
  • Recipes can be saved into Collections, which means that you can easily find recipes you've saved to put them into a meal plan in the future
That Clean Life healthy dinner

And have I mentioned that everything is delicious?!

That Clean Life healthy dinner

I love that That Clean Life easily fits into my way of eating, and makes it so easy to prep tasty meals and snacks. Like this layered dip I made for us on a Friday night when I didn't really feel like cooking and wanted to enjoy something a bit more snack-y for dinner.

That Clean Life layered dip

I also love to be a part of the community, as I get to see when new recipes are added and love to creep on the recipes that other members have been making. Each recipe also has a comment section where members share substitutions, questions or comments they have. It's a great way to learn more about other people's experiences with the recipes, and often people's comments have enticed me to try a recipe out if I wasn't sure.

That Clean Life healthy breakfast

That Clean Life has also done an amazing job of creating healthier versions of treats, classics and comfort food - like this chocolate chip cookie pie.

That Clean Life Chocolate Chip Cookie Pie

Each week I get really excited to see the the new recipes that have been added, especially because they seasonal ingredients are enticing and inspiring. I'm so glad that I got over my own idea that this wasn't a service that I would use, because That Clean Life has helped me to discover and enjoy so many amazing recipes. The convenience of the grocery lists has been a game-changer, and we're now in a place where some of the recipes have become absolute favourites in our house. (like this butter chicken!) That Clean Life has taken my enjoyment of meal planning to a new level, and it's become integral in the way I make food each week.

Wanna give That Clean Life a go? You can try a demo membership for free, play around with the meal planner and try out 25 recipes to start.

That Clean Life meal planning review

This post contains affiliate links, which means I'll make a commission if you click a link and purchase something I've recommended, at no extra cost to you.

Making Space

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Ashley Gibson photo by Ian Brown

And just like that summer is behind us, and we're heading into the fall. It feels like yesterday that it was the end of May and I had some time off before starting a new job and embarking on a new part of this journey. Time certainly does fly.

There are a bunch of things that I'm excited to write about that happened this summer - finishing my latest fitness program, travelling to Indianapolis and Montreal, and finding my groove in Toronto's east end once again. But first I want to talk about something a bit more meta, and the thing that's enabling me to write this post at all: making space.

I've had some big changes in the last couple of years, and this summer brought on its own unique transition. Within less than a month, I started a brand new job with a new company and then moved in with my partner. Getting that job offer was very exciting, but it also put a lot of other things into motion - giving notice and leaving my previous job, as well as giving notice at my apartment. Suddenly I went from lots of comfort and familiarity to a whole lot of transition and change.

And that transition felt like it lasted the whole summer! Every time I looked at the calendar I felt like there was something else coming up, whilst still gaining my footing in the day-to-day of my new job. I am so grateful for everything that was thrown my way, but it felt chaotic and tiring at times, and didn't leave me much space to find my new normal.

And now we're here.

Post Labour Day with those back to school feelings that leave me yearning for new school supplies and a fresh day planner. I finally feel like I've caught up with all of the changes and can just enjoy this new chapter of life that I've decided upon.

I can breathe.
I can enjoy this place.
I can take space for the things that bring me joy.
And be intentional with how I fill the space.

I've been doing some of these things naturally (prioritizing time for lovely friends, trying new recipes, practicing good self care) and others need to be a concerted effort, like practicing piano, reading for pleasure, and writing more regularly.

When I was working in my old job that so was so heavily connected to social media, writing and blogs, I didn't feel excited to come home and write. I was also focused on doing all sorts of social media activities related to coaching, and that always left "write new blog post" at the very bottom of my to do list. I've been using this blog as my online home for 10 years now, and over the years my posts have continued to dwindle in numbers. I've talked about changing that multiple times, but in this moment I see where writing fits in to my life and I'm determined to make it a priority.

So, hi.

The goal is for this post to be the first of more regular posts. I've made a list of things I'd like to write about and would love to hear from you what you'd like to see here. Fitness, health, lifestyle, travel, who knows what else - if there's something you'd like to read from me, let me know in the comments.

Morgan Harper Nichols

Photo by Ian Brown, Make up by Megan Fraser
Quote & image by Morgan Harper Nichols (I've been pinning so many of her quotes of late because they all resonate so deeply)

To Frances Spade (from someone else who lost her mom to suicide at 13)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Dear Frances,

I've been thinking a lot about you over the last couple of days. I want to start off by saying that I'm so sorry for your loss. Losing a parent is incredibly difficult at any age, but 13 is even more tough. Not only am I sorry for the loss of your mom, but I'm so sorry that you will be going through this in the public eye, with a lot of people sharing their thoughts and opinions about your mom, her death, stigmas about mental health, and the fact that it was a suicide.

I too lost my mom to suicide when I was 13. It was in 1998 before the internet was popular, yet even still, news of my mom's death and the "mysterious" circumstances spread like wild fire. People said that I was lying. My peers speculated on the way that she died. There were rumours, lies, and a whole lot of opinions that I could have done without - and my mom was just an everyday person, not even a public figure.

Over the last 20 years I've grappled with many emotions, feelings and waves of grief. It isn't my nature to be angry, but if that's what you're feeling, it's ok. Your feelings are valid, whatever they are. A friend once shared with me that grief is like the seasons - ever present, but always changing. Over time you will run the gamut of emotions, you may have already felt like you've gone through too many to name this week.

I was very lucky to have an incredibly guidance counsellor and a very compassionate homeroom teacher when my mom died. And that guidance counsellor set me up with my high school guidance counsellor, who helped me to participate in a bereavement group in my high school. I found a great therapist 2 years ago and she's been instrumental in my continued journey. I am so grateful for those resources and support. I urge you to find that support for yourself, or talk to someone who can help you do so; It will be invaluable for the future.

With each passing day, this will now be the lens with which you view the world. Your friends' and peers' problems will likely feel small and challenging to empathize with for awhile. It isn't common for teens your age to lose a parent, especially not in this way. They may be dealing with moving out of their childhood home, getting a low grade on a test, or having a disagreement with another friend - it is okay to show compassion, set boundaries, and remove yourself from the situation if needed. Managing your own self care and self preservation in those moments is key.

As you meet people in your life who have gone through something similar, don't be afraid to be vulnerable and talk to them about your shared experiences. I have found that I have become deeply connected to those who have experienced trauma, grief, loss and the suicide of a loved one. I cherish those relationships deeply, and know that they have helped me in my own process over time.

Don't read the comments on the internet. While always a good practice, when it comes to these matters I would advise you to be even more stringent. People can be insensitive, cruel and downright nasty. You may feel attacked personally by their words and insensitivity. Save your energy and potential rage.

As the years go by, continue to take care of your own mental health and practice good self care. There will be days that will be hard - some will be predictable (like mother's day, her birthday, the loss of others, special days in your life) and others will be sneaky and catch you by surprise. Lean on your supporters, ask for help from your network and remind yourself that it's ok to not be ok.

Your mom brought joy to many people - not only with her brand, but to you, your family and those who knew her closely; her death does not take that away. Talk about your mom. Say her name. Print photos. Ask people who knew her to tell you stories about her. Repeat your favourite stories about her. When you meet new people, share her story. They won't be able to meet her, but her legacy will continue to live in you.

These are all the things I wish I could go back and tell myself. Twenty years later I am impacted deeply by my mother's life and her death, and I still miss her every day.

Kate Spade was an incredible woman who loved you very much. I am thinking of you through these challenging days, and hope that little by little, things will seem a bit brighter. Take care of yourself.


Photo by Matthew Henry

8 Things I've Learned About Gluten Free Living

Monday, April 16, 2018

Gluten free brownies

It’s been 9 years since I’ve been gluten & dairy free, and I remain symptom free from Crohn’s about 97% of the time (sometimes it creeps up if I have another illness or I'm terribly stressed)

About 2 years before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, I did a detox with a friend that involved cutting out gluten and dairy. I hated it so much! Afterward, I remember writing on my MSN space (remember those?!) about how gluten free living might be for some people, but I certainly wasn’t one of them! Post-detox I went back to eating just the way I did before.

Fast forward to 2008 when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s after being sick for over a year. I was presented with the options of medication, hardcore medication or surgery, and didn’t love any of those options! I started seeing a naturopath and she encourage me to do a blood test to determine my food sensitivities.

The test showed a number of sensitivities, including gluten and dairy. This time I was ready to make a change. Within 2 weeks of cutting out all the foods on this lengthy list, I wasn’t in pain anymore. I followed this plan for 3 months, and then slowly started to reintroduce many of the foods, except for gluten and dairy. Thus began my gluten free life.

8 Things I've Learned About Gluten Free Living

There are lots of different reasons why people decide to go gluten free - some by necessity (like being diagnosed with Celiac or a gluten sensitivity) and some by choice (because they find that eating gluten makes them feel bloated, gassy or just generally terrible) This post isn't to convince you that going gluten free is the way (after all, there's no one diet that's right for every single person on the planet), but more so to offer reassurance and guidance for anyone who is embarking on this lifestyle as a result of a diagnosis, a suspicion, or curiosity of how it could make them feel.

It's going to be scary, but you can totally do it

If you're like me, you probably grew up eating white or whole wheat bread, crackers, pretzels, cookies, cakes, soy sauce, frozen waffles, pancakes and donuts, all filled to the brim with gluten. The prospect of cutting all of those things out and entirely changing the way that you eat can seem daunting, overwhelming, or downright scary. I believe in you! My first experience cutting out gluten wasn't a positive one, but when I reframed my thoughts to see why I needed to do and embraced the foods I could eat, it seemed like a much more manageable change. Change is scary, but not impossible.

There are loads of foods that are naturally gluten free

Many whole foods are naturally gluten free. Lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds are all gluten free, not to mention the variety of gluten free grains like quinoa, rice, buckwheat, amaranth and teff. All of these foods may not don a a gluten free label, but they are amazing options when it comes to adopting a gluten free life.

Gluten is sneaky AF

Once you get a handle on the foods that are naturally gluten free, it's also important to learn where gluten can be hiding because it's sneaky. Soy sauce, coatings, breading, seasoning, fillers - it's not pretty, but gluten lurks in a lot of surprising places. Outside of the foods that you know are naturally gluten free, start to read those nutrition labels! Some packages will say gluten free right on the front, but it's great to get to spot the different names for gluten and also have peace of mind before you eat.

Life is a lot more fun when you focus on the things that you can eat

This was a big shift for me and made a huge difference in my outlook on following a gluten free diet. There are so many incredible things that you can eat, bake, make or get at a restaurant that are all gluten free - focus on those! I remember being at a party and afterward crying because I had just wanted a cupcake. When you focus on the things that you can eat, you'll probably feel a lot happier and more fulfilled. 

Gluten free donut holes

Gluten free baking is an art, but not impossible

First rule of gluten free baking is that you're going to have to blend your flours. Most gluten free flours don't have the same elasticity that wheat flour does (that's the gluten!) so to mimic the texture and create baked goods that don't turn out like rocks, it's important to mix your flours. There are lots of great gluten free flours blends out there that you can get pre-made, or you can pick up a variety of your own flours and go to town! My go-tos tend to be brown rice, chickpea and oat flour. You can buy small amounts of these flours at your local bulk or health food store so that you can start experimenting to see which ones you enjoy most. 

Other people will have a lot of opinions about your diet

When it comes to making any sort of change in your life, people are going to have opinions. Some of them are going to be positive and encouraging, while others may be the opposite. I'm not sure what it is about the proclamation of going gluten free that causes people to get nasty, but for some reason it has that potential. Get out your rhino skin and remind yourself that their opinions don't matter. Does eating gluten free make you feel good? Do you feel less bloated / foggy / gassy / terrible because you're no longer eating a food that's not essential to your diet? If the answer is yes, then keep rocking your gluten free life and remind those people that you're not forcing your lifestyle change upon them - they can continue to enjoy all the gluten they want! Not only is change hard for you, but it's hard for other people too. 

Most things can be made gluten free, with a few exceptions

I've yet to have a really good gluten free perogi, and I also miss decadent desserts made with layers of flaky pastry whenever I'm visiting Greektown on the Danforth here in Toronto. That being said, I've made awesome gluten free gnocchi, gone for gluten free dim sum, travelled throughout the world and tried all sorts of great gluten free food. So it's pretty rare that I feel left out. Again, if you can place your energy on the things you can eat you'll feel a lot happier and fulfilled. 

Gluten free living has come a long way

In the 9 years that I've been gluten free, I've gotten to watch the emergence of so many gluten free cookbooks, blogs, books, restaurants, bakeries and more - it's phenomenal! Many traditional restaurants in large cities have a full on gluten free menu, or will designate which items are gluten free or can be made gluten free. Here in Toronto, there are so many awesome options for dining out, plus a wide variety of stores where gluten free products are readily available - including the bigger grocery stores! Whenever I travel, I always look forward to visiting new gluten free restaurants, and seeing what GF products may be available in that place. It's awesome to see that it's become so widespread and I feel thankful to have so many incredible Ashley-friendly options at my fingertips. I always cook gluten free in my home, and my friends and loved ones haven't had any complaints - I think that's a great sign!

I don't know that I had any idea that after that first three months of gluten free living that this huge change would have such a lasting impact in my life. I'm grateful that it's helped me to keep my Crohn's in check, introduced me to so many awesome restaurants, recipes, and people, but most of all, enabled me to thrive. I can tell you that as you transition to a gluten free lifestyle it does get easier and there is so much delicious food for you to enjoy! Be kind to yourself, arm your kitchen with a great cookbook or two, start to learn those sneaky names for gluten and it will become easier and more intuitive day be day.

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