About Me

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My interest in human health and nutrition began at a relatively young age. In high school I began challenging myself to see if I could keep up with the bench press of the football players in my weightlifting class. Some would call me “healthy” during my teenage years, spending one to two hours at the gym every day, consuming caffeine and protein shakes at an alarming rate. about me 5

I had the mistaken belief of many Americans today that labels which claimed to be “healthy, low fat, low sugar etc.” were legitimate.

My experience with a chronic disease

Shortly after turning 21, I started having symptoms that felt like a bad stomach virus. My symptoms persisted for weeks and were not getting any better on their own. I watched my weight fall off of me day after day, from not being able to keep food in me for any length of time.

My life became an inconceivable disaster; my existence consisted of a series of bathroom trips.

I went to the doctor to see what was wrong with me and after a series of blood and stool tests, rectal exams, and colonoscopies, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease causing inflammation and ulceration to the large intestine. Weeks later I would spend a week and a half at the hospital recovering from extreme weight loss, fatigue, and dehydration.

The gastroenterologist that diagnosed me, sent me home with a heavy dose of steroids, antibiotics, and 5ASA.

The oral meds I was sent home with were just not strong enough to knock down the flare, so after a couple weeks of frequent bathroom trips and bloody bowl movements, I was admitted to the hospital where I would stay for a week and a half trying to get a grasp on my symptoms through the use of heavy doses of steroids and antibiotics.

After being discharged from the hospital on the 26 of November 2010, I began having some recurrent GI symptoms after a thanksgiving meal. I would then spend that night curled up in pain, alternating from the bathroom to my bed.

The next day, November 27, I was readmitted once again on the same drug cocktail, but this time a higher dose of IV Solu-Medrol 120mg. This is a superhuman amount of a synthetic glucocorticoid, which no human should have to experience. Mood swings, hot flashes, puffy face, acne and insomnia are just the immediate short terms side effects I experienced. The fact that I was not responding favorably to such a high dose of steroids illustrates just how bad of shape I was in during this time. This was a very frightening time for me because the longer you spend hospitalized with this disease the greater the risk of surgery to remove the colon. I don’t know about you, but the idea of being a 21-year-old, walking around with a colostomy bag was difficult to digest.

I lost 40 pounds and was down to 120 pounds at 5’11”. That body building physique I had worked so hard for was now a distant memory. The psychological component of ulcerative colitis is overwhelming. The symptoms are embarrassing, the disease is unpredictable and may go into remission, then a flare unexpectedly. You have a 40% greater chance of colon cancer and most of the treatments have very bad side effect profiles and often begin to stop working. I became quite depressed and began to lose hope when presented with this life changing challenge. I didn’t know if I could support myself and live the kind of life I had planned for myself. My social life faded into obscurity as I became increasingly self-conscious with every pound lost.

Fortunately, my disease eventually went into a temporary remission a few days later with the help of my gastroenterologist and a heavy dose of drugs. I left the hospital with desperate longing for answers.

Does Diet Effect IBD?

I had a list of questions to ask my doc for the follow-up appointment and it was at point that I began to realized how very little nutrition education conventional medicine practitioners receive. I had a preconceived notion that diet likely had a large impact on this disease (gastrointestinal tracks main purpose being the assimilation and elimination of food), but when I asked my doc about it, he replied:

There is no evidence that shows diet has an effect on your disease.

At the time I didn’t know any better, however, intuitively I knew something was wrong with this message. Motivated by fear, I took the gastroenterologist’s advice and continued to go about my life, the way I had before all this happened.

I was for the most part asymptomatic and remained in unexplained remission until about 6 months after leaving the hospital. The doc treated my second big flare up in the same general fashion, with the oral steroids and antibiotics. This time around the treatment had little to no positive effect.

If the pain, suffering, and uncertainty I dealt with the first year of being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis taught me anything, it was that my existence with this disease was going to be inexplicably dreadful. This is the point that I decided something has to change.  I was not willing to live my life around my symptoms. I started to re-evaluate the notion that diet has no effect on my disease.

Sometimes I would be up all hours of the night researching. I found a confidence inspiring dietary protocol called the Specific Carbohydrate diet by Elaine Gottschall, a biochemist and mother determined to find an alternative to surgery for her little girl with UC, who was unresponsive to standard medical therapy. Eager to learn more, I started poking around on blogs and support groups and found hundreds of individuals who followed the diet and were symptom-free or managing quite well. While the empirical evidence I learned about from blogs and support groups was compelling and full of implications, I was, however still very skeptical that something as simple as diet could have such a profound impact on an illness like mine.

I could still hear those enduring words of my gastroenterologist in the back of my head, “there is no evidence that shows diet has an effect on your disease”. With skepticism, I would email many of the people I found following the diet on blogs and support groups, asking questions. What I discovered was that many of these people were completely drug and symptom-free or at least considerably better with diet alone. Most of these individuals had really no reason to lie, the information I was getting about diet had no product line or conflict of interests. Furthermore, the woman who wrote the book about the therapeutic diet was no longer alive.

I then began going deeper than empirical evidence and started looking into the scientific literature on PubMed to find primary sources about diet and IBD. What I found was a few different human studies conducted on the diet that seemed to benefit all the participants.

I couldn’t find very many reasons not to try the diet on myself. When you stack diet against more hospital visits and the potential of losing my colon, the decision seemed quite obvious. The more I learned, the more I began to start believing that maybe suffering is not my fate.

After a few weeks of following the diet with disciplined obedience, I had about an 80% reduction in my symptoms. I had some of my first solid bowel movements in quite some time. I began sleeping better through the night, my acne started clearing up, and I started putting weight back on. Knowing that this diet worked so well was a bitter-sweet feeling. There was no such thing as a “cheat day” for me on this diet. Every attempt to eat the foods that were not permitted on the diet, I would later pay for. This meant no more pizza, popcorn, milk, and crackers (I know, I’m weird) or the many other comfort foods I grew up on.

Before and after

I didn’t know it at the time but this dietary adjustment would change the way I view health and disease. Recovering from a severe Colitis flare was quite a revelation. The old saying “if you have your health you have everything” had never felt more real to me. I had to own up to the fact that up until this point, the life that I had lived and the things that I had put in my body had been destructive to my health. This also begged the question, could this information that helped me possibly help others? It became clear that I had a mission to spread this information. Looking back, I see that the diagnosis of ulcerative colitis was one of my greatest teachers in life up until this point.

The next time I came to see my doc, I insisted he do a celiac test on me in an attempt to gather more knowledge as to why this diet worked so well. He was convinced I did not have celiac or gluten sensitivities and did not believe that diet had anything to do with my disease, nor did he feel need to perform the test. This took me by surprise; my doctor who was previously suggesting a drug that required the monitoring of my liver enzymes weekly to prevent jaundice and liver failure was uninterested in an alternative to this approach. He was glad that I was feeling better but he already had his mind made up, he believed to already have the right answer prior to inquiry. I realize that medical training is exhaustive, but I can not accept that it is only the experts are able to utilize modern science. It was then that I began to realize the need for a new MD.

I’m not here to sermonize a message. I have no agenda, no drug company put me up to this. I certainly did not start out as an advocate for food as medicine. What led me to safe and effective treatments for my disease was a few different informative websites, blogs, scientists and open access scientific journals, which gave me more information on how to manage this disease than anywhere else I had searched at the time. I have spent countless hours trying to decipher complex scientific ideas related to health and disease. At the core of what leads my search for safe and effective IBD treatments is a sense of determination, unbounded optimism and a willingness to experiment with scientifically validated treatments.

I have found there to be a disconnect in the scientific literature and what is often being practiced clinically by many health care providers because many simply do not have the time to read all the scientific literature on just one disease. One could dedicate their entire career to studying just one disease.

My academic experience

I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University and hold a bachelor’s degree in public health with a minor in health care administration. I’m currently in school for a second-degree Bachelors of Nursing. Upon completion of my nursing degree, I plan to continue in school to become a nutritionally oriented family nurse practitioner. I became vested in the acquisition of knowledge, experience, and guidance that integrative medicine offers.

I have witnessed first hand the shortcomings of modern medicine. However I chose this field consciously, in hopes to help usher in the future of medicine, which focuses on correcting the mismatch between our genes and environment (diet, lifestyle), which I believe to be a driver for many of the diseases and disabilities we face. I feel that the merging a medical degree, with the unique perspective of a disenchanted patient will equip me with a unique set of skills that patients and families might find helpful.

My experience working in public health and primary care, as well as time spent observing physicians in both conventional and holistic medicine, will serve as a road-map to much of the information provided on this blog. However, much of this information is also very personal to me and has to do with my personal experience, as well as my thoughts and opinions.

I started this blog because I believe that people with digestive disorders deserve to know all their options.

-Tyler Penn

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