Photo: @BBCr4today on Twitter
Jean Alys Barker, Baroness Trumpington, has been an important figure in the political landscape of the United Kingdom for decades. Her grandson, Chris, has Crohn’s disease.
The 95 year old Baroness has retired from politics, but was a recent guest editor on BBC’s Today show. Her segment about her grandson, and his experience with Crohn’s and some advice he had to share with those newly diagnosed.
Diagnosed at 18
Chris had just turned 18 when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 18. That was ten years ago.
His symptoms came on rapidly and completely. He knew something was wrong when he experienced “Pretty much the symptoms everyone loves: stomach cramping, bloating, and diarrhea.
Unlike some people, his Crohn’s disease manifested itself all at once. There were no warning signs of an impending chronic inflammatory bowel disease. As Chris said, “It appeared out of nowhere as well. I could eat ice cream and then suddenly, ‘Oh my God.’ It felt like I’d eaten knives.”
Pain in his stomach and the associated symptoms of Crohn’s were not the only effects from the disease and ensuing diagnosis. While Crohn’s does not have a psychological component to its repertoire of diseases, the other effects of the disease had a negative effect on Chris.
“People who get Crohn’s usually suffer from some level of depression. I know I did,” he said.
It is not uncommon for people with Crohn’s disease to become depressed. Both physical pain and the social ills that come with the disease can take a toll on a person’s psyche.
Crohn’s disease also affected Chris’s relationships with his friends. “Especially that age where you’re coming into being interested in girls and sex and stuff like that, it’s a **** time to get that sort of problem.”
But today Chris is more than just a Crohn’s sufferer. He likes to help people. To do this he is a personal trainer. He also has some advice to give to people who have just been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease:
“This is probably the worst time. Don’t give up hope. It gets better. You learn your body, you learn to manage it. I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s definitely not, and I have days where I still screw up, where you misjudge things. But it gets easier. You have to mature quicker, I think, is the thing.”
The time immediately after you are diagnosed with a disease is almost always the hardest. But if you focus on the future and do not let the disease drag you down, you can overcome the disease and thrive.
Following a proper diet is a big part of Chris’s life. Eating the wrong thing can cause him immediate pain and an emergency trip to the bathroom.
In the beginning this got to him. For a while he almost gave up eating because, “If you associate eating with pain, it’s quite easy to stop eating.” But an elimination diet helped him take control over his food intake again. It even brought back a measure of power and enjoyment over eating.
The idea of the elimination diet is to exclude every possible problematic food from your meals. Then you slowly add in one food item at a time. A gap between the introduction of different types of foods lets you judge your body’s reaction to the food so you can see if that specific food is okay or not.
He started with rice cakes, which are now his usual breakfast item. He added chicken and had no negative reaction, so chicken is a large source of protein. Fish was also okay.
Butter, though? In his words, “Hell no.”
Elimination diets are helpful for people with Crohn’s because, while there are some foods which trigger symptoms in most people with Crohn’s disease, other trigger foods will be unique to your body. Eliminating all confounding factors helps you to pin those foods down.
That is not the only aspect of eating to which Chris has had to pay attention. The timing of meals is important as well.
According to him, “You just have to plan a lot more. Say if I was to go on a date with someone, I’d probably try and avoid eating as little as possible, and on the date I’d probably eat the plainest thing possible.”
After all, it can be very embarrassing to have to make an emergency trip to the bathroom.
But diet alone did not help Chris overcome his inflammatory bowel disease.
The importance of exercise
To Chris, exercise was just as important in overcoming Crohn’s disease as diet, if not more so.
Working out is not just a vocation for Chris. It is a way to manage his symptoms and improve his quality of life. He is not unique in this effect; it is known that light to moderate exercise, safely executed, can help improve the quality of life for patients with Crohn’s disease.
While there are the generic benefits of exercise that help almost any human being, there are also benefits specific to people with inflammatory bowel diseases. Specifically, exercise improves digestion.
“You have the mechanical aspect; it helps in the digestion of food. Quite a lot of people with Crohn’s struggle to get all of the nutrients out of the food so they end up malnourished,” Chris said.
Planning your meals is not the only important part of eating food. Getting all you can out of the food, especially when you have a hard time eating large amounts of food, is very important.
But improved digestion is not the only benefit of exercise Chris talked about. Calling back to the depression you can suffer after getting diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, Chris said, “Exercise releases endorphins, so that really helps.”
Indeed, exercise can also help some people improve their mental state and can ease the depression and anxiety that comes from living with a difficult, chronic disease.
Working out can be difficult for some people, though. Especially if you are not used to physical activity, it can be hard to get into the habit of exercising several times a week. But Chris is adamant that physical activity helps. And you should be physically active.
“If you know that helps, why wouldn’t you do it? Even if you don’t enjoy exercise, learn to enjoy it, because it’s going to help your body,” he said.
Perhaps this conviction that physical exercise helps people so much is why he became a personal trainer.
Chris’s grandmother is an aristocrat, a former member of the House of Lords, a former politician, and is a Baroness. She has had an effect, small or large, on people across her nation and even in other parts of the world.
Her grandson is also affecting other people. He is working at a smaller scale by helping individuals meet their fitness goals. But he also gives advice and encouragement to people with Crohn’s disease, and if just one person has a better life from knowing him, that is more than what some people can say.