Your digestive system – when it’s working well – is a beautiful thing. It is responsible for breaking down the food you eat, extracting and absorbing nutrients, keeping out toxins and eliminating waste. Not only does the gastrointestinal tract host 60 to 80 per cent of your immune system, it is also loaded with neurons releasing the same neurotransmitters found in the brain, hence the “gut feelings” you experience.
In order to provide optimal nourishment, detoxification and immunity, your gastrointestinal system has to function seamlessly. Disturbances, on the other hand, manifest in a number of conditions – inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease and diverticular disease among them.
While there are many gastrointestinal conditions, they have one thing in common: they are not deemed suitable dinner conversation, says Gail Attara, CEO of the Gastrointestinal Society. “You can talk about a broken leg or diabetes around the table, but you don’t really talk about bowel movements. That means people often suffer in silence. We need to understand that even though we don’t see it, there is a lot going on inside of us.”
As many as 20 million Canadians have at least one digestive disease or disorder for all or part of their lives, explains Attara. “Individuals with gastrointestinal problems are not alone.”
Mina Mawani, president and CEO of Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, says there is also a stigma associated with having a “bathroom disease.” Patients with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, for example, are often first diagnosed when they are in high school or university – their career-building years, and Mawani says many drop out because of health challenges and may become isolated over time.
’s disease and ulcerative colitis are inflammatory bowel diseases that occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks all or part of the digestive tract, causing inflammation that leads, in turn, to symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, cramping, frequent and long-term diarrhea and fatigue. Mawani adds that the impact of these diseases on an individual’s life is substantial.
Being able to openly share experiences of living with IBD can prevent feeling isolated. It can also form the foundation of a strong relationship bond, as is evident in Vancouver couple Mavreen David and Shauna Gold.
“Shauna has ulcerative colitis, a disease she struggled with from a young age,” says Mavreen, who has lived with Crohn’s for 26 years. “It’s no surprise that we have found comfort and understanding in one another.”
Mavreen was 12 when the symptoms started. Two years later, she received a proper diagnosis. What followed was a turbulent time of trying different treatments – including alternative therapies – and surgeries. “I had a big portion of my large intestine removed and also had a temporary colostomy bag,” says Mavreen. “In my teens and twenties, I’ve only had very short pockets of good health.”
When an opportunity to try a new biologic medication came along in 2001, Mavreen jumped at the chance. But the relief was short-lived – she had to stop the treatment because it wasn’t covered by her health-care plan. Again, she descended “into a spiral of bad health and hospitalization,” she says. “And over the years, I’ve experienced the full range of side effects that come with an inflammatory bowel disease, including skin issues, arthritis and depression.”
The option of receiving a therapy that represents a new generation of the medication she had found effective in 2001 brought a turning point for Mavreen in 2009. “With this treatment, I’ve had the longest and best remission during my 26-year battle with Crohn’s,” she says. “And while I still experience lots of fallout from the many years of illness, my general health is fantastic.”
This prolonged period of health gave Mavreen the opportunity to start a family, she says. “I never thought this would be possible. I had always been told my health wasn’t good enough for a successful pregnancy.”
Together with their two-year-old son, Mavreen and Shauna now live a life that neither of them previously thought possible due to their health challenges, according to Mavreen. “We consider ourselves lucky that our treatments are effective. Not everyone finds something that works since inflammatory bowel disease manifests differently for different people,” she says. “I’m a big proponent of research, for developing new treatments and perhaps, one day, a cure.”
The goal of finding the cures resonates with Mawani. “At Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, we imagine a day without the suffering of inflammatory bowel disease and we continue to support research, patients, advocacy and awareness,” she says. Attara says the Gastrointestinal Society also focuses its efforts on helping individuals with gastrointestinal conditions.
Mavreen is happy to help. As a volunteer for the Gastrointestinal Society, she often speaks about her personal journey and lends her expertise as a photographer to make sure gastrointestinal illness can come into the light.
As Canadian leaders in providing trusted, evidence-based information on all areas of the gastrointestinal tract, the Gastrointestinal Society and the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research are committed to improving the lives of people with gastrointestinal and liver conditions by supporting research, advocating for appropriate patient access to health care, and promoting gastrointestinal and liver health.
For more information, visit badgut.org.
Crohn’s and Colitis Canada is the national, volunteer-based charity focused on finding the cures for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – the two main forms of inflammatory bowel disease – and improving the lives of children and adults affected by these diseases through research, patient programs, advocacy and awareness-building.
For more information, visit crohnsandcolitis.ca.
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