This month’s blog is going to take a slightly more personal turn than usual, but I hope by sharing what I’ve learned over the course of this year I can help some of you that might be in a similar scenario. The story starts in January 2021 when I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. I’ll go into this in more detail later but essentially it prompted me to take a look at how I was living my life and the things I could do to improve it. In short, this is a story about how diet changed my life. If you haven’t yet listened to my Dementia Researcher podcast episode with Dr Neal Barnard, I highly recommend you do. The work of people like Neal played a big role in me getting control of my life back. So let’s get into the details!
“Ulcerative pancolitis… moderately active” was my official diagnosis; a type of inflammatory bowel disease where my immune system essentially attacks my large intestine. Physical symptoms can be pretty dire (as you can imagine from a digestive disorder) but, for me, when I am in a ‘flare’ the worst parts are the severe fatigue and rapid weight loss. The treatment goal for someone like me is to manage symptoms and reconcile me with the fact that this probably won’t go away. When I asked my consultant if there was anything I could do with my diet or exercise to help, I was surprised to hear him say “not really, there is no evidence diet can help”. I wasn’t satisfied with that answer. More to the point, I did not want to sit idly by hoping the medications worked for me. I wanted to do more.
So I started looking into the science. Peer-reviewed published data on the role diet plays in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). I was surprised to find the opposite of what my consultant said was true. There was loads of stuff out there and it all seemed to point in the same direction. If I wanted to give myself the best chance of controlling and maybe even healing my IBD, I had to change my diet. I had to go plant based. Not just that, wherever possible I needed to be eating whole food plant based. Fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, plant proteins; every doctor who was talking about managing IBD with diet was saying “this is what you have to eat”.
Now before I go any further, this did not mean I had to replace my medication with diet. Instead, I complement it. What is the point in taking something to inhibit inflammation in my gut if I am then shovelling down loads of pro-inflammatory, processed foods? The message was clear about the process. It seemed the theory was that IBD is rooted in an “unbalanced” gut microbiome. By eating lots of prebiotic plant based foods and controlling your inflammation with medication, you can reset your microbiome and move on towards better health.
I decided to try it with full support from my partner. For lent we went fully whole food plant based. Bread was off the table. Cheese was off the table. Alcohol… off the table. Instead, we were eating oats with fresh berries, big colourful salads with roasted chick peas and sweet potatoes, homemade curries, chilli, stews, casseroles and giant roasted vegetable tray bakes. It was a wonderful way to eat and it still is! I felt energised in a way I hadn’t in years and my symptoms… non-existent. I was sleeping better, thinking clearer and instead of feeling sluggish after eating, I felt like a recharged battery.
Inspired by this, I started looking into this subject matter more. That’s when I found the work of Dr Barnard and other inspiring researchers. It wasn’t just IBD that this diet had been shown to help with, there were also studies showing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer risk and DEMENTIA RISK could all be reduced by eating your veggies! I won’t go into those in detail, listen to the podcast episode if you want to know more. I guarantee it will send you down a rabbit hole. It’s fascinating.
But back to my story. Lent ended and, foolishly, so did my plant based diet. I backslid and started consuming large amounts of cheese, processed food and milk and guess what happened? The single worst IBD flare I have ever had. I lost nearly a stone in a week and had to take 2 weeks off work. The IBD team put me on a high dose of steroids and I felt like I had undone all the progress I had made.
You won’t be surprised to hear then that I am now back on my whole food plant based diet. Moreover, I have bought cookbooks to help me really optimise my diet. I would definitely recommend Dr Alan Desmond’s book “The Plant-Based Diet Revolution: 28 days to a happier gut and a healthier you”, it really is a life changer.
Once again I feel amazing and my disease does not dictate my life. What’s interesting is if I have the occasional deviation and symptoms recur, I can quickly get control back with a few meals straight out of Dr Desmond’s book. No need for prednisolone!
And that’s the message I want to get across today. I have always thought chronic disease was a lottery. If you draw the short straw you can’t do much about it but, my personal experience has told me that was wrong. There is something incredibly empowering about realising “this was my fault… but that means I can help fix it”. It’s also amazing how it suddenly becomes really easy to give up Dairy Milk and Cornish cheddar when you realise it’s the difference between a normal life and one spent on the toilet!
So that’s how I got to this point and that’s how I found myself nervous, sat on a Zoom call with an American physician who specialises in treating people with a focus on what’s on their plate. I never thought I would be in that position. Most peoples “idols” are footballers or musicians but maybe a doctor is a much better choice. Either way, diet has changed my life and it could change yours too. If you ever want to know more, reach out to me and I’ll be happy to help!
Dr Sam Moxon  is a biomaterials scientist at the University of Manchester. His expertise falls on the interface between biology and engineering. His PhD focussed on regenerative medicine and he now works on trying to develop 3D bioprinting techniques with human stem cells, so that we better understand and treat degenerative diseases. Outside of the lab he hikes through the Lake District and is an expert on all things Disney.