Most of my life I considered myself a “healthy person.” I was fit and felt great without obsessing over my diet or health. That all changed six years ago when I developed Crohn’s disease. Suddenly, I had to redefine what being a healthy person meant for me. Then I had to figure out how to become one in the setting of a chronic disease.
Like other things in life, accomplishing this goal involved creating, implementing and sustaining new habits.
In this article, I will share my five healthy habits for improving my Crohn’s and my number one strategy for keeping them.
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Small Changes Lead to Big Results
Soon after I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, I visited inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) support groups where others with Crohn’s shared how they were using food and lifestyle to manage their disease. They seemed in control of their situation at a time when I very much did not. Their stories impressed me, but all of it seemed like a lot of time and effort. I was absolutely certain I would never make the types of changes they did in order to improve my health.
Whether you’re newly diagnosed with IBD or have had it for years, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed on your journey to good health. For me, the dietary changes stressed me out the most. I got contradictory advice from healthcare providers, online, and elsewhere. Some recommendations suggested eliminating many foods I loved. I was ready to make some changes, but I steadfastly refused to give up my favorite foods. I’m looking at you, pizza.
Ultimately, I got to a point where I stopped eating pizza. But, I didn’t have to change everything at once to be successful on my journey to better health. That was an important lesson I learned in my efforts to eat better for my Crohn’s. Small changes lead to big results. Turns out I wasn’t so different from the people I admired at the support group. All that stood between me and them was a handful of healthy habits.
My 5 Healthy Crohn’s Fighting Habits
- Drink a glass or two of water first thing in the morning. Like everyone else, I wake up dehydrated. Water re-hydrates me and gives me energy. I aim for 60 fluid ounces minimum per day.
- Prioritize sleep. For me, that’s getting seven hours each night. Everybody’s needs are different.
- Eat vegetables early in the day. I like to front-load my day with “good behavior” to guarantee these healthy practices happen.
- Don’t get too hungry. I know myself, and my willpower drops when I’m hungry. Grazing on healthy snacks throughout the day keeps me in control.
- Keep a daily food-symptom diary. Tracking everything I eat and how I feel helps me identify “safe” foods and “trigger” foods. I keep a list of my “safe” foods in an easily accessible document.
How To Form Habits to Benefit your Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis
Making a list of healthy habits is easy. Seeing them through is more challenging. There are all kinds of books and blogs about forming habits. One of my favorite articles on this topic is “The 5 Triggers That Make New Habits Stick” by James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. The key message I took away from this article is how to use cues to help form habits. A cue is a signal to carry out an action
Here are a few examples of how I used cues to form habits:
- One of my habits is to drink water every morning. To make sure that happens I keep a full water bottle next to my bed so I remember to drink when I wake up. The water bottle is my cue.
- The way I prevent myself from getting too hungry is to eat something at the first sign of hunger. The first sign of hunger is my cue or signal to eat something. I don’t allow myself to get to a point where I’m overly hungry because then I’ll overeat or eat foods I know I shouldn’t.
- To make sure I eat enough vegetables every day, I always include vegetables with my first meal of the day. Breakfast became a cue to eat vegetables. Now the two go hand-in-hand.
You can see how some tasks organically feed in to each other. After a while I no longer relied on cues. My daily goals eventually became habits, and habits are tough to break.
My new collection of positive habits helped me become a healthy person despite my Crohn’s.
It’s Time to Create Your IBD-Fighting Habits
Now it’s your turn to think about what small changes you can make to your routine to improve your health. How can you use cues to form new healthy habits to benefit your IBD?
Think about your daily activities. How can you use your current routine to trigger new habits? Can you pair a new activity with a current one, or use it as a reminder to do something else?
Here are some examples of how you might form new habits based on pre-existing activities:
- While brushing your teeth: Do squats or leg lifts.
- As soon as you finish eating dinner: Pack leftovers in a portable container and place in a lunch bag to take to work the next day.
- After setting your alarm for the next morning: pre-fill your water bottle and set it beside your bed.
- While watching TV: Stretch; walk in place.
- Right before you go to bed each night: Jot down one think you’re grateful for. Research links giving thanks to greater happiness.
- As soon as you walk through your front door at the end of the day: Place tomorrow’s medications and supplements in a visible spot where you’ll remember to take them, like next to your toothbrush
Key Takeaways for How Habits Can Improve Your IBD
- Creating, implementing and maintaining positive habits can help you better manage your Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.
- Small changes lead to big results. It’s OK to start small.
- Using cues or signals can help you implement and sustain positive habits.
- Even the busiest of us can find time to form new habits by taking advantage of our current routines.