If anyone is an advert for the medicinal power of food it's Tom Gardiner. Four years ago, the 34-year-old teacher and father of two was fighting a losing battle with ulcerative colitis-a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes chronic diarrhoea, stomach cramps, weight loss and fatigue.
"It was pretty grim," Tom recalls. "I was constantly worrying about where to find the nearest toilet. It completely wrecks your self esteem."
Now Tom-who lives in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, with his wife, Roisin, and sons Charlie and Michael-is fit, well and feeling better than ever. He even leads a high-intensity exercise class twice a week, and friends and family are always asking him what the secret of his good health is.
What he tells them is how he found the answer to his debilitating bowel condition not in a doctor's surgery or hospital, but in his own kitchen.
The cycle of stress
Tom first started having gut problems after finishing university, while working in PR and advertising in London and "burning the candle at both ends". But it wasn't till he turned 30 that things got really bad, and Tom began noticing blood in his stools.
Realizing something was seriously wrong, Tom went to his doctor who, after performing a colonoscopy-an examination of the colon with a tiny camera-diagnosed ulcerative colitis.
"It's a depressing diagnosis to get," says Tom. "Western medicine views it as a life-long disease that can't be cured."
After being told his condition had "nothing to do with food or lifestyle", Tom was prescribed a daily dose of the aminosalicylate drug mesalamine to ease the inflammation in his colon, and the powerful steroid prednisolone for times when the symptoms were particularly severe-known as 'flare-ups'.
But despite taking the pills, Tom continued to suffer from painful stomach cramps and an urgent need to go to the toilet several times a day. "It's a vicious cycle because you worry about every excursion you make," says Tom, "and stress definitely makes the symptoms worse."
Not surprisingly, he felt constantly exhausted, and even developed hay fever and asthma for the first time. Things reached boiling point on the day Tom and Roisin's first child, Charlie, was born. "Instead of being by Roisin's side, I was dashing back and forth to the toilet. I must have gone over 10 times."
Tom decided then that something had to change. "It gave me the wakeup call I needed to take my health seriously," he said.
The role of carbs
By this time, Tom had seen various doctors and specialists, and their advice was that he start taking drugs to suppress his immune system-which, in ulcerative colitis, is thought to be working in overdrive. But Tom knew about the attendant risks, and didn't want to put his body in an even more vulnerable state.
Instead, encouraged by his wife-who had always had a holistic approach to health-Tom started researching his symptoms and looking for alternative ways to deal with his condition.
"Thank God for the internet," says Tom. "I was online researching colitis, diet, supplements and everything I could possibly read about digestion."
Soon, Tom stumbled upon the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), developed by US paediatrician Dr Sidney V. Haas for people with ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and other IBDs. The SCD allows only carbohydrates with a single unit of sugar (monosaccharides), and not those with two or more sugar units (disaccharides and polysaccharides) because it's believed they are not as easily digested and feed harmful bacteria in the gut.
Tom waved goodbye to his beloved bread, pizza and pasta, and began eating only foods on the SCD's 'legal' list. Gradually, his bowel symptoms improved and, six months down the line, he was feeling a lot better. But it was another diet-the SCD's 'big brother'-that Tom thanks for getting him where he is today.
Introduced to him by his university friend Osman, who was doing a PhD in self-help medicine, the Paleo Diet is what Tom credits for his "huge gains in healing and overall wellbeing".
"As soon as I read up about Paleo, it just made sense," said Tom. "The typical Western diet is all about eating the food that's most convenient. But with Paleo, the priority is eating the food you need to be healthy and thrive."
Going Stone Age
Tom found the Paleo Diet-basically a high-fat, low-carb diet similar to the one eaten by our Paleolithic ancestors-far less restrictive than the SCD diet.
Although it cuts out all grains, sugar and processed food, Tom focused on the foods he could eat, like steak, salads and eggs, as well as something called 'bulletproof coffee', a blend of high-quality coffee with grass-fed butter and coconut oil. "I loved what I was eating," said Tom, "and my energy was incredible."
Tom also discovered that 'going Paleo' was about more than just diet. "It was a lifestyle change that encompassed the right nutrition, movement and a positive, open mindset."
This led him to nutritional therapist Brian Hampton at the Caring Clinic in Sheffield who, after doing a vitamin and mineral analysis, gave Tom a comprehensive supplement programme to follow, which Tom still sticks to (see page 57).
Tom also took up yoga and high-intensity training (HIT) as part of his new healthy lifestyle.
No pass for your health
Today, Tom is free of the embarrassing bowel symptoms that plagued him for years and hasn't taken any medication for 18 months. Even his allergies have cleared up.
So convinced is Tom by the Paleo lifestyle that he's set up a website and support group (www.30thrive.co.uk), with his friend Osman, with the aim of sharing what he's learned and helping others with similar conditions-as well as those who just want to be healthier.
So far, some 250 people have joined their Paleo Diet membership site, and Tom is always thrilled when he hears about their "incredible improvements with weight loss, sleep, digestion and energy".
Tom's wife Roisin is also a convert, and he says the long-term joint problems she suffered with are now completely gone.
Tom is still shocked by the way his doctors dismissed the importance of diet and lifestyle in his condition, and can't believe how he just continued with his unhealthy eating habits yet expected to get better.
"A prescription is like a get-out-of-jail card," says Tom. "It allows you to pass on the responsibility of your own health."
Tom now strongly believes in putting your health in your own hands-and that, he says, "has to start with food".
Useful contacts and resources
For information on the Paleo Diet:
o www.30thrive.co.uk (free ebook available including 30 days of recipes and shopping lists)
For nutritional therapy:
o The Caring Clinic
35 Barkers Road, Nether Edge, Sheffield S7 1SD
www.thecaringclinic.co.uk; tel: 0114 255 13450114 255 1345
o British Association for Applied Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy (BANT)
www.bant.org.uk; tel: 0870 606 12840870 606 1284
Tom's supplement programme
Tom had his vitamin and mineral levels analyzed by a nutritional therapist who also devised a comprehensive supplement programme to help restore Tom's health. If you have an IBD and are considering treating it with a nutritional approach, do consult a qualified nutritional therapist first.
Here are the supplements that work in Tom's case
Morning (on an empty stomach):
1 tsp organic Chlorella and Spirulina mixed with water
1 capsule Prescript-Assist Broad Spectrum Probiotic Prebiotic Complex
1 capsule Jarrow Formulas Saccharomyces Boulardii+MOS
1 capsule BioCare Multivitamins & Minerals
1 g betaine HCL
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
Before evening meal:
5 g L-glutamine
In the evening:
1-2 g non-GMO vitamin C powder in water
1-2 Tbsp aloe vera
1 capsule Solgar Astragalus
What is ulcerative colitis?
Ulcerative colitis is a condition that causes inflammation and ulceration of the colon (large intestine) and rectum (end of the bowel). It's one of the two main forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD); the other is Crohn's disease, which can affect any part of the digestive system.
Symptoms of ulcerative colitis include:
o Recurring diarrhoea
o Blood & mucus in stools
o Urgent bowel movements
o Abdominal pain
o Weight loss
Conventional treatment generally involves drugs (usually anti-inflammatories or immunosuppressants) or surgery, but both options come with significant risks and don't always work. In fact, the evidence suggests that 40-60 per cent of IBD patients do not benefit from the available treatments.1
1 J Clin Gastroenterol, 2007; 41: 799-809
Against the grain
The Paleo Diet, popularized by Dr Loren Cordain in his 2002 book The Paleo Diet, focuses on eating the foods most likely consumed by our ancestors during the Paleolithic (Early Stone Age) era, starting about 2.5 million years ago: meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. More recently introduced foods, like grains, dairy and anything processed, are discouraged.
Various Paleolithic-style diets now exist, and there is some disagreement between different camps over what foods to eat and what to avoid-butter is one example-but according to Tom, the beauty of the diet is that you can tweak it to your individual needs.
Tom gets around 50 per cent of his daily calories from fat, 25-30 per cent from protein and 20 per cent from carbohydrates-fairly typical for a Paleo Diet follower, he says-but he tends to eat more carbs, like sweet potatoes, on busier days and after exercise.
He also enjoys the occasional not-strictly-Paleo treat, such as dark chocolate or red wine, now that his gut has healed.
The Paleo Diet has had its fair share of criticism (see page 10, for example), but several studies suggest that this way of eating can have significant benefits for health, including improving glucose control in type 2 diabetes and lowering blood pressure in those with the metabolic syndrome.1
While there don't appear to be any published clinical trials of the Paleo Diet for ulcerative colitis, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), which is also free of grains, sugar and processed foods, was recently found to completely resolve severe ulcerative colitis in an adult female sufferer.2 The SCD has also proved highly beneficial in long-term studies of children with Crohn's disease.3
1 Eur J Clin Nutr, 2015; 69: 944-8; Lipids Health Dis, 2014; 13: 160
2 Case Rep Gastroenterol, 2015; 9: 291-5
3 J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr, 2014; 58: 87-91; J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr, 2014; 59: 516-21