“You know what would be easy? Going to college,” said no one ever. College isn’t easy. Between navigating applications and financial aid to dealing with noisy dormmates and hectic finals, no one goes to college thinking that it’s going to be a piece of cake. However, students without chronic illnesses and invisible conditions—like depression, anxiety, digestive disorders, etc.—take for granted how much easier college is when you don’t have to constantly worry about your health.
When your biggest health concern is catching the campus cold or getting over your morning headache after pulling an all-nighter, college can almost be considered a piece of cake. That is, before you start to consider all the assignments, meetings, clubs, classes, activities, sports, musical performances, and God-knows-what-else you have on your plate.
Nobody said that going to college was going to be easy, but for students with digestive disorders like Crohn’s, Celiac’s, Acid Reflux, IBS, IBD, and undiagnosed digestive pain, college can seem nearly impossible. Allow me to set the scene for you as to what a day in the college life is like for someone with one of these digestive disorders.
The problem begins as soon as you wake up. What are you going to eat that won’t bother you? Sometimes it’s easy to avoid foods you know trigger you, but sometimes foods you thought were okay can give you slight problems. Maybe you start the day pain-free, or maybe just eating a piece of fruit for breakfast makes you painfully bloated.
As the day progresses you’re faced with the challenge of when to use the restroom so you miss the least amount of class, and the daunting thought of lunch approaching—even though you are really hungry—can turn off your appetite. “What if I eat something that makes me sick to my stomach? I have a club meeting tonight that I can’t miss, but if I have cramping and nausea I’ll be in pain the whole time.” These are the kinds of things that are running through your mind all the time.
Sometimes, you eat lunch and dinner thinking that all is well, only to realize hours later when you're doubled over in the bathroom or lying on the floor in a study room rubbing your stomach that clearly something had been labeled wrong in the dining hall. A simple mistake like eating roasted vegetables that had been labeled as dairy free but had actually been cooked in butter can ruin the rest of your day.
Don’t even get me started on doing assignments when you’re in pain. If your digestive system has been set off by a meal, or a really stressful experience, then you can forget about completing homework. Digestive pain is not a subtle pain—it’s an aggressive and transcending pain. You feel it in your abdomen, like a twisting knife or a balloon that feels like it’s ready to explode, but it also blooms in your back and down your legs, sometimes giving you a headache and making you feel nauseous or dizzy as well. Oh, and I forgot to mention that there’s not one quick fix. Sometimes prescription medications work, and sometimes they just don’t. Treatment is almost exclusively trial and error, and there are no guarantees.
Now recall that during this whole process you’re taking four to seven classes, working a job or two, participating in extracurriculars, and trying to socialize and make friends, and you quickly realize that doing college with a digestive disorder is going to be a lot harder than you ever could have anticipated. What can you do about it?
1. Seek Treatment
Some digestive ailments will go away on their own with a little rest and care, like the occasional upset stomach due to stomach bug, stress, or bad food. However, digestive discomfort that persists more than a few days or causes debilitating pain is a cause for concern. If you haven’t already, see a doctor. It’s good to know what’s going on with your body, so ask questions, request tests, and know that you might not get answers right away, but don’t give up.
Don’t sell yourself short, if your medication isn’t working or you’re still experiencing symptoms, keep trying. Don’t be afraid to seek out alternative treatment methods as well, like acupuncture, massage therapy, or chiropractic. Having a treatment plan is the first step to healing your body.
2. Change Your Diet
Part of your treatment plan may be some dietary changes, whether it’s going vegan, avoiding dairy and gluten, or simply paying attention to what you eat and starting a food journal. It can be hard to eat in communal dining halls when you’re on a restricted diet or have food sensitivities/allergies, and you can only do your best. If possible, try to completely avoid foods that trigger you. If you don’t know what your triggers are, keep your food journal up to date to try and figure them out. Make your own food if you have the chance, as you can better control that the food you make for yourself is free from your triggers. Don’t be discouraged by a restricted diet. Instead, try and see it as an opportunity to try new foods in place of the ones you may be avoiding.
3. Advocate For Yourself
When you’re doing college with a digestive disorder you have to be your first and best advocate. If your medication or treatment isn’t working, talk to your healthcare providers. If you eat something in the dining hall that was labeled vegan, gluten free, dairy free, etc., and you find yourself in pain, say something to the food services staff. If you don’t speak up for yourself, no one else is going to. Make your health a priority and ensure that you have an opportunity to flourish by always being honest with your health care providers and giving feedback to your institution of higher education about how they are doing at catering to students with digestive disorders.
4. Don’t Go It Alone
You’re not the first person to go through college with a digestive disorder, and you won’t be the last. There are other students on your campus right now who are going through the same struggle that you are. If you can, find them. That doesn’t mean going around your campus asking everyone if they have digestive issues—that would just be weird—but it means being honest with your friends about what you have to go through. One of them might be going through the same thing, or they might know another student who is. Find people who understand what you’re going through. Having people in your life who can listen to you when you’re in pain and support you from first-hand experience will make things that much easier.
Nobody said college was going to be easy, but nobody said that it had to be intolerable either. Going through college with a digestive disorder will be difficult, but there are a lot of things that you can do to ensure that you have the best chance possible at a successful, and mostly enjoyable, college career.