Joel Sprechman was a successful computer and science engineer on the fast track, until one day he was derailed by a simple oatmeal cookie. Joel’s journey to gut health led him from doctor to doctor and included diagnoses from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) to ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. In this Institute for Natural Medicine patient story we explore Joel’s compelling journey from a sudden illness and a confusing diagnostic maze to naturopathic care, a return to vibrant health, triumph over setbacks, and ultimately to Joel’s creating a global community of IBD patients and clinicians seeking better gut health solutions and outcomes. He is now a TEDx speaker, and an outspoken health advocate.
Naturopathic medicine provides comprehensive care
Joel was not willing to give up on his health. He experimented. He Googled. He flew across the globe for treatment. He researched other patients and treatments and asked questions. He added himself to lengthy specialist waitlists. He took a proactive approach to finding out what was wrong with him and to seek any and all treatments that could help alleviate his digestive tract symptoms.
During this search, a friend recommended a naturopathic doctor, “I went to Dr. Heather Sandison and it was the most rewarding experience, her approach to health was different than I had experienced with other medical doctors.” Additional tests provided further answers. “I was committed to do whatever was necessary to get my life back, and after following Dr. Sandison’s protocol including nutritional and botanical medicine supplementation, sauna, and chelation therapy I improved.” Eventually, he was able to wean off all IBD medication that was provided by his gastroenterologist. This marked a moment of return to health on Joel’s health journey.
Everything changed with one bite
Joel’s health issues didn’t start out so complicated. After studying engineering and computer science, Joel began working in Washington, D.C. As an award-winning lead hardware engineer, he worked on projects for the Department of Justice and FBI. He lived close to the Pentagon and was there on 9/11. By all accounts, it was a busy and stressful time but also very satisfying.
Joel had enjoyed good health, with a history of infrequent childhood stomach aches and headache. Then everything changed. “I’ll never forget the moment. I came home from work, met my girlfriend, and there was a package waiting for me from mom.” Packages from home are treasured by many young people, and Joel was no different. The special delivery contained his mother’s delicious oatmeal cookies.
Sharing out the package loot, Joel took one bite and immediately ran to the bathroom. “Never have I ever experienced anything remotely like that and for the next few days, anything I put in my mouth went right through me.” Joel’s girlfriend ate the cookie and was just fine.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a broad term that describes conditions characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. The two most common inflammatory bowel diseases are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.— CDC
Seeking a fix for his digestive troubles, Joel went to his medical primary care provider (PCP). All tests came back “negative” but Joel’s symptoms persisted. The PCP referred him to a gastroenterologist (GI), where at 29, he felt out of place and intimidated. Ultimately, Joel was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, handed prescription medications-and that was it.
“I assumed this was something like the flu. You get a prescription and you get better. I didn’t yet grasp what it meant to have a chronic disease. My doctor didn’t take the time to explain what it meant to have Ulcerative Colitis (UC). This first GI was dismissive, spoke to me for just a few minutes, and sent me on my way. At home, I joined an online community, after chatting with others, and reading what it meant to live with UC, I decided to fire him from my health board, that was the last time I saw him.”
Fortunately, with the prescriptions, things began to slowly improve.
Treatment of chronic disease is a marathon, not a sprint
If the root cause of chronic disease is not addressed, symptoms will either continue unabated or will improve for a time and then return. This fact proved true for Joel. His medication began to be less effective. He tried new oral medications, which eventually stopped working too. He’d try similar drugs with different delivery methods. Next, Joel switched gastroenterologists, and the new doctor was terrific. He was funny. They bonded over New York roots and really got along. But something about Joel’s treatment was still missing. He was still experiencing uncomfortable and embarrassing flare-ups, despite the recommended medications. There was no advice related to diet or lifestyle, there were no reasons given for why this would develop in an otherwise healthy young person. Though a serial optimist, Joel felt lost and scared. Managing chronic disease, never an easy task, felt overwhelming and his symptoms continued to increase and impact his capacity to work and to live a normal life.
“Chronic disease will get chronically worse if your root causes are not identified and addressed.”— Joel Sprechman
Joel knew he needed a change in care, a different perspective and to try other approaches to his illness. He needed to take more charge of his health.
Inspired to start over, Joel decided to rid himself of most of his possessions and threw the rest into his car to drive across- the country. He found joy by eating healthier in a peaceful living environment on the beach. But unfortunately, Joel’s health continued to deteriorate and symptoms mounted in an accelerated fashion. “Now in addition to my GI problems, I was suffering from fatigue, brain fog, pain, and extreme lack of energy, particularly getting out of bed–even with a good night’s sleep.”
Joel had a complicated relationship with his prescribed medication. Sometimes he’d forget to take a dose, and make up for it by taking extra. He didn’t always follow his doctor’s advice. Balancing a chronic illness with a youthful social life and career can be a challenge. Joel was getting by until he went to Guatemala to visit friends. It was a fun trip.
Joel has traveled to 24 countries, despite the challenges of living with IBD. He believes challenges are opportunities.
Upon return to San Diego Joel now suffered from intense stomach pain. “Every ten minutes the pain was crippling. One minute prior I was fine. This sharp pain lasted for 10 unbearable seconds. Then I’m perfectly fine again–until 10 minutes later it strikes hard and fast again. Prescription painkillers do nothing; the pain cycle continues relentlessly. I think back to the clean local rum I drank my last night in Guatemala and the Mexican food the night before in San Diego celebrating my return to America with friend. Was it the cheese? It can’t be the cheese. I was clear when I placed the order. I was confused. I was scared I may lose an organ.”
“After 30 years of disease, up to a third of people with ulcerative colitis will require surgery.”— Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America
Joel thought this pain would pass because his prescribed pills had usually taken symptoms away–until he landed in the emergency room for the first time. He was prescribed pain medication and sent home. He went to a new G.I. specialist and was prescribed prednisone. Again, there was no mention of diet or lifestyle from his medical providers. Prednisone is a widely used medication for the reduction of inflammation, but it is not without concerning side effects. “In addition to other debilitating symptoms, my face blew up like a bowling ball, it’s called moon face and mind you, I was working a sales job! I was a single guy living and working by the beach and I had a moon head!”
Chasing Symptoms not Finding Solutions
At this point, Joel began to feel that there was something wrong with the medical system. He felt like he was chasing symptoms not finding solutions. “I went to private practice medical doctors, university doctors, even asked educated friends–and all of them said the same thing: my labs look normal.” My medical doctor (MD) friend told me ‘Joel, if you came to me with these lab results I’d tell you the same thing, normal labs, you should be fine.’ I began to think they were inferring this was all in my head, made-up. I knew things weren’t normal.” Knowing that something still wasn’t right, Joel took the advice of a friend to try a naturopathic doctor adding a new perspective to his health care team.
For his 39th birthday, in lieu of using his companies holiday gift card for the usual romantic restaurant dinner for two, Joel filled his refrigerator with wholesome delicious treats, taught Yoga and served his friends healthy smoothies.
Naturopathic care allowed Joel to engage in amazing conversation and discover useful information to start finding answers. He first saw an ND at the Bastyr University clinic. “We did a series of laboratory panels and there in black and white evidence, I saw what I didn’t want to see. I saw how my antibodies and inflammatory markers were raised specifically due to gluten. I was comforted to know that my naturopathic doctor was also gluten-free” Like many, Joel had heard of gluten issues before but never thought this might apply to him.
These tests were part of additional diagnostic process for Joel. Not all of his doctors agreed with these methods. While there is a debate on exactly why and how, diet has long been implicated as one of the contributing factors for disease flare-ups of IBD. With the right treatments, Joel began to feel better and his brain fog went away. His symptoms of chronic fatigue, headaches, and system inflammation subsided.
Naturopathic Symptom Support
Naturopathic care greatly eased many of Joel’s symptoms, but chronic conditions don’t have a miracle pill that solves everything at once. Stress can impact the immune system, and unfortunately, this proved true for Joel. He had three hospital stays during a very stressful time in his life. He just barely avoided surgery. Joel’s challenging IBD required multiple medical approaches. Integrating both conventional and naturopathic care proved an essential and ongoing aspect of Joel’s healing.
“When I began my journey with IBD 18 years ago I accepted my doctor’s prognosis. Chronic Disease gets chronically worse when we don’t Integrative other therapies such as naturopathic care. It got to the point where I was wearing diapers, the medications were not working. I had to educate my doctors.”
“Optimal health and healing is a lifelong journey. I’m committed to finding my personalized solution, without drugs. I do still sometimes experience a flare that’s usually stress or mindset related. But, I can honestly say I’m at the peak of my health, Thriving with IBD. I’m grateful for this journey and how much I’ve learned, and persevered. I feel like my relationship with my naturopathic doctor’s is a partnership where my ND takes time to listen, and help guide me. My ND offers their evidence-based educated recommendations and support me in the health choices I make for my body.”
On the final day of his 2019 hospitalization, Joel surprised even himself with this confidence and immune boosting headstand, despite the abscess drainage bag, which was removed a week later weeks ahead of his doctor’s prognosis.
*Update 2020 –
Since this interview has been recorded, Joel has experienced another flare resulting in hospitalization, however through the help of naturopathic doctor Erin Rhae Biller and others on his “health board,” he once again was able to avoid surgery. Joel has grown to understand that for chronic disease, there are rarely quick fixes, that he needs to be mindful and intentional about many aspects of his life from diet to stress levels, to treatment choices he can make. He expresses a continued passion for educating himself and being an advocate for both the NDs and MDs which works together to keep him healthy and support him when symptoms do arise.
He’s currently working with Dr. Erin Rhae Biller, ND who has assisted him greatly the past year and even surprised him with a Friday night phone call while he was in the hospital. He believes her advice helped him remain surgery-free and allowed him to be discharged safely after a 28-day hospitalization.
Original published by the Institute for Natural Medicine and shared with permission.
About Joel Sprechman
Joel Sprechman is a Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis patient, Integrative Nutritionist, health advocate, and healing-path pioneer. After traditional and alternative medicine methodologies were unable to effectively treat his Inflammatory Bowel Disease he became a medical researcher, health scientist, and treatment engineer driven by a quest to reverse his failing health, and well-being.
As his journey led to a deeper healing of his own IBD, he committed to sharing his story, experience, and expertise around the world with people affected by digestive disorders, and their families. In 2016 he founded One Great Gut Public Benefit Corp to continue his research and expand his contribution to the Crohn’s and Colitis community through education, collaboration, online and live events. He’s dedicated his life to helping others with IBD find long term flare-free remission.
As a recognized thought-leader and highly sought-after speaker, he has been featured on TEDx, KPBS, and many other health summits and podcasts. He is the host of The Crohn’s And Colitis Summit and the creator of the One Great Gut Collection.
You can stay updated on his journey and the evolution of One Great Gut through his newsletter, personal and community social media accounts:
- One Great Gut Newsletter
- Joel Sprechman Facebook
- One Great Gut Facebook
- Joel Sprechman Instagram
- One Great Gut Instagram
- Private Facebook Group Community
Author: Kate has a Master’s of Science in Information Management from the University of Washington. As a child raised with a natural and eco-conscious family, and now a mother to a little boy of her own, her most recent digital roles help share her passion for telling stories of healthy living with a larger audience.