How to enjoy festive food and parties if you have Crohn’s or colitis

Crohn’s disease and colitis sufferers can experience severe stomach or bowel pain and have to be careful what food they eat (Alamy/PA)
Crohn’s disease and colitis sufferers can experience severe stomach or bowel pain and have to be careful what food they eat (Alamy/PA)

Some of the best things about the festive season are all the parties, socialising and lovely food you get to guzzle – if your digestive system and energy levels can handle it, that is.

And sadly for people with Crohn’s disease, colitis or any other inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), their digestive tract can react badly to rich Christmas fare, and their condition may make them feel tired and unwell, meaning they have to be ultra-careful about attending energy-sapping parties, and about what passes their lips at seasonal celebrations.

To mark Crohn’s & Colitis Awareness Week (December 1-7), the Crohn’s & Colitis UK (CCUK) charity is asking people with the conditions to ‘Find the right words’ to tell people in their lives about what it’s like to live with an IBD – and the first step is over the festive season.

CCUK estimates about one in 123 people has Crohn’s or colitis, and Sarah Sleet, the charity’s CEO, says: “More than half a million people in the UK are living with Crohn’s and colitis – the two main forms of inflammatory bowel disease.

“The festive season is a busy time, full of parties, catching up with loved ones and eating delicious food, and while all of that is wonderful, it can be very stressful for people with Crohn’s or colitis who are managing unpredictable symptoms including pain and fatigue.”

Sleet explains that Crohn’s and colitis, which occur when the immune system goes wrong and starts attacking the body, are lifelong conditions which cause inflammation and ulcers in the gut.

Symptoms include diarrhoea, needing to go to the toilet frequently and urgently, tummy pain, bloating, wind and fatigue, she says, explaining that having an IBD doesn’t mean you feel ill all the time, as symptoms come and go. There’s currently no cure, although there are treatments including medication and surgery.

There no clear evidence that specific foods cause or cure the conditions, but Sleet advises sufferers to try to eat a nutritious and balanced diet, and drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration.

But that’s easier said than done at Christmas time, so here are her tips for people navigating the festive season with Crohn’s or colitis…

1. Watch what you eat

There’s no specific advice on what foods to avoid if you’ve got an inflammatory bowel disease, as different foods affect different people. But Sleet warns: “If you have Crohn’s or colitis, what you eat may affect your symptoms, but it’s different for everybody – there’s no one-size-fits-all advice on diet.

“You know yourself better than anyone, so if you’re going out to eat, for example, check out the menu before you set off. Make sure there’s going to be something you can eat, or ask for adjustments to the menu. And if you’re visiting someone’s house over the festive season, don’t feel bad about turning down food they’ve made. Family and friends will understand your wellbeing is the priority.”

2. Don’t overdo it

One of the major symptoms of Crohn’s and colitis is fatigue, which is most common when the person with the condition is having a flare-up, but can affect them at other times too.

CCUK says as well as symptoms like pain and diarrhoea leading to fatigue, chemicals released from inflammation may affect the brain and muscles, leading to weakness, tiredness, and lack of motivation.

In addition, an inflamed gut may not absorb nutrients properly, meaning lower levels of certain vitamins and minerals, which can lead to associated conditions including iron deficiency anaemia, which can cause fatigue.

Sleet says: “It’s important not to feel pressured into doing things you don’t have the energy for, whether it’s Christmas or not. Factor in lots of time for rest and relaxation, and be honest with loved ones about how you’re feeling and don’t push yourself if you’re fatigued.”

3. Make sure you have enough medication

As the big day approaches, it’s important for people with Crohn’s or colitis to be sure they have enough medication to last them over the festive period. “Doctors and pharmacies may have reduced opening hours during the holiday season – being prepared will save a last-minute panic,” Sleet points out.

4. Be realistic

It’s important to know your limitations when you have an inflammatory bowel disease, and be realistic about what you’ll be able to do over the festive period. You really don’t have to accept all the party invitations – or any of them, if you’re having a flare-up.

“If you’re not feeling up to it, then keep your plans simple,” Sleet advises. “Your loved ones will understand and will want you to enjoy the holiday period as much as possible.”