Ulcerative Colitis: Avoiding the Temptations of College Life

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on April 08, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

If college is the first time that you're living away from home, it's probably also the first time you're completely in charge of managing your inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). To keep your ulcerative colitis symptoms at bay, you'll want to live healthily, which can sometimes be at odds with the "typical college lifestyle."

Making sure that you're eating well and not getting stressed out will help you stay healthy and get the most of your college experience. Here's how to put that plan into practice.

Take Control of Your UC

Doing what it takes to keep control of your ulcerative colitis may be the biggest factor in adjusting well to college life.

"We're really big on encouraging students to do things as normal as possible," says Ellen Zimmermann, MD, a gastroenterologist who started a support group for students with IBD at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The group has been a model for IBD groups at other colleges. "We should be able to work out a system where they can accomplish the same things as their peers.”


The process of doing that may just be a little bit different for those with UC, says Zimmerman, who is also director of the Gastroenterology Specialty Clinics at the UM hospital. She suggests that students with UC get plenty of rest, keep regular hours, take their medications as prescribed, and stay hydrated throughout the day.

She also recommends that they explore dietary issues to decide what works for them and what doesn't – and then stick to that. "They should eat regular meals, keep their nutrition up, and really stay in tune with their own dietary triggers for their disease," she says.

"We encourage students to take control of the disease," she tells WebMD. "Being proactive really helps, so that they don't get into that cycle where there's some dietary indiscretion that causes more symptoms, and then they get more dehydrated and less capable of being a successful student."

Eating Well + Knowing Your Triggers = More Control

Laura Nedbal was 15 years old when she was diagnosed with UC. Now a 21-year-old student at Columbia College Chicago, she says she does everything in her power to stay well.


Because she is on a medication that suppresses her immune system, she needs to make sure she is as healthy as possible.

She cooks for herself so she can keep better track of the ingredients. In general, she goes for fruits and vegetables and steers clear of corn, nuts, seeds, coffee, and alcohol.

"You have to watch what you eat," she says. "If I feel a flare-up coming on, I make sure I'm not drinking caffeine or carbonation because that upsets my stomach more."

Nedbal also makes sure she drinks plenty of water during the day because diarrhea can lead to dehydration.

And she’s careful when she needs to take other medications to control her UC. For example, when she's on prednisone for a flare, she tries to limit her salt intake to reduce the swelling and puffiness that steroids can cause.

Though it can be tough to always watch what she eats, Nedbal feels that it helps her stay on track – both physically and mentally.

"With the medicines you're on, sometimes you get so tired," she says. "You really don't feel like yourself. It can really bring you down. So you just have to stay on schedule with everything.

Social Life With UC

If you’re of age for drinking alcohol, dodging the drinking scene on campus can also be tough. Although drinking alcohol isn't always off limits to someone with UC, it may aggravate symptoms or lead to flare-ups. Also, alcohol must be avoided with some medications commonly used to treat UC.

Nedbal, who avoids alcohol for health reasons, found it hard at first when everyone else was out partying. But she quickly learned how to go out and have fun without drinking.

"Just because other people around you are getting drunk doesn't mean you have to," she says. "You can find someone who doesn't like to drink either and have a good time. You shouldn't let it limit your life or limit your fun."

This attitude has also helped Nedbal get more out of her college experience. She has an internship at a web company and works part time at a shoe store. "This allows me to focus a lot more on work and school without having to deal with hangovers, so that's always a plus," she says.

College and UC: Strategies for Stress Relief

Even though stress doesn't cause ulcerative colitis, it can aggravate your UC symptoms. So the more you can do to keep stress in check, especially during semester's busiest times, the better off you will be.

Nedbal credits her friends and family with being extremely supportive and helping her deal with UC. And she always lets her professors know she has UC on the first day of class. So when she had to miss a week of school after a bad flare one semester, her professors were understanding.

"Don't be ashamed of having ulcerative colitis," she says. "People are a lot more understanding than you think. They're not going to judge you or make fun of you. Just be open about it and you'll get a lot more support than you think you will."

Getting the support you need is one way of preventing and relieving stress. Exercising and learning to relax are others.

"When I do get really stressed with school and everything, it's important to take a deep breath and figure everything out," Nedbal says. "I make sure I keep up on my homework and try not to procrastinate because that will just cause more stress in the future."


Last summer, Nedbal didn't have health insurance. So when she felt a flare coming, she tried to keep stress to a minimum by focusing on the big picture. She made it through the summer without any flares.

In fact, she says, UC has actually made her much mellower. “If I start to get stressed, I remember that it's only going to make me sick so it's not worth it,” she says. “I have taught myself to go with the flow and not get worked up about as many things."

Once students learn lessons like these, Zimmermann says, “The sky is the limit. When the disease is well controlled, these kids can do anything because they've already shown they can cope with chronic disease. So coping with a full class load and all these other issues is something they've already proven they can handle."

WebMD Feature



Laura Nedbal, student, Columbia College Chicago. 

Ellen Zimmermann, MD, director, Gastroenterology Specialty Clinics, University of Michigan Health System; associate professor, department of internal medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 

IBD U (IBD University): “The Party Scene: Smoking, Drinking, and Your IBD.”

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America: “About Ulcerative Colitis and Proctitis.”

© 2010 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.