Sarah Machemer went to school for Kinesiology with dreams of being a trainer. "I was so inspired by healthy people, whether it was weight loss, or muscle gain, or people trying to eat better," she told us. But Sarah was in for quite a unique (and challenging) healthy journey herself before she even knew it.
We talked to Sarah this week as she was preparing for the launch of the "IBD Unmasked" campaign, aimed at raising awareness about inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — a group of disorders that affect approximately 1.6 million people in the US, all of which are incurable. IBD is characterized by chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, resulting in severe pain, diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss — it can be completely debilitating, and sometimes even life threatening. Within IBD, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are the two most common and serious types of IBD.
Sarah is living with Crohn's disease, in which the inflammation can spread to any part of the digestive tract — from the mouth to the anus, or deeply into tissues of both the large and small intestines. She is fighting this would-be crippling illness with fitness, eating right, and staying on top of her health with help from her doctors. Her journey is especially inspiring because of her positive outlook — she doesn't let the disease define her! — and the unbelievable success she's had at managing her illness.
It Started With a Stomachache
Sarah's IBD story begins with a classic Spring break; it was 2002, and Sarah celebrated her senior year of college by taking a trip with friends to Mexico. But when she came back, she had some serious stomach issues. So she assumed (as many would) that her stomach pains and problems were from travel: "Was it the water . . . something I ate?" she had wondered. But it got worse. "I started going to the bathroom more and more, and I noticed blood in my stool . . . something wasn't right."
When she got in to see a doctor, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis; she received her prescription, and she said from there, she "didn't think twice about it." Sarah graduated from Michigan State University shortly thereafter in 2002, accepted an exciting new job in Chicago, and made the move. It seemed like her problems were all taken care of — a quick doctor's visit with a simple prescription . . . easy fix, right? Unfortunately, this wasn't the case.
"I noticed blood in my stool . . . something wasn't right."
The Flare-Up Returns
Sarah had no idea that her otherwise normal post-college lifestyle of going out with friends, drinking, and eating whatever she wanted was taking a serious toll on her health — all because she had this medical condition. She also was not taking her medication on time, because in her mind, her system was managed. "I wasn't helping the cause at all," she said.
After graduating, when she moved to a new city and started a new job, the stress that anyone would experience caused a painful and debilitating flare-up for Sarah. The worst part? She couldn't get into the doctor for four months because of a wait list. "I couldn't leave the house," she told us. "I was going to the bathroom up to 12 or 15 times a day." She described it as being extremely painful (lots of cramping and bloody stool) and embarrassing, and it made it especially difficult to hold a job.
That new job didn't last long — and this is one of the rare instances in which getting fired from a job would be cause for relief. "Luckily I got fired from my job," she said, remembering the date clearly — it was Valentine's Day. "I was so grateful, because I could go home [to Michigan] and my mom could take care of me."
And it was good she got to go home, because the gut issues caused more than digestion problems and stomach pains. Sarah also developed a horrible skin condition called pyoderma gangrenosum, a condition that causes ulcers on the skin. "I picked at something that grew on my face into a golf-ball-sized thing . . . it [was so heavy that it] pulled down on my eye." She first went to the hospital in Michigan and then eventually to the University of Chicago, where she had a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with Crohn's disease.
More Testing and Hospitalization
Sarah, during her flare-ups and hospitalization (and still positive!)
After getting the 2002 flare-up under control, Sarah thought she was in the clear and she scaled back on her attentiveness to health. As such, for years she struggled with inconsistent medication, continuing to eat the wrong foods, and not making her health a priority. The flare-ups came and went, but eventually her symptoms became so severe that she needed more intensive care. Before Sarah knew it, she was heading into another painful and difficult time.
"I thought, there has to be a better life . . . I have to take better care of myself."
In 2009, her medications were failing, and she needed surgery (much of her large intestine was removed and she got an ileostomy bag) — Sarah told us this was "the worst part of my life," with her being in and out of the hospital for over a year. After going through extended hospital stays, many visits to the emergency room, and dealing with constant fevers, she said, "I went from being this active person, being able to run . . . to not even be able to walk 25 feet down the hall without help." It was hard given how active she had been her whole life, and she described herself as always being a fit person. She ran track in high school, was a cross-country runner in college, and was a dancer.
It was then that Sarah had a complete wake-up call. "In the hospital, I thought, 'There has to be a better life . . . I have to take better care of myself.'" She made a resolution to put her health first, saying to herself, "When I get out, I'm going to keep in better communication with my doctor, I'll email questions, I'll take my medication when I'm supposed to; I wanted to change my outlook on health and completely stop drinking."
A New Phase of Life
"I completely did a 180," Sarah told us. "And I haven't had a flare-up since 2009." If you also suffer from IBD, Crohn's, or ulcerative colitis, you know how incredible this is. So how did she get there?
It started with fitness and eating right. She also started doing shorter, more intense workouts, since longer workouts can lead to more inflammation. She likes to keep her runs down to four miles and her workouts quick but challenging.
Sarah, today, healthier than ever!
Through a foray into bodybuilding and bikini contests (which she said were fun, but not for her), she started learning more about nutrition and what foods worked for her gut, her body, and her needs — and also learned about balance! She stopped eating processed foods and focused on wholesome nutrition, with lots of veggies and lean protein.
"I used to think that healthy was low-fat, sugar-free . . . I didn't know what healthy really was until going through this," she told us. She made the switch to a protein-based Paleo diet, drinks kombucha (she loves GT's and Health-Ade) every day, and nourishes her gut with good bacteria and good fats. She cooks all her food herself, and if she goes out to restaurants with friends, she makes sure to "ask a lot of questions" to ensure she's getting what she needs.
Today, Sarah trains people for a living and helps people live their best, healthiest lives. She teaches fitness classes — lots of HIIT where she can take necessary breaks — and serves as a nutrition coach for her clients. She focuses on clean eating herself, and noted that the Paleo diet has been a huge factor in her physical success.
She also advises her clients and anyone dealing with IBD to not focus on a super restrictive diet. After the bikini contests in 2012, she went from a "completely restricted" diet "counting out asparagus spears" to rebounding and "eating sleeves of Oreos in bed," which was terrible for her health (and not sustainable). By focusing on foods that she loves that she can eat, she's less likely to go off course. "The most important thing is you need to heal yourself from the inside out . . . everything starts in the gut," she said. And she's doing that now with her healthier way of life.
What does she love? Fermented and gut-friendly foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, bone broth, vegetables, and, as mentioned, kombucha.
"The most important thing is you need to heal yourself from the inside out."
If you or someone close to you is dealing with IBD, Sarah wants you to know that "you will get through it." The biggest factor for her was "keeping a positive mental attitude, and realizing at one point there wold be a light at the end of the tunnel." She also emphasized the importance of her doctor, Dr. David Rubin, who has helped her every step of the way.
Sarah is living with Crohn's, but she is far from defined by her illness. With positivity as a constant, the support of her doctor, consistent fitness, and a Paleo diet (rich in probiotics!), she has been able to keep her disease under control and keep the flare-ups at bay, living her happiest, healthiest, most empowered life. Not only is she a beautiful voice for the IBD community, but she's also an incredible example for all of us who are dealing with our own challenges every day.