Joel’s Story: One Great Gut

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. 

Joel speaking at The Gut Institutes Microbiome and Nutrigenomics Medicine Seminar

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

<br>Skydiving over San Diego and living life to the fullest despite challenging circumstances at times

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.

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.

<br>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 and Colitis Foundation

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!”

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.

<br>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.

Chronic illness is a chronic problem

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.”

Naturopathic doctors (NDs) spend between one and two hours face-to-face with patients in an initial appointment and 30 to 60 minutes in subsequent appointments.

“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.”

<br>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 doctors prognosis

*Update – 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.

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:

INM's team is made up of naturopathic doctors and health journalists.

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Deb Hubers

Debra Hubers is a serial entrepreneur and has started seven businesses; ranging from an advanced genomics to an employer health care purchasing cooperative. Deb has over 35 years of experience in healthcare finance, education, technology, and pharmacogenomics.

Ms. Hubers has dedicated her career to measuring and improving healthcare outcomes. Her expertise is leveraging technology to deliver personalized, preventative medicine. Ms. Hubers co-founded La Vita Compounding Pharmacy in 2007. Collaborating with her business partner, physicians and strategic partners, Deb has grown La Vita to be one of the most respected and sought-after personalized medicine providers on the west coast. She is also Co-Founder of EpigeneticsRx, a leading provider of precise, personalized, prevention which positively impacts genetic expression.

Alex Keller, ND

Dr. Alex Keller, ND, AFMCP is a graduate of the University of Ottawa with an Honours Bachelor in Health Sciences and Psychology. Although originally intending to attend conventional medical school, following a three-month volunteer internship at a rural Kenyan hospital where he observed how doctors used local food to treat patients, he shifted his career goals and pursued a degree in naturopathic medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.

After one year of practicing with the esteemed Dr. Chris Pickrell, ND, RH in a community acupuncture setting, in 2015 he and his wife Dr. Jenn Keller, ND moved to rural Ottawa, Canada where they started an organic farm and retreat center. In the same year, Alex and his athletic therapist sister Jess Keller combined their practices to form Keller Active Health, an integrative physical therapy clinic.

Ever curious and passionate about the education of evidence-based natural medicine, in 2017, Dr. Keller joined a fledgling Ottawa-based health tech startup named Fullscript. He serves as its Medical Director and oversees the development of medical education content for practitioners across North America.

Prior to medicine, Alex worked in the renewable energy sector, where he developed a deep passion for sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. This connection between medicine and agriculture now drives Alex to focus much of his energy on bringing awareness to the quality and sourcing standards in the supplement and organic agriculture supply chains.

Today, he splits his professional time practicing as a clinician, working for Fullscript, and expanding the farming operation while chasing his kids with Jenn and occasionally running ultra-marathon trail races. He is also currently completing an Executive MBA through the Quantic School of Business & Technology with a focus on supply chain innovation.

Pamela Snider, ND

Pamela Snider, ND, is Executive and Senior Editor for the Foundations of Naturopathic Medicine Project, producing a first of its kind international textbook of Naturopathic medicine through a series of international retreats and symposia. A nationally recognized integrative health and policy leader, she is active in both national and regional integrative health initiatives. Dr. Snider serves on the Board of Directors, was founding Executive Director and co-founder of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Health (ACIH/ACCAHCa consortium of the councils of schools, accrediting agencies and certifying bodies of the licensed, traditional and emerging integrative health professions, and is currently Vice Chair and co-founder of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium (IHPC).  Dr. Snider served as a founding Board Member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine from 2014-2016. Her public policy work includes completing a two year appointment to the DHHS Center For Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee (MCAC); serving as a Steering Committee Member for  the HRSA funded American College of Preventive Medicine NCCIM Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Residency program, co-directing in USPHS Region X the Building Bridges Between Provider Communities Group, an exploration of interdisciplinary collaboration and common ground between public health and CAM; serving for 22 years on Washington State’s Health Professional Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program Advisory Committee (HPLRSP); providing technical assistance to and developing key language for the enabling legislation for NIH Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCIH/NCCAM); and staffing Joseph Pizzorno ND during his appointment as Commissioner on the White House Commission on CAM Policy.

From 1994-2003, Dr. Snider served as Associate Dean for Public and Professional Affairs and Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, dividing her work between academic and public affairs activities, including chairing the Naturopathic Medicine Program Curriculum Review Committee.  Dr. Snider has been teaching, publishing and lecturing widely on Naturopathic philosophy, theory integrative health, public policy, and other topics for over 30 years. Currently, an Associate Professor at National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) in Portland, OR, Dr. Snider also continues at Bastyr University in her 22nd year as a faculty member teaching naturopathic medicine history, clinical theory, and global context. Among her Naturopathic medicine professional roles she serves on the Institute for Natural Medicine’s Leadership Council.  In 1989, she co-led the naturopathic profession with Dr. Jared Zeff, in developing a unifying definition of naturopathic medicine and its principles of practice adopted unanimously by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) House of Delegates. She was a co-investigator in the 2004 NIH NCCAM research study, the North American Naturopathic Medical Research Agenda and CAM Advisor in NIHCCAM’s Financing Integrative Health Care (University of Washington).  Her areas of experience include healthcare education; naturopathic and interdisciplinary clinical theory, curriculum development; clinical practice; government and legislative affairs, public policy, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community organizing.  Dr. Snider has received the Ontario Naturopathic Physician of the Year Award, the Physician of the Year Award from the AANP, the President’s Outstanding Vision Award and Distinguished Alumnus Award at Bastyr University, AANP’s President’s Award, an honorary Doctorate of Naturopathic Philosophy from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), the William A Mitchell Vis Award from the AANP and The Gathering – NMSA’s Beacon Award. She received her ND degree in 1982 from Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences and is a licensed naturopathic physician in the State of Washington. She lives with her husband and children at their homestead in North Bend Washington, in the beautiful mountain to sea landscape and home of The Revival – Restore the Vis, an annual student-led community gathering.

Susan Haeger

Susan Haeger is Founder/Principal of Transformative Health Solutions Inc. She has applied her twenty plus years in executive leadership to help shape and drive adoption of progressive health policy for whole person healthcare. She was a section contributor to the 2021 INM/AANP published professional white paper, Naturopathic Physicians as Whole Health Specialists: The Future is Whole Person Health Care that provides supporting evidence for the profession’s significant and unique contributions to preventive, whole person care and models of integrative clinical practice.

Bruce Barlean

Bruce Barlean is an owner and founder of Barlean’s, a global dietary supplement manufacturer located in the Pacific Northwest in Ferndale, WA. Bruce has been actively involved in the Natural Products industry since 1989 and is passionate about making a difference in the world and positively impacting the lives of others.

Bruce believes that people can make a difference in the world through ordinary purchases. He is committed to improving the quality of life for every person on the planet by making the best products and by using the profits to support outreach programs. Bruce summarizes it simply, “We make good stuff to do good stuff”.

In the late 1980’s Bruce became passionate about how health could be dramatically improved with Flax Oil Supplementation. Bruce along with his entrepreneurial parents saw the potential to improve the lives of many people and in 1989 they began selling Flax Oil under the Barlean’s name. From 1989 – 2000 the business grew an average of 40% year over year. While most companies saw a decline in business in the 2001 recession, Barlean’s continued to grow and soon became America’s #1 selling flaxseed oil and continues to be to the present. The brand has since expanded to include additional oils, green food concentrates and other premium supplements. Bruce continues to drive innovation and over the years his products and company have won countless awards including: Eight consecutive Vity Awards for #1 EFA, Six consecutive Vity Awards for #1 Greens Food Supplement, Natural Choice Award for Best Specialty Supplement, Best Product of the Year, Best New Product, Gold Medal Taster’s Choice Award, Gold Medal American Masters of Taste Award, #1 Health Food Store Brand for Consumer Satisfaction by Consumer Lab, and Manufacturer of the Year.

In 2013 as the company was on the eve of celebrating the 25th year in business Bruce and his parents decided to take their desire to help people to a new level that they call Pathway to a Better Life – which is now seen in the Barlean’s logo. Bruce and his parents had always been generous in their giving and support of charities, but as part of the Pathway to a Better Life they decided to increased partnership with charitable organizations such as: Vitamin Angels, Compassion International, KidsTown International, Autism Hope Alliance, Engedi Refuge, Project 92, and others. And because so many people are unable to meet basic nutritional needs, Bruce created a comprehensive Omega-3 and multivitamin formula that he distributes free-of-charge to local food banks. In addition, Bruce decided the company would supply food banks with organic coconut oil to provide people with a health alternative to standard cooking oils.

Always generous with his time Bruce has served as a youth leader for his local church for several years and continues to mentor youth. He has been on several not for profit boards including; Whatcom County Pregnancy Center (2003-2006), Natural Products Association (dates?), and the Institute for Natural Medicine Leadership Council (presently).

The Barlean family have been avid supporters of Bastyr University since the 1990’s and in 2013 were given Bastyr’s most prestigious honor, the Mission Award, which recognizes their leadership over time in improving the health and well-being of the human community.

Bruce currently resides in Ferndale, WA with his wife Lisa and their two dogs: Heinz & Shadow. When he’s not helping others he can be found fishing (catch & release).

Get Involved!

Michelle Simon, PHD, ND

President & CEO

As president and CEO of INM, Dr. Simon brings her passion for working with organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of healthcare. This desire stems from her years of practice as a licensed naturopathic physician. In addition to holding a Naturopathic Doctorate from Bastyr University she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She has served on boards for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI), and several advisory boards. Dr. Simon served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee, as Ambassador to the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) and was recognized as 2018 AANP Physician of the Year. Dr. Simon shares with her husband a passion for adventure travel, preferably by boat or motorcycle. She also enjoys teaching a women’s off-road motorcycling class.