Whether the role is the President of the U.S. on the TV hit series “24” or spy on “Covert Affairs,” Gregory Itzin brings intensity and unwavering professionalism to the set. That’s why he’s bound and determined to not let his ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory disease in the colon that causes pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, fever and weight loss, stand in the way of his career – or enjoying his life.
For years Itzin says he didn’t take his digestive health seriously.
“I had several bouts with ulcerative colitis and a handful put me in the hospital,” says Itzin, a spokesperson for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.
He says never really saying ulcerative colitis – or hearing it said – out loud was his downfall.
“My doctor never really said those words to me. He would tell me what I should do to feel better or treat my symptoms and flares but he never really said, or maybe it’s that I never heard him say because I was in denial ‘You have ulcerative colitis.’”
But a trip to the hospital while Itzin was playing the President on the series “24” resulted in an awakening.
“Being scolded a bit by the doctor for not taking care of my ulcerative colitis shook me up. I thought I just had a sensitive stomach but that’s when I finally realized this is something that I really have to take care of.”
Following his doctor’s advice helped Itzin gain control over his ulcerative colitis. Here’s a candid look at how Itzin broke out of some bad habits to live with ulcerative colitis.
Old habit: Wearing blinders. Itzin says not listening to what his doctor was saying led to him suffering with the symptoms of ulcerative colitis for years. And to several hospital visits, too. “I didn’t want to think it was really that bad. That I really had this disease.”
New habit: Having a heart to heart. Sometimes you have to have a heart-to-heart with yourself to accept reality, says Itzin. “You need to take yourself in hand and be serious about following your doctor’s orders and doing everything you can to be healthy. This isn’t a time to move into denial town,” he says.
Old habit: Eating with wild abandon. “I was misbehaving badly, a lot, with regard to my diet,” he says. Food is a common trigger of symptoms. And many patients find one person’s trigger doesn’t have the slightest effect on another person’s UC. “So you have to pay close attention to what food upsets you. That’s something I didn’t do for many years.”
New habit: Dial in on a diet. “Diet is one of the few things you can manipulate to hold ulcerative colitis in check,” he says. Itzin says he tries to stay away from bread and “things that sit in my gut and ferment” and instead focuses on “things that move through you fast.” “I like to eat meat and potatoes and I love the smell of bread. But white foods like bread and potatoes are things I shouldn’t have because they’re triggers for me. So they’re no longer found on my plate.”
Old habit: Slackin’ off. Itzin wasn’t necessarily a couch potato, but his busy work schedule and desire to carve out some family time left little energy or opportunity to exercise. “I’ve never been the best at exercising faithfully. I was more active in my younger days, though.”
New habit: Getting fit. Since his last hospitalization in about 5 years ago, Itzin is working on keeping body in shape. “I’m back to training again and I’ve learned to be more disciplined.” He walks, does weight resistance training and makes sure to get aerobic exercise to keep his heart – and his digestive system – healthy and strong. “Exercising seems to help reduce frequency and severity of symptoms.”
Old habit: Wondering “Why me?” Itzin knows it’s easy to get caught up in a personal pity party. After all, the diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, not to mention living with the symptoms, can feel like a lot to shoulder.
New Habit: It ain’t that bad. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Itzin focuses on the positives in his life. His wonderful family including Judie, his wife of 32 years, and children daughter Julia, 29, and son, Wilke, 26, along with the positives of his health keep his spirits up. “My daughter has Crohn’s disease and hers is much more severe than my ulcerative colitis. So I know there are things that are much worse than what I’m dealing with.”
Old habit: Mum’s the word. Itzin suspects his father also suffered from digestive issues. “His gift to me was us sharing all the same symptoms. He wouldn’t talk about it or face it, he was in denial and was embarrassed, but he definitely had some form of digestive disease. He even quit traveling, something he loved to do, because he didn’t want to be too far from a bathroom.”
New habit: Chatting about UC. “I’m not easily embarrassed,” says Itzin. “I know that no one wants to talk about your butt and things you do in the bathroom. But thankfully we’ve become a society where people can talk about their disease. So they should.” He says honesty puts people at ease about ulcerative colitis. “I find that if I mention it first, and don’t appear embarrassed or ashamed, since there’s no reason to be, people don’t push back. I try to educate them because they may know someone else with the disease and aren’t even aware of it.”
Old habit: Getting stressed out. The life of an actor is filled with stress. Rushing to rehearsals and auditions, worrying about landing a role or being separated from your family for months on end while shooting takes its toll. And Itzin says his stress nestled right in his colon. “Since I was a kid stress would manifest in abdominal symptoms like cramps, diarrhea, etc.”
New habit: Letting it go. Despite being addicted to the adrenaline of acting and the stress that comes with it, Itzin says it’s important to “get to the other side of stress.” “You have to find ways to channel the energy and emotion that fuels stress.” If stress tends to cause your symptoms to flare up, activities like yoga, swimming, walking or reading a favorite book provide calming outlets that both your colon – and your mind – will appreciate.