Michael Fensterstock, 33, never imagined a career in the health and wellness industry. But today the New York City-based entrepreneur is enjoying a rather successful one.
A diagnosis of ulcerative colitis at age 15 shook his world. “It was terrible,” he says. “I was at boarding school and going to the bathroom 15 times a day.”
Ulcerative colitis is marked by an inflammation of the lining of the colon, the large intestine. As a result, tiny open sores that produce pus and mucous can develop, leading to such symptoms as frequent, loose, and bloody bowel movements; abdominal pain; fatigue; and weight loss, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.
“I was super healthy before I got sick," Fensterstock says. "I played varsity sports and was doing really well in school." But the condition took a toll. “I lost like 30 pounds – and I’m not a big guy to begin with," he says. The 5-foot-10 squash player went from 155 to 120 pounds in a month. “It’s hard to play sports and keep your grades up while [uncontrollably losing] weight," he says.
Fensterstock eventually got this initial flare under control with medication and a very bland diet. During this time, he was forced to learn more about his body and how it works. "I got into biology and living naturally, and these are things I wouldn’t have cared about before I got sick,” he says.
After graduating from college, Fensterstock became a certified personal trainer and earned a business degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Managing Ulcerative Colitis at Work
Three years ago, Fensterstock and his wife started Aromaflage, a health and wellness company that develops botanical-based solutions to common problems. Their first product, a bug repellant, was followed with a sleep fragrance. Today their products can be found in 500 high-end retailers, and they're now working on their first mass-market product. “I don’t know if this would’ve happened without a deeper understanding of biology and food that came from my health problems,” Fensterstock says.
Still, the unpredictability of ulcerative colitis symptoms can make conducting business difficult. A lot of deals are made over drinks or meals, but “I can’t just simply meet for coffee, lunch, or dinner,” he says. “I have to ask all types of questions about what’s in a food before ordering, and I can’t drink alcohol or coffee.”
Unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all ulcerative colitis diet, but Fensterstock knows his triggers well after years of living with the condition. “I need to eat a very bland diet to prevent flares,” he says.
How a Healthier Lifestyle Can Help Ulcerative Colitis
Controlling stress is also an important part of managing ulcerative colitis, says Amar Naik, MD, a gastroenterologist at Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Illinois.
But this can be problematic for entrepreneurs driven to achievement at the expense of self-care. For this reason, Fensterstock makes sure to practice yoga regularly.
“A healthier lifestyle can make a big difference for people with ulcerative colitis,” Dr. Naik says. “This includes getting good sleep, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and adhering to an effective treatment plan.”
Also important is easy access to restrooms. “If this is an issue at your workplace, discuss your needs with someone in human resources and consider getting a letter of support from your doctor,” Naik says. There are also apps to help find clean restrooms if you're on the go, including Charmin’s free “SitOrSquat” Restroom Finder.