How to Build Healthy Habits for IBD

When it comes to building a healthy habit, we tend to focus on drastic and unrealistic behavior changes.  Yet the real transformations come from accumulated decisions which grow into life altering outcomes.


Implementing simple daily tweaks and techniques can help reduce flare-ups and bothersome symptoms of  inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).


In his book: Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear uncovers cutting-edge habit building concepts. We’ll discuss how to apply more of the “good” habits while breaking the “bad” ones that contribute to IBD.


Why Do We Have Habits?

When’s the last time you forgot whether or not you locked the door when you left? A habit is a behavior that’s been repeated enough times to become automatic. Meaning you do it without consciously thinking.


These unconscious actions are mental “shortcuts” developed by past experiences. Basically your brain remembers what you did in the past, in order to better predict the future. It helps your brain preserve conscious attention for what needs it most in the present moment.


How Do Habits Work?

Your brain is constantly taking in your environment and predicting what will happen next. It functions in a trial and error manner, learning from responses of different actions. It goes through a four-step process which works like a feedback loop, including cues, cravings, responses, and rewards.


The “problem phase” includes cues and cravings. These trigger your brain to respond to something that needs to change.


The “solution phase” includes response and reward. This is taking action to accomplish the change you’re needing.



Prompts your brain to start a behavior. Cues are typically associated with survival needs such as food, water, and sex, or with secondary rewards such as money, praise, love, and connection.



This is the motivation behind a habit or action. What you crave is the change in state (the way you feel) it provides. For example, you’re not actually craving smoking a cigarette, rather you’re craving the feeling of relief or distraction it gives you.



This is the habit that you perform. This can be either a thought or action. A response depends on how motivated you are, or how difficult an associated behavior feels. For instance, if an action takes more physical or mental energy than you’re willing to contribute, then you won’t be inclined to do it.



The end goal of a habit. Rewards satisfy cravings. For instance when you crave a food and eat it, it provides the energy you need to survive. Rewards also teach which actions are worth remembering in the future.


Here’s an example of this four-phase process in terms of drinking coffee:

Cue: you wake up
Craving: you want to feel more awake and alert
Response: you drink a cup of coffee
Reward: you satisfy your craving for feeling more awake. Coffee becomes associated with waking up.


How to Create a Good Habit

It’s not your fault for “failing” at starting a new habit. Habits are shaped by the systems in your life. Your environment strongly encourages how you act.


As a “good” habit change, we’ll use the example of trying to go for a walk every morning.


Cue – make it obvious

Design your environment with cues of the good habits you want. Make them very obvious.

Example: Keep your workout shoes next to the bathroom door. Tell yourself, “after I brush my teeth every morning, I will go for a walk.”


Craving – make it attractive

Associate an action you want to do with something you need to do. Do something you really enjoy with the habit you’re trying to incorporate in your routine.

Example: Listen to your favorite podcast or music when you walk.


Response – make it easy

Set up your environment to make the future habits easier. Use the two-minute rule, which is committing to do the new habit for just two minutes per day. If you do more, great! Otherwise for now, just focus on getting the habit in your daily routine.

Example: Set your walking clothes out next to the bed every evening so you change directly into them when you wake up.


Reward – make it satisfying

Give yourself an immediate reward when you complete the habit. Keep track of your habits and aim not to break the streak. Use the rule of “never miss twice” meaning if you forget to do the habit, get back on track immediately.

Example: Right after you go for your morning walk, you can enjoy a nice cup of coffee or tea.


How to Break a Bad Habit

For this, we’ll use smoking cigarettes as the “bad” habit that’s desired to be changed.


Cue – make it invisible

Decrease exposure or remove the cues of the bad habit from your environment.

Example: If you typically keep your cigarettes on the counter, put them away so you don’t see them and get triggered to smoke.


Craving – make it unattractive

Reframe the way you think about it. Highlight the perks of avoiding the bad habit.

Example: If cigarettes make you feel like you have stress relief. Reframe the thought and be realistic. Do they actually decrease your stress or do they make you more stressed about getting a related health condition in the future?


Response – make it difficult

Make it more difficult to engage in bad habits.

Example: Put your cigarettes away in a suitcase. So every time you want them, you have to go into your closet, take the suitcase down, and open the suitcase. Buy less at a time so you have to go to the store to get them.


Reward – make it unsatisfying

Find someone who can hold you accountable. This way you have to admit when you engage in the bad behavior. You can also create a contract, making the “cost” of your bad habits public or financial.

Example: Sign a contract with your friend or partner. Every time you smoke, you have to pay them 20 bucks.



Change is Hard: Be Compassionate with Yourself

Your habits are engrained for a reason. Be compassionate with yourself and notice that bad habits may be a sign that something needs attention in your life, such as stress and avoiding tough feelings.


Give yourself love and gently explore what these habits are doing for you. Learn to reframe the negative self talk with some cognitive behavioral therapy techniques and visualize the you that you want to be.


Why Habits are Important for Pharma or Medical Providers

As a pharma company or medical providers know firsthand, the importance of effective patient engagement can determine the efficacy of clinical trials and success of product. If you encourage patients to practice effective habit changes, you can help improve their symptoms, ultimately improving the state of their condition.


Nori works alongside your medical protocol and drug recommendations, helping patients develop habits that keep them loyal to your recommendations.


Supporting patients by offering a chatbot coach like Nori will help them discover and change lifestyle factors that help improve symptoms associated with their condition.



This article has been written by Lisa Booth, registered dietitian and nutritionist, and co-founder of Nori Health. Content is based on her professional knowledge, and our collection of 100+ scientific research study papers.