I have Crohn’s Disease…I HAVE CROHN’S DISEASE…Wow. All I could do was to sit in the hospital bed with a mix of emotions. I had been suffering for months, in and out of the hospitals and on and off medication, and now finally a diagnosis. A diagnosis that would seal my fate for the rest of my life. Crohn’s Disease, an incurable, autoimmune disease of the intestinal track where your body attacks itself causing irritation and severe pain. No cure, all you can do is try to keep it in remission for as long as possible in between attacks. Sufferers are often put on anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive drugs and may find themselves in and out of the hospital getting segments of their intestines surgically removed. This was my fate and this would be my fate forever. I was 19 when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, and this is my story.
Looking back, hind site is always 20/20. I was probably having symptoms of Crohn’s flare ups for all of my adolescent years. With embarrassing side effects of bloating, diarrhea, indigestion, cramping etc., it’s not the type of side effects any teenager wants to really talk about. And as the years went on, I started to just accept that this was normal. I lived a pretty typical Southern American life. Played a lot of sports, ate a lot of southern comfort foods. Luckily my mom still cooked us a balanced dinner nightly or I think I would have lived off of cereal, fried food, and Taco Bell.
Then I left for university and, well, freedom and ignorance all wrapped into one glorious first year started to slowly destroy me from the inside out. I had free access to the university cafeteria and ate whatever I wanted. As a collegiate volleyball player, I was training multiple times a day and all I wanted to do was eat and that’s what I did. Cereals, processed/packaged foods, greasy fried meats and starches, cheese, microwaveable snacks, fast food, and lots of beer. The common theme, minimal whole foods and tons of CRAP. I was young, had a fast metabolism, was very active, and so on the outside still looked great. What I didn’t know is that my insides told a completely different story.
My digestive symptoms continued to get worse and worse. After any meal, I had to make sure to get back to the dorms as fast as possible to be near a restroom. In fact, I knew where every restroom was on the entire campus, because I had to. I lived off of Tums and Pepto Bismol. The bloating and cramping was so bad, that sometimes all I could do was lie in bed, curled into a ball and cry from the pain. I was always sick, if it wasn’t my intestines, I had a cold or a flu. Doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me and would just prescribe more medication to settle my stomach. Finally, one evening my fever spiked so high and the pain was so unbearable that my roommate decided I needed to go to the hospital. From here on out, over the next 6 months I would be in and out of the hospital being treated for anything and everything as they tried to figure out what was wrong with me.
Finally, the doctor decided to do a biopsy of my intestinal track to get more information and put me on a steroid drug to help with inflammation. I finally got the call to come back in for my results of the biopsy, where I found out I had Crohn’s Disease. So, I had the reason, but quickly would realize still no cure. Just continue to treat the symptoms with steroids and monitor my progress.
I went back to my hometown to stay with my parents and work for the summer. I was seeing a gastroenterologist there and taking a summer course as well. Over the next month, my Crohn’s Disease would go from bad to hell. Massive bloating, which seemed to be localized to one section of my stomach, pain, audible noises coming from my intestines, a decrease in energy and appetite, these were just the intestinal symptoms I was having. Depression, eating disorders, mood swings all came with it as well.
I went to the doctors office weekly, and every week they would taper me off of one medication and put me on another. I went in for IV medication, took oral medication, and took symptom relief medication. At one point I was taking over 20 pills a day, yet my symptoms worsened. Anytime I would eat anything I could visually see the gas and food travel through my intestines almost like a baby kicking inside a mother’s womb, anyone sitting close to me could hear every little bit of gurgling coming from my intestines, and I would throw up every other day. I was terrified to eat, terrified to go out and was “living off” of campbell’s vegetable soup and juice.
Then my body finally gave up. What had become very typical for me, I started to feel nauseous and ran to the bathroom. This time the throwing up didn’t stop. Then, the bile turned into fully digested “fecal” like food. Food that had been trapped inside me for probably weeks if not more. It was terrifying and horrible. The more I threw up the worse I felt. I was rushed to the emergency room and connected to a pump to pump my stomach to stop the throwing up. After observation, the surgeon discovered that my Crohn’s had caused me to develop an obstruction in my small intestines from the scar tissue of my body repeatedly attacking itself. They would have to go in and remove a portion of my intestines.
After I had recovered from the surgery, the doctor came in to brief me on how everything went. Apparently, the swelling of my intestines on the other side of the obstruction had grown so large it had surpassed the size of my colon. They had to remove over 12inches of infected intestines and I would recover in the hospital for a couple weeks.
They fed me at first through a feeding tube and then I was slowly introduced to food, starting on a liquid diet and then moving to solid foods. I will never forget the first “meal” they brought me when I was allowed to have my first solid meal…a fried steak, corn, mashed potatoes and gravy. Seriously?!? Someone who has just come off of major intestinal surgery from a digestive disease and they thought my first meal should be fried steak?
The surgery allowed me to go in remission. And for the next few years at university, my life carried on without much change in my lifestyle other than I wasn’t “sick” anymore. I still ate what I wanted and continued on as if nothing had every happened. I was advised to take a medication daily, but after such a traumatizing experience, decided I didn’t want to be on medication. But no other advice was given, just another medicative solution.
4 years later, my husband and I had our first child, moved to Edmonton, and slowly, I began to have Crohn’s like symptoms again. Flashbacks of earlier days came rushing back to me, but luckily this time I knew more about Crohn’s and what to expect. I saw my gastroenterologist, and he suggested I go back to medication early to help stop the inflammation before it led to another obstruction. I don’t know if it was the fear of the past and the memory of being on medication and being hospitalized, or if something in me was just telling me this couldn’t be the only solution, but against his recommendation I decided to decline the medication and booked in to see a Naturopath.
In life we have many defining moments, but I would have to say that this moment was one of the most defining moments for who I am today, where I am today and my overall Health. He suggested that it could be diet that was causing me to have flare ups and my body was responding to irritations in the food I was eating, which would then lead to the attack of my intestinal walls. So, with his guidance, I started to pay more attention to the foods I was eating through an intensive food diary and document when I would have these flare ups and what I had eaten that could have caused them. I found at the time that it was mostly dairy and anything high fibre. This made sense, as these are known to be hard to digest for even the regular person, so of course someone with a faulty digestive system would have even more challenges with digesting these foods. I eliminated foods like this from my diet and slowly started to feel better. Success!
This type of guessing, eliminating, and trial and error continued for years. Sometimes dairy would bother me, but not all types of dairy. Eating raw vegetables would bother me, but cooking them was ok. Too many greasy foods would bother me. Beans would bother me, some grains would bother me while others didn’t. Egg whites would bother me, but with the yolk, I was fine. Just as I thought I had this whole thing down and would be symptom free for a few weeks, I started to get sick again. I tried removing some foods, changing things around, but nothing seemed to stick. I started to suffer again with bloating and pain, poor digestion, low energy etc. I developed an unhealthy relationship with eating. I was afraid to eat at times because the symptoms were unflattering. If I had to go out that night, I wouldn’t eat all day in fear of having a flare up. I saw myself starting to fall back into the same cycle of sickness and for a brief moment went back onto medication to try and fix the problem. I figured I gave it a good shot, and maybe medication is the answer.
Then I started to read cases of people finding relief through a plant-based vegan diet. The first time I read that, I thought “no way it would work for me.” No way could I live off of those “vegan” foods that have caused me gas and bloating for years. My diet basically consisted of easy to digest meats and starches…easily digestible and therefore easy on my intestines. Plus I was active in weight lifting and had been told multiple times that to reach the muscle mass/lean body ratio I wanted, I had to consume a lot of animal products. Egg whites for breakfast, lots of milk, chicken or fish for lunch dinner etc. So no way would I be able to hit the same macro counts I was hitting to keep up with my workouts.
But, I was still intrigued, so I started to read more. I found more and more cases of people with Crohn’s of other types of autoimmune disease, where they finally found relief by giving up animal products. The nerdy scientist in me, continued to research this idea. I came across multiple studies that showed there was an immediate elevation in inflammation markers after eating a meal that included animal products. I knew inflammation is a direct immune response to a perceived threat. So where was this threat coming from? Why was it that directly after eating meat and dairy specifically would there be an increased inflammation response?
A few studies showed that analyzing blood after eating animal products showed an increase level of endotoxins (Endotoxins being bacteria). Since our immune systems are always trying to rid the body of bacteria, there was the “threat” the body was responding to. But where did the endotoxins come from? Reading further I found that the dead bacteria (from cooking/heating animal products) could still release endotoxins. And because animal products have such a high concentration of bacteria in comparison to plant based foods, every time you consume animal products you are actually flooding your body with these endotoxins. On top of that, saturated fat (again found in most animal products) are the perfect vessel to transport these endotoxins and allows for an increase absorption of endotoxins into your body. So the animal products, full of endotoxins and saturated fats are flowing through your digestive system making it the perfect place to be absorbed and for the body to counter by creating an inflammation response. Now, for someone with Crohn’s or other autoimmune inflammation diseases, the last thing you want is inflammation and a reason for your body to start attacking itself even more.
I knew what I had to do if I wanted to try and fight this disease without falling into the bandaid approach of medication. So, I made the decision to go Plant-Based. No meat, no dairy, no eggs and no processed foods, just whole foods full of micronutrients!
There was an initial transition period of stressing where I would get all the protein that I once thought I needed to sustain my workouts and my energy and figuring out what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat etc. So I spent the first month not weighing anything, not calculating macros, listening to my body and focussing on FOOD for FUEL and HEALTH instead of numbers on a spreadsheet. I started by eating animal protein for 1 meal a day, and then slowly that turned into 1-2x per week. Until finally I realized I was just holding on to the habit that I had eaten meat my entire life, and finally went fully plant-based.
After going onto a plant-based whole foods diet, this is what I have found:
- Symptoms of my Crohn’s went away within a week and have stayed away
- I actually didn’t need the amounts of proteins I was getting when I was eating meat. Whether my body is just becoming better at absorbing the proteins from whole plant based foods, or I just really don’t need ALL that protein I had been taught and told I needed from the personal training world, Im not sure. All I know is I am still able to train and put on muscle and get stronger while staying lean with about half of the amount of protein I was eating before.
- Mental clarity that I have is unreal. Years of suffering from ADHD, gone. I don’t need to drink coffee to focus, and I’m able to put my thoughts together more concisely.
- My period has become regulated and less painful cramps and not nearly as heavy as a flow.
- Skin, hair, nails have never been as healthy as they are now.
- Relationship with food is much healthier. I’m not afraid to eat, I don’t stress about counting macros or calories, I don’t obsess about my weight etc.
- My body easily digests foods it used to have a problem with (i.e. beans, soy, raw vegetables, etc don’t cause pain and bloating)
I only continue to improve and thrive daily living on a plant-based diet. I continue to read, learn and listen to my body. I invest in the advice of others who have followed a plant-based diet for longer than I have, with some of the same goals physically as me. And I will continue to treat my disease through diet and healthy living for as long as I can.
If you are struggling with some sort of illness, especially a digestive one, I strongly urge you to look into what you are putting into your body. You may have to sacrifice things that are comfortable to you or foods that you love, but if there is any time where sacrifice is worth it, it should be when it can drastically improve your health.
Let food be the power to help you heal.