When Courtney Maiorino was officially diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2012, she was prescribed steroids and immunosuppressants — and told that she’d be on the drugs for the rest of her life. This felt wrong to her, but her symptoms were too serious and her fear too great for her to refuse the drugs, and so she took them. But after years of side effects and an inner sense that she could feel better than she did, she sought out holistic ways to treat her Crohn’s disease, and, through years of ups and downs and pushback from doctors, eventually found a lifestyle that allowed her to live with neither Crohn’s symptoms, nor medications.
Courtney started experiencing Crohn’s disease symptoms in 2009, but wasn’t officially diagnosed until 2012. At that point, it had gotten bad: she couldn’t eat anything without running to the bathroom half an hour later. They knew something was seriously wrong, and when they got the official diagnosis, this fear was confirmed. “I started crying because I was like, I don’t know what this is but it sounds really serious,” Courtney says.
After the diagnosis came back, she was given a cocktail of steroids and immunosuppressant drugs, and though she’d had an innate aversion to taking medications since she was young, she was too scared to say no. “I thought that was going to be the magic pill that made me feel better,” Courtney remembers.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Living With Crohn’s Disease Medication…and the Side Effects
Though the steroids helped make the Crohn’s symptoms “a tiny bit better,” according to Courtney, the trade-offs were nowhere near worth it. The steroids caused her to gain weight rapidly — 20 pounds in six weeks on a 5’2” frame — and she felt “self-conscious and sick and unhappy with my life.” She knew, on some deep inner level, that this wasn’t as good as she could feel. “Doing the western medicine route alone didn’t help me,” Courtney says.
Though she was majoring in wellness at college, it hadn’t occurred to her up until that point that she could apply what she was learning to herself. Suddenly she felt a spark of possibility: “If this works for healthy people,” she asked herself, “why wouldn’t it work for me?”
Shifting Perspective and Treating Crohn’s Disease with Diet
The first place she started was with her diet. She tried “a million different things,” paying close attention to how everything she ate affected her. The first adjustment she made was to remove gluten from her diet, and eventually she cut out dairy and animal products as well. This was tough in her traditional Italian family, where pasta and bread and meatballs and cheese were always around and food was such an important part of being together — but, she knew she needed to make a change. And so, despite the challenges with her family and the advice of her doctor, she stopped taking the steroids and focused on eating foods that made her feel good.
As her diet began to have beneficial effects, she also began working with a holistic nurse practitioner. Together, they incorporated supplements into Courtney’s treatment and worked on healing her gut, and began to see more progress through their collaboration.
Then she hit a major bump on her wellness journey: she went in for some tests, and they were not good: her inflammation markers were high, and a colonoscopy showed her colon was ulcerated and swollen. The doctor gave her two choices: have surgery, or have an infusion medication (similar to chemo) every eight weeks. She did the latter for two years.
That’s when she decided to expand her wellness journey to include perspective shifting as well as food. Perspective shifting, according to Courtney, was one of the most important things she did, perhaps even more than changing her diet. After her diagnosis, she’d felt a lot of anger and resentment (something she says is common among the chronic illness community). “I was not a fun person to be around,” she remembers.
With the help of her mentor, Jessica Flanigan, and Flanigan’s book The Loving Diet, she began working on shifting her mindset toward her disease, looking at it as a teacher, something to learn from, rather than something to battle with. She began doing yoga, tapping, and deep breathing, and says that the results completely changed her life. At the same time, she shifted her diet more solidly to 100% plant-based.
Her efforts paid off.
In 2016, Courtney had her first-ever colonoscopy that came back completely clean. That’s when she told her doctor, once again, that she wanted to be off the medication. The doctor disagreed, and didn’t believe that any of Courtney’s diet changes had made any difference. But, Courtney observed, she was the only person in the infusion room — where everyone was on the same drugs as her — who didn’t have any symptoms. Clearly something was working.
So, steadfast in her goal, she wrote a long letter to her doctor that firmly communicated her decision. She was going off of the infusion medication.
Courtney went off the infusion medication without any issues, and then a few months later went off the immunosuppressants she’d been on for four years — after finding out that it had given her liver damage. She’d finally accomplished her goal of becoming medication-free, and still is to this day.
Though it’s scary to not have the backup of medication, she’s proud of where she is and hopeful for the future of her wellness journey. “So far, I feel great, I’m on no meds,” Courtney says, adding that as long as she continues to explore other holistic avenues for managing her Crohn’s disease, “I think it’s going to stay that way.”
The recovery story above is anecdotal and specific to this particular individual. Please note that this is not medical advice, and that not all treatments and approaches mentioned will work for everyone.
Courtney Maiorino is a certified autoimmune health coach and a graduate of the Institute of Integrative Nutrition.
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