Today’s guest post is by Alexa Federico. Alexa Federico is the owner of Girl in Healing, a blog focused on a real food approach and intentional lifestyle to thrive with Inflammatory Bowel Disease. She has an online practice as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner to coach others to use nutrition to be well. Alexa is the author of “The Complete Guide to Crohn’s Disease & Ulcerative Colitis: A Road Map to Long-Term Healing.” She loves books, podcasts, walking outside, and warm sunny days.
How it Started
‘Life as I knew it drastically changed when I learned that I had a confirmed diagnosis called Crohn’s disease. For months before this day, my health had been slipping into a downward spiral. New symptoms seemed to pop up and to my knowledge they were unrelated. Being only 12 years old at the time, my parents played a critical role in advocating for me.
During the fall that year I was a 7th grade student. Nothing up until this point had been unusual or stood out in my life. I grew up as the middle child in a middle class suburb with two loving parents. There had been no traumas, no life-altering losses, no bone breaks or severe illnesses. I had never even been stung by a bee or had an ear infection (still true to this day!). I enjoyed hanging out with my girl friends, reading teen fiction books, and normal kid stuff. I was your average American pre-teen.
Yet, something had been brewing for a long time inside my body without me knowing. I had always been a normal weight — never over or under. But I had started losing weight and looking too skinny. I experienced a number of other symptoms that built on each other over time including:
Feeling cold and tired all the time. My nails were usually tinted blue.
Having stomachaches after everything I ate.
I had returned to my pediatrician many times with my mom pushing for someone to evaluate me further. Unfortunately, I was told over and over that my symptoms didn’t warrant any concern, and they somehow wrote them off as normal.
The last time we saw a doctor before I was diagnosed I was at my sickest. Thankfully, this doctor sent us to a pediatric gastroenterologist right away. From there, things moved quickly!
I spent about 10 days in the hospital, filled with endless tests and questioning. It was tiring and an entirely new experience for a child who was rarely sick. Although it was scary to have a disease, I remember relief washing over me when I realized that there was a known condition for what was happening to me.
Naturally, my parents asked about how we could live at home to best manage this disease. They wanted me to get better so badly and were willing to do whatever it took, as long as it didn’t make me sicker.
Eleven years ago there were less options for Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis than there are today. Doctors suggested a couple of long-term drug therapies or surgery. My parents could bear the thought of putting their child on a serious drug, especially when the long-term consequences for a growing child were largely unknown.
I went home on the steroid prednisone and a daily maintenance drug. My parents wanted to know what I should eat now. It seemed obvious to them that since I now had a gastrointestinal disease, that the foods I ate could have an impact. However, doctors poo-pooed this idea. They were confident that food had little or nothing to do with IBD and that the diet talk out there was extremely hard to commit to with no evidence that it worked.
My parents, not wanting to make life harder for me, didn’t put me on an extreme diet. I took my medications and I generally avoided lactose and a lot of fried foods. Other than that, life didn’t change too much.
That is until about 14 months after my diagnosis, I found myself once again between a rock and a hard place.
A Vicious Cycle
Just over a year past my diagnosis anniversary I was getting sick again. So sick, that I was hospitalized two more times within a month of each other to keep me hydrated and get tested on. I had to be put back on prednisone.
My parents were at a loss. We followed every bit of advice my doctors informed us of. If we were doing everything right, why was I getting so sick? Why couldn’t I remain stabilized and healthy? They were still not comfortable with the drug options for my age and wanted to avoid surgery if possible.
Then, relatives reached out to my parents with the most important phone call they could ever receive. After a long talk, my mom got off the phone to tell me about it. A relative of mine who also had Crohn’s for many years went to a holistic practitioner. Not a doctor that prescribed drugs or performed tests, but one that utilized food and supplementation to improve health conditions. He had seen astronomical success in his health, and they believed they could help me too. With their referral and my mom’s persistence, I had myself a consultation.
My Journey into Alternative Medicine
We weren’t a family who dabbled into anything considered “alternative.” We ate a pretty standard American diet, saw regular physicians, and didn’t buy organic food or green home products. My dad saw a chiropractor for his back once in a while; that’s about as alternative as we got.
And so, this consultation changed my life. He worked with me, testing me for food sensitivities, evaluating my nutritional needs and explaining things along the way. It was fascinating but frightening. For a now 13-year-old, being told I could have gluten, dairy and many more things was devastating. But I would have been crazy not to try it. So I did!
Fast forward 11 years later, and this is still a main part of my healing protocol. I have seen the test results showing my inflammation has decreased over time and fully believe in the power of food for restoring the body back to health.
I never did need surgery, and occasionally needed mainstream medications. My approach has evolved over time to include self-care strategies, acupuncture and massage, prioritizing sleep, and positive thinking and mantras.
With such a beast of a disease that IBD is, my philosophy is to be aware of all the tools I have to stay well, whether they are traditional or alternative.
The Silver Lining
Even though Crohn’s comes with some hard days and unpleasant symptoms, it has brought a lot of good into my life. I see it as a blessing that this disease caused me to become so invested in nutrition because not only do I eat better, but so does my family! I also provide a voice to those struggling by sharing my story and experiences to let others know that they are not alone. And then, I completely changed careers right after graduating college! (Ouch, I know). I switched from elementary education to becoming a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, so I could help people in the situation I was in 11 years ago.
Now, I feel empowered about my disease. I know about the latest treatments and research and I can discuss these with my doctors. I know my body so well; a connection that is lost among a lot of people today.
Whether you have just been diagnosed with a chronic illness or are struggling, don’t give up! If what you’re doing isn’t working, do a little research and see if there is something else you can try. It might just change your life.