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Winning with Crohn’s: How One Athlete Maintains Top Performance

Laura Gordon (left) and her sister at a Team Challenge event

As Volunteer Assistant Coach for the UCLA Bruins women’s tennis team and a former All-American player, Laura Gordon knows how much hard work it takes to be at your best – and how easily health issues can derail it.

Laura began her tennis career in 2002 as a walk on at UCLA, which is one of the top ten division 1 programs in the country, and worked her way to the number 1 singles and doubles positions. During that time, she began experiencing bouts of stomach pain and was eventually diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2006. Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract, which manifests with abdominal pain and cramping, persistent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, constipation, and more.

Laura shares her personal story about managing her Crohn’s symptoms through careful diet and how it helps her thrive as an athlete.

Long Journey Toward Diagnosis

I first started experiencing symptoms of Crohn’s as a sophomore in college. I’d be sick on and off, but I pretended it was nothing for three years. Finally, it got so bad that I couldn’t leave the house. I didn’t even want to eat. After three years I was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

It was a long journey getting to the diagnosis. I’d have flare ups during my years in college, but it was never bad enough to do something about until I had the added stress of graduation. When I was diagnosed, I went on medication to manage the inflammation, but still felt sick for the first six months. Thankfully I was only ever hospitalized once, but I was not living a normal life. If I did venture out, I’d have to return home because my stomach was hurting. It also affected my workouts and my tennis game — and that’s really bad because tennis is my job.

Finally, Wellness

During the time I was being diagnosed, my doctor never talked about diet being a factor and never recommended changing it. In hindsight that’s really amazing to me.

While I take medication to manage my symptoms, I wanted more of a normal day-to-day life. I eventually went to see a doctor of alternative medicine, who suggested I try an elimination diet for all the major food allergens for 60 days and then gradually start reintroducing foods. I could feel the difference almost right away. It’s not a miracle cure, but I discovered that I do better when I avoid certain foods.

Knowing that I can eat and actually be comfortable afterwards is definitely worth giving up some of the foods I enjoyed. I have more energy – and it’s consistent, whereas before it was up and down. And that in turn has helped improve my athletic performance.

Making Sustainable Changes

When I was diagnosed, I never really heard people talking about food allergies and sensitivities like I do today. There weren’t as many alternative foods available. Whole Foods Market was the only place that I could find them. I used to spend hours in the store, reading labels and finding new products. My sister has celiac disease (which manifests for her with Crohn’s-like symptoms) and we would call each other and share our discoveries. My family calls Whole Foods Market my best friend.

I used be anxious about eating and going to restaurants. But I took control by learning what I could eat without it making me feel bad. I had to learn to cook and shop differently. And it’s worth it.

My sister and I have run three half marathons to raise money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA). We’re also part of Team Challenge, the CCFA’s training and fundraising program. Team Challenge raises money for research and runs summer camps for kids with Crohn’s. We initially got involved because we wanted to raise awareness and funds for research, while also challenging ourselves athletically. But it’s been amazing to be around others with Crohn’s and Colitis. It’s really changed my life.

Have you ever had to make big changes to how you eat? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Whether you’re just getting started or are well on your way, Whole Foods Market’s got great resources for your journey to health.

Disclaimer: This information is for reference purposes and is not intended to substitute for medical advice. You should not use this information as self-diagnosis or for treating a health problem or disease. Consult a health care professional for further information about food allergies or sensitivities and other health topics.

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screwdestiny says …

The most significant change I've made to how I eat was first making the switch from a regular diet with no restrictions to a vegeterian diet. I did that for just over a year, and it was easy and worked well for me. Then I decided to switch to a completely vegan diet. I've done that for just over five months now. Since switching to vegan, I lost 15 lbs in the first three months, my cholesterol has dropped even lower (I was already in a healthy range, but now it's great!), and I've never felt better. But the thing I like most about my change is the range of new foods I've tried since switching, and the fact that I can sleep well at night.

Joshua Defnall says …

Thanks for sharing Laura. Our stories are remarkably similar. I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease in 2005 and, like you, the diagnoses was a very slow process. It was my senior year of high school and at the time I was playing football and baseball. I was hospitalized multiple times and eventually needed surgery in May of 2006. I've done well since then. I've seen multiple doctors in the years since and not one of them has addressed my diet. They simply prescribe drugs to manage the inflammation. While I have not done the "Elimination" diet you mentioned in the post, I do stay away from "trigger" foods. Do you take any medication or has your diet allowed you to live medicine free?

michelle koer says …

I admire your courage I have had similar problems and it's discouraging at times.

Christopher Punkosdy says …

Laura, I'm very interested in knowing more specifics about your elimination diet. For example, which foods do you eat and which ones do you avoid? I'm sure wheat and gluten are likely triggers but any more info would be appreciated!

Terri Carrick says …

Whole food nutition is KEY! Especially for patients with gastrointestinal disease. As a Crohn's patient myself, I am also upset that my top-ranked gastroenterologist never offered natural solutions to improve my nutrition. After all of the visits in which I mentioned that my joints hurt and that I was constantly fatigued, how could she have not realized that I might have been nutritionally deprived after all of those years in a "flare" during which time my intestines likely did not properly absorb the nutients my body need to keep inflammation at bay. Now, I eat more whole foods, namely fruits and vegetable s, than ever. I also have found great improvements to my health (joint pain, fatigue, gum health and skin health have improved) since I introduced Juice Plus+ to my diet. Now, I get the nutrition of 17 fruits and vegetables every day. And, I remain in complete remission from my Crohn's and have been off of all of my medications for over 15 months. I believe that it is this variety that has made the difference...and it's much more convenient than juicing for the same benefits. If you are not familiar, email me and I will be happy to share. Meantime, whole food nutrition is where it's at!

Carol Bair says …

I too have a diagnosis of Crohns disease. I shop exclusively at my Whole Foods. Since going to all organic, I do feel better!

Sandy Royals says …

My son was diagnosed with Crohn's as a Freshman in High School. He was then followed by a great pediatric GI Doctor, but diet was never discussed. As an athlete, he suffered on the basketball court and ate Tums like candy. He continued to lose weight. As I researched nutrition and diet for him, I discovered the "elimination" diet and encouraged him to keep a food journal. As a teenager, he had no desire to radically change his diet. He eliminated soda, most sweets, and most fried foods. Supplements made the difference for him. If you are interested in reading what supplements and seeing his before and after pictures, go to www.advosandy.blogspot.com and look for "Making necessary changes".

Lindsay Miller says …

I have battled Crohn's for 7 years now. I love whole foods They have made it possible for me to try to find what works for me!! It is way more expensive to eat certain ways but my hope is to cut down on co pays and hospital visits. Almost 2 weeks ago I have surgery at Cedar hospital in Cali to remove 20 cm of my small intestine. My hope and prayers are for this too help tremendously. I have been on short term disability now since Nov 5th 2013 now of which is in payed. I'm am greatful to my family, friends , and doctors for all the support and love!! My doctor suggested I read Breaking the vicious cycle by Elain Gottschall... I have just received it so I don't have feedback yet. I do trust my doctor he is one of the best in the country! God bless you all and never ever give up or in!! Our experiences will always help others!!

Rekha s. p. says …

can you please suggest a fair diet plan for ulcerative colitis. as what to avoid and what to include to get the protein needed by an adult.how much of fibre and which type of flour bread pastries digestable. and also the root vegetables.to preserve the weight which is lost during flare ups.! thank you.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@REKHA - I would suggest reaching our to a professional nutritionist or your healthcare provider for their advice.