When Natasha Boojihawon developed anaemia at the age of 16, little did she know it was the start of a more than decade-long health battle involving three operations—including one that would leave her with no colon—and months and months in hospital.
“I didn’t have any obvious symptoms,” recalls Natasha, now 31, who was living in Saudi Arabia at the time, “but I discovered I was anaemic after some routine tests. And then I didn’t respond to the iron supplements I was given.”
It turned out the problem was a serious inflammatory bowel condition called ‘ulcerative colitis’, diagnosed after Natasha’s stools were tested and her colon examined with a tiny camera—a procedure called a ‘colonoscopy’.
“They found blood in my stools,” said Natasha. “Then the colonoscopy confirmed ulcerative colitis, which is inflammation and ulceration of the colon.”
The drugs don’t work
Natasha was prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs and just carried on with life as usual. She moved to the UK to study for her A levels, and didn’t experience any major symptoms for two years.
But a few weeks before her 18th birthday, Natasha was at a friend’s house when a trip to the toilet sparked alarm. “I was gushing with blood,” said Natasha. “I had to go to hospital and ended up staying for six months.”
Natasha was put on intravenous drugs to suppress her immune system, which was thought to be working in overdrive, as well as powerful steroids, painkillers and more anti-inflammatory drugs. But her condition just got worse.
“I was on the highest doses of everything. But it got to the point where my body couldn’t take any more meds.”
The only option then was surgery, the doctors told her, which would involve the removal of all but 4 mm of her colon (large intestine).
“Some people are lucky and only need a small part of their colon removed,” said Natasha. “But my entire colon was affected.”
Natasha consented to the operation—and also to her colon being used for medical research. “The doctors were so shocked by the state of it. They asked me to sign it off for students to study.”
Life goes on
After the operation and at the same time as starting university, Natasha had to adjust to life with a stoma, an opening created on the outside of the body for waste to pass through, and a colostomy bag to collect it in.
“I don’t remember feeling depressed about it,” Natasha said. “Something just kicked in and I found myself able to cope. It helped having amazing family and friends around me.”
Other than having to choose the right clothes to hide her colostomy bag, Natasha made no major changes to her lifestyle on account of her operation.
“The NHS dietitian told me to avoid waxy foods and eating large quantities of raw food. But that was about it. I carried on eating my usual diet. And as it was my first year of university, I was drinking a lot.”
A surprise wedding present
Despite having two further operations, one to create a ‘J-pouch’, a reservoir in the small intestine, that was then joined to the anal canal to serve as a replacement large intestine, and the other to remove the stoma and reconnect the bowel, Natasha finished university with no ulcerative colitis relapses. And for the next five years, her condition remained in remission.
But at the age of 26, not long before getting married, Natasha started to have severe constipation. “I ended up in A&E four or five times. I was in so much pain they had to give me morphine.”
Natasha had developed pouchitis—inflammation of her J-pouch—a common long-term complication of the surgery she’d had. She was given antibiotics, but they didn’t seem to help.
At around the same time, she also developed iritis—inflammation of the iris of the eye—in both eyes. “It was incredibly painful. It’s like having sand in your eyes.”
For that she was given steroid eye drops, but again, they failed to get rid of the problem.
A change of plan
At this point, Natasha was thoroughly frustrated with the conventional medical approach, so she started to look into alternatives, particularly the influence of diet. But when she asked her regular consultant whether he thought a change of diet would help with her conditions, his answer was unequivocal: it would have no effect whatsoever.
That was the last time she went to see him.
Convinced there must be a better way, Natasha decided to take matters into her own hands. “I’m naturally very curious and drawn to reading and researching. I quickly realized I was eating foods that were difficult to digest, and they were just sitting in my gut, feeding harmful bacteria and encouraging infection.”
To Natasha, it seemed like common sense to avoid foods that were potentially causing problems, so she decided to eliminate meat, refined sugar, dairy products and gluten. “I pretty much ate a plant-based vegan diet,” said Natasha. “I completely gave up alcohol too.”
Natasha focused on eating an anti-inflammatory diet supplemented with anti-inflammatory herbs and nutrients like slippery elm, turmeric and omega-3 fatty acids. She also started drinking nutrient-rich vegetable juices everyday. “I saw them as my elixir,” said Natasha.
Another important part of her self-help journey was Reiki, a form of energy healing originating in Japan that often involves “laying on hands”. It’s based on the idea that everyone has ‘life-force energy’ flowing through them, and health problems arise when this energy is disrupted, weakened or blocked. Following a recommendation from a neighbour, Natasha and her husband, Roop, underwent training in first-level Reiki, which enabled them to self-heal and practise on each other. “I’d practise every day before going to bed,” said Natasha, “and I’d make time to meditate too.”
Going with the flow
It wasn’t long after starting her new diet and the Reiki that Natasha noticed a difference in her health. “My digestive system began to work better, and I gradually felt stronger and more energetic.”
She believes the Reiki helped especially with the iritis. “As soon as I felt the scratching feeling coming on, I would use Reiki on myself. It seemed to stop it in its tracks.”
Natasha was so convinced by her new regime that she decided to come off all her medication—a decision her parents, who are both nurses, were strongly opposed to at first. “They were so scared for me. We’d get into a lot of arguments about it.”
But Natasha went from strength to strength. Her pouchitis and iritis resolved, and she had “more energy than I’d had in my whole life”.
Keen to continue learning about alternative medicine, Natasha decided to enrol at the College of Naturopathic Medicine to study naturopathic nutrition. “I wanted to get a better understanding of the science of nutrition and try to prevent myself from becoming ill in the future. I also wanted to be able to spread the word about the importance of nutrition.”
Natasha has just completed her three-year course and has already set up a health and wellbeing clinic in Manchester called Earth Clinic offering a variety of holistic healing services, including nutritional therapy and Reiki. Natasha is now a member of the British Association of Nutritional Therapists (BANT) and is also a qualified Reiki master. The goal is “to support people be empowered to transform their own health”, says Natasha.
As for Natasha’s health, she hasn’t had any ulcerative colitis or iritis relapses since making all those changes five years ago. “I’ve not had any tests,” said Natasha, “but I feel pretty amazing. And I’m excited for the future. I dread to think where I’d be now if I’d have stuck to the conventional approach.”
Natasha’s alternative action plan
Avoid: meat, sugar, gluten, dairy, alcohol, processed foods
Include: organic whole foods like fresh vegetables, limited fruit and oily fish (two portions a week), healthy fats like olive and hemp seed oils, plenty of fresh filtered water, vegetable juices and smoothies
For acute flare-ups
•Viridian Boswellia Resin
(500 mg/day x 3)
•BioCare Slippery Elm Plus
(1 caps/day x 3)
•Viridian 100% Organic Black (Cumin) Seed Oil
•Pukka Wholistic Turmeric
(3 caps/ day)
•BioCare Mega E.P.A
(half a sachet before bed for 225 billion live probiotic bacteria)
•Pukka Aloe Vera Juice
(200 mL each morning)
•BioCare Slippery Elm Plus
•Pukka Wholistic Turmeric
•BioCare Mega E.P.A
•Peppermint essential oil
(5 drops in warm water before and after meals)
(quarter of a sachet before bed for 112 billion live probiotic bacteria)
•Reiki (20 min/day)
•Meditation (at least 10 min/day)
•Yoga (at least 1 hour/week)
Replace chemical-laden cosmetics, toiletries and cleaning products with natural alternatives as much as possible.
What is ulcerative colitis?
Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation and ulceration of the colon (large intestine) and rectum (end of the bowel). It’s one of the two main forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD); the other is Crohn’s disease, which can affect any part of the digestive system.
Symptoms of ulcerative colitis include:
• recurring diarrhoea
• blood and mucus in stools
• urgent bowel movements
• abdominal pain
• weight loss
Conventional treatment generally involves drugs (usually anti-inflammatories or immunosuppressants) or surgery, but both options come with significant risks and don’t always work. In fact, the evidence suggests that 40–60 per cent of IBD patients don’t benefit from the available treatments.1