I remember the first time I heard the song “Smells like Teen Spirit”. I was almost instantly hooked on Nirvana, Kurt Cobain and all things grunge. I converted to a uniform of flannels and mohair cardigans and of course I grew my hair as long as my mother would let me. I even tried to play the guitar lefty like Kurt (I can’t even play guitar the regular way). My fascination with Kurt Cobain grew as I learned more about his childhood and path to stardom. It feels almost surreal that this year marks twenty since the world lost one of our greatest talents. In my career and life as a nutritionist and holistic health practitioner, I’ve been thinking about the health problems that plagued Kurt for most of his life. I recently dug into the closet containing boxes of posters, cds, cassettes and other memorabilia from my childhood years. As I went through the various magazines, books, and music it hit me that Kurt’s demise could have possibly been prevented. It was widely known that Kurt suffered from “an undisclosed stomach condition”. Kurt repeatedly said that the primary reason for his drug use was to blunt his stomach pain. In his suicide note he wrote “Thank you all from the pit of my burning nauseous stomach”. His drug use, namely heroine, was rooted in easing his stomach pain. As a holistic health professional and with the little information that I know about Kurt’s health condition, I believe that there were a number of things that could have been done to alleviate that constant pain – from implementing a paleo based nutrition program, to daily stress management, to a number of simple lab tests. As a purely intellectual endeavor, I will outline some of the recommendations I would have made if Kurt Cobain was my client.
We know that he suffered from severe stomach pain, was frequently nauseous, suffered from depression, had chronic bronchitis, along with severe scoliosis. He used both food and drugs to sooth his pain. In a rare interview with Kurt, he talks about his stomach problems. He discusses the pain he dealt with in trying to get his meals down and the numerous drugs he tried over the years, to no avail. What I find to be the most interesting part of the interview is the fact that Kurt recognizes the need for a holistic approach; he recognizes the fact that his doctors really had no clue what was wrong with him. He realizes that they are trained to treat symptoms, mainly through the use of drugs. He mentions a new drug (probably Prilosec), which has finally helped give him some relief. Unfortunately, we know that this provided only temporary relief and in the long-term most likely exacerbated his condition. His doctors ultimately classify his issue as an unknown stomach disorder, that is driven primarily by stress a.k.a. IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). It is important to note that all gastrointestinal problems that don’t fall into a particular bucket of predefined diseases (i.e. Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s) are classified as IBS. We also know that there was a wide variety of drug use, but heroine was the most successful in blunting his stomach pain, even if it was only temporary. In a 1992 letter we see further evidence that Kurt did in fact make some nutrition and lifestyle changes. In the letter he writes, “So after protein drinks, becoming a vegetarian, exercise, stopping smoking, and doctor after doctor I decided to relieve my pain with small doses of heroine for a walloping 3 whole weeks”. We will see later why this approach failed to work.
WHAT WAS REALLY WRONG WITH KURT?
With that little bit of information it is fairly clear that the “undisclosed stomach condition” was almost certainly a stomach ulcer (even though Kurt denies this in the above video). It is commonly known that dairy can have a soothing effect when ulcers are present. It is reported that strawberry quick and macaroni and cheese were two of Kurt’s favorite foods. Kurt most likely suffered from a number of other down stream digestive issues as well – dysbiosis, sibo, fungal and parasite infection, gut permeability issues (“leaky gut”) are all possibilities. In the letter above we learn that Kurt tried to become a vegetarian, but found no relief. I am not surprised as vegetables can be particularly problematic when gut health has been compromised, as the high amounts of insoluble fiber can have a “scraping” effect on the lining of the small intestine. Long standing digestive issues of this magnitude can lead to pain, inflammation, a weakened immune system, food sensitivities, vitamin, mineral and essential fatty acid deficiencies, toxicity and an overall lack of vitality. His gut issues were probably a key driver in his state of depression as many of the feel good neurotransmitters are produced in the gut. His gut issues probably led to hormonal issues, adrenal insufficiency and most likely thyroid issues, which I would suspect, were autoimmune in nature. All of these issues put Kurt in a state of constant stress. I often have my clients fill out a number of questionnaires to assess their overall physiological load. The higher the score the more stressed the person and the harder it is for that person to maintain a state of balance or homeostasis. When the body is stressed, even simple acts that should occur without much effort, can be a challenge (i.e. digestion, breathing, thinking, moving). Kurt would most likely have had an extremely high physiological load which was further exacerbated by the pressure of being a celebrity and touring musician.
This is all just speculation and even though we can garner a lot from the little we know, I was taught by my mentor Paul Chek that if you are not assessing you are guessing. I would encourage Kurt to run a number of tests to pinpoint exactly what was going on in his body. Below are some of the tests that I would recommend that Kurt run and why I feel they are important.
H.Pylori – This is probably the single most important test for Kurt. As we have discussed, it is highly likely that he suffered from stomach ulcers. It is now common knowledge that ulcers are almost always caused by a bacterial infection known as H.Pylori. Stress also plays a role, but stress in the absence of H.Pylori is not likely to lead to ulcers. It is fairly straightforward to get rid of H.Pylori, once you know you have it. A variety of herbal protocols are effective along with antibiotics. This step alone could have done “cured” Kurt.
Stomach Acid Levels: It is also highly likely that Kurt was achlorhydric, meaning he was producing little to no stomach acid. Adequate stomach acid is critical as it sets the stage for proper digestion. Normally the stomach is a highly acidic place, so acidic that you can melt a nail. Reduced stomach acid can severely hamper digestion and lead to a number of other digestive issues. H.Pylori plays a major roll here as it can down-regulate stomach acid production. Stress can also reduce stomach acid levels and as we know, Kurt had a variety of internal and external stressors in his life.
Fungal and Parasite Infection: I would have Kurt complete a full GI Panel that looks for fungal infection, yeasts, parasites and bacterial infection. With Kurt’s poor diet, drug use, low stomach acid levels and overall stress we can be fairly certain that he had an overgrowth of pathogenic microbes in his gut. In addition, with his excessive global travel it is very likely that he was exposed to some parasites that have taken residence in his system. Parasites are more common than most people think and you don’t necessarily have to travel abroad to get them. They are in our food, water and in our soil. In a healthy digestive system they will either be killed by our stomach acid or they will pass through our system. If you have low stomach acid and don’t have a properly functioning bowel they can hang around and make a home and rob you of nutrients and your health. P.S. if you have a dog be very careful not to swap spit.
SIBO Breath Test – Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth is very common, especially with people that have low stomach acid and fungal or parasite infection. Most of the bacteria in our gut is supposed to reside in the Large Intestine/Colon. For a variety of reasons this bacteria can migrate to the last section of the small intestine, an area where there is supposed to be a relatively small amount of bacteria. This can result in a variety of issues – digestive disorders, skin problems (i.e. rosacea, hives) and nutrient deficiencies are the most common.
Food Sensitivity Testing – I would choose not to run any food sensitivity testing on Kurt for two reasons. One, I am skeptical of the accuracy of most tests and two, I will be removing most common “problem” foods at the onset of the program (i.e. grains containing gluten, dairy, corn, soy, nuts, chocolate). In the past when I have run these tests on clients and the results come back that they are sensitive to nearly every food they eat, it can stress them out even more. Imagine telling Kurt he was sensitive to dairy and couldn’t have his Strawberry Quick (of course I would come up with a paleo version for him as he transitions). I find it more useful to implement a customized rotation diet along with a gut healing protocol.
Blood Work – I would ask Kurt to get a full round of blood work. Here we are looking for vitamin deficiencies and other markers indicating inflammation, infection, dehydration, sub-optimal liver and kidney function, hormonal issues, etc. I would expect to see high levels of inflammation, signs of infection, very low levels of Vitamin D and Vitamin B12. In addition, there would most likely be some thyroid issues going on as well.
Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis – The last test I would have run on Kurt is a Hair test to measure the levels of various minerals in his body. Kurt was most likely very dehydrated and this would show here (also in the blood tests). In addition, the test measures levels of various toxic substances – mercury, aluminum, copper, arsenic to name a few. If he was dealing with any toxicity whether it be from environmental exposure or a history of dental work (silver/amalgam fillings) that would show here. In addition there is a good chance his key detoxification pathways (liver, kidneys, bowel) were quite backed up which would further prevent the natural detoxification that our body should be doing on regular basis. High levels of heavy metals in your system can be particularly problematic when dealing with gut issues, as mercury for instance can feed certain fungi and yeast. Until you get rid of the underlying toxicity it can be very difficult to balance the gut flora. In addition, high levels of toxicity can contribute to a variety of mood disorders.
So you can tell that even without running the tests above I would have had a pretty good idea where to start with Kurt. My recommendations would revolve mainly around healing Kurt’s gut. I will give a basic outline of my program for Kurt, followed by a more detailed description.
BASIC OUTLINE OF KURT’S PROGRAM
- Define Kurt’s goal/dream/his motivation to change.
- Eradicate H.Pylori (if present) and introduce soothing herbs to help with pain.
- Clean up nutrition program, remove “problem” foods and make sure Kurt is properly hydrated.
- Daily stress management
- Supplemental support to plug any holes, nourish and balance the body.
- Functional Lab Testing to dial-in program and address specific issues.
*Please note that this is just a general overview.There are many nuances involved in the process, which are not possible to discuss in this sort of article.
A BIT MORE DETAIL
- The changes that I would need Kurt to make are major changes. In my experience, lifestyle changes, the kind of changes necessary to restore optimal health are only possible if someone has a clearly defined goal or motivation to change. In my first talk with Kurt I would want to find out what would motivate him enough to make all the changes and stay focused on the program. Things usually get worse before they get better when healing from a deep-rooted health issue and I would need to make sure there was a light at the end of the tunnel that kept Kurt on track. Maybe it was his daughter, maybe it was being healthy and pain-free for the first time in many years, maybe it was wanting to make new music with Nirvana, maybe it was just wanting to hang out at his house in Washington and chill. After I figured out what would motivate Kurt enough to embark on this program I would go deeper into the program.
- Eradicate the potential H.Pylori infection and introduce some herbs and teas that would help with pain, sooth the stomach and support digestion. Incorporate some digestive enzymes and low doses of probiotics to further support digestion.
- I would begin cleaning up Kurt’s nutrition program. He would probably benefit from a low carb paleo type program that included a variety of high quality nutrient dense foods. These foods would begin healing his digestive system while at the same time nourishing and detoxifying his body. Therapeutic diets such as GAPS or SCD might be helpful at some point but would be too aggressive at the onset. I would however ensure that Kurt removes gluten, dairy and a few other problem foods. Lastly, I would ensure that he is drinking enough high quality water.
- I would also begin to incorporate some stress management with Kurt. He seemed like a chill dude but that was probably a front and/or was produced by his drug use. I would want to figure out a natural way for Kurt to become more parasympathetic in nature. As a musician and artist he was probably naturally parasympathetic but his health issues and lifestyle shifted him into a sympathetic state, which he medicated with drugs. I would introduce him to some form of stress management and/or light exercise. Not saying I would ask him to do yoga or Taichi but I would find a stress reduction exercise that worked for him.
- At some point during the process I would begin incorporating supplements which would help restore proper digestive function, digestive enzymes, Betaine HCL, swedish bitters and other nutrients which support proper digestive function (i.e. Zinc). Some targeted supplementation would also be helpful here to address any nutrient deficiencies (b12, Vitamin D, etc.)
- After Kurt started feeling a little better from eating nutrient dense foods, being properly hydrated, and some stress management activities, I would take the necessary steps to address the harder to remove issues that he might be dealing with – Candida, Parasites, Bacterial Overgrowth. This would be done with mostly herbal remedies but in certain instances I would recommend Kurt see his medical doctor about an antibiotic. This process would also involve re-introducing good bacteria into the gut (prebiotics and probiotics). He would need some fairly large doses of probiotics.
In summary, I hope I have highlighted that a holistic approach – one that incorporated nutrition, gut healing, stress management and some simple lab tests could have lead to the permanent “cure” that Kurt spent most of his life looking for. One can only wonder what Kurt would be doing now if he had hooked up with a holistic health practitioner and incorporated even a few of the suggestions above. Just to be clear, I did not know Kurt (I wish I did), I did very little real research on his health condition (a few minutes of googling) and I am not a doctor. These are merely recommendations based on my training, research and experience in dealing with similar issues in both myself and others. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments.