WNBA Player Lexie Brown Isn’t Letting Crohn’s Keep Her from Competing. Here’s How.

Most mornings these days, professional basketball player Lexie Brown heads into the pink lights of her Pilates studio to build strength without bearing the load of heavy dumbbells. Swapping weight training for Pilates is one of the many life changes she’s made since she got the biggest life change of all: a Crohn’s disease diagnosis at the age of 29, five years into her professional basketball career with the WNBA and Athletes Unlimited.

“Around this time last year is when everything started falling apart,” Brown says of the Crohn’s symptoms that began in the middle of her WNBA season with the L.A. Sparks, in May 2023. “Now, a little bit less than a year later, I’m feeling healthy, feeling amazing, and starting the season with no pain, no issues. It is just such a blessing.”

But it’s been a rocky road of medical treatment and self-care to get to the place of being a healthy, working athlete with Crohn’s, and one that Brown knows she’ll have to walk for the rest of her life.

Crohn’s is an Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) with no cure or known cause that affects an estimated 750,000 people in the U.S., according to the Cleveland Clinic. Categorized as an autoimmune disease, it most commonly comes on in early adulthood, either gradually or all of a sudden, as in Brown’s case. The inflammation in the intestines, bowel, and colon can cause severe pain, diarrhea, bleeding, anemia, and more.

Brown first told the story of being an athlete with Crohn’s, including her symptom onset and eventual diagnosis six months later, to her WNBA offseason league, Athletes Unlimited. Her earliest symptoms included feeling tired and drained, which was uncharacteristic for the athlete who worked out two or three times a day and was racking up more and more minutes of pro basketball playing time.

She then started experiencing extreme pain and distress when she went to the bathroom, and her life began involving constant calculations of when and how she could go to the bathroom (for what she described as a “traumatic,” excruciating experience) in order to make it to workouts and onto the court. The situation became untenable within weeks, and after barely making it through one final game, she decided to seek treatment.

The situation became untenable within weeks, and after barely making it through one final game, she decided to seek treatment.

“I just kept trying to push through games, and then I finally got to a game where it affected how I played, which in turn would affect the outcome of the game, which is me letting the team down ultimately,” Brown says. “So that’s when I broke down. It was like, okay, I need some help. I need some real help. And then I was in surgery two days after that game.”

It turned out that Brown had two fistulas (or bacteria-filled tunnels in her intestines) that were causing her to be nearly septic. She needed emergency surgery and went on leave amid rumors and criticism about her decision to pause her season. But Brown did not have any answers to give the public—the doctors weren’t sure what was causing the fistulas yet. So she spent the next few months in and out of doctor appointments, otherwise afraid to leave the house.

Finally, in November, Brown received her Crohn’s diagnosis. She was overcome with relief, but she still had a lot of work to do to figure out how to live with the condition as an athlete with Crohn’s.

“I’ve heard some stories and I read stories about how people would just be turned away, misdiagnosed, undiagnosed for months or years, and I just am so grateful of the care and support I’ve been getting,” Brown says. At the same time that she’s grateful for treatment, being an athlete with Crohn’s is an undeniable challenge.

“There’s very little information about how to upkeep an athletic and super active lifestyle, which is where I hope that I’m able to provide some insight for people that think that it’s not possible to live a very active lifestyle while dealing with stuff like this,” she says.

There is no blanket approach to treating Crohn’s, because what irritates some people might be just fine for others. So at the same time that she’s receiving medical treatment via an IV infusion at the hospital to manage the inflammation, Brown has had to pay attention to her triggers, which has meant making changes to her routine and her attitude.

How Lexie Brown competes as an athlete with Crohn’s

1. She pays attention to her body

Eggs were one of Brown’s favorite foods, but she realized they really, really did not sit well with her. She had to bid eggs farewell for the time being, and keep tuning in and connecting the dots between her lifestyle choices and her digestive health. That also includes resting when she needs to rest.

“It’s been a learning experience, it’s been a process,” Brown says. “That has been one of the biggest lifestyle changes for me is if my body is exhausted, I don’t feel like I need to push past this level of exhaustion anymore. And that was a huge mental hurdle for me.”

2. She does more Pilates, less weight training

High-impact exercises can trigger IBS symptoms, which meant that the lurch-y up and downs and intra-abdominal pressure of weight lifting were not a great fit for Brown anymore. However, maintaining strength was important to Brown, so she increased the amount of Pilates she practiced instead.

“I’ve been doing Pilates for a few years now, but this past year is when I really started loving it and doing it three, four or five times a week because that’s the way to hold my core and my strength without having to do so much heavy lifting,” Brown explains.

3. She game plans her meals

The bathroom can still be a battle for Brown, so she eats with the needs of her digestive system, and what she’s actually going to be doing that day, in mind.

“If I know I’m about to have a long day and maybe not having time to go home, I will eat tiny meals or stick to smoothies or something like that,” Brown says. “If I know I’m going to be able to be at home, that’s when I’ll be able to have my larger meals.”

4. She communicates

Being real with herself, her doctors, her teammates, and her coaches about what’s going on with her body and her energy helps Brown stay on top of her training and her health at the same time.

“The biggest thing for me is that I have to communicate how I’m feeling and let them know,” Brown says. “I am not always going to be able to control how my body reacts to something, but if I’m not feeling up for it, then I just need to just over communicate that.”

5. She lets go of shame as a person and an athlete with Crohn’s

Because of the bathroom element of Crohn’s, it can be uncomfortable to talk about and plan around. But that’s why it was so important to Brown to share her story.

“I decided to be more vocal about my Crohn’s diagnosis and dealing with this, because I don’t want people to feel embarrassed about dealing with stuff like this, or I don’t want them to feel like they’re alone, which was kind of how I felt for a little bit,” Brown says. “I felt it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders after I was able to publicly come out and say what my diagnosis was. And I just feel like you can’t move past the diagnosis, you can’t learn and grow and figure out how to live life the way you want to, unless you have that weight off your shoulder. So give yourself grace, and don’t be ashamed.”

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