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When asked about Kurt Cobain’s stomach ailments during a Tribeca Film Festival Q & A for Montage of Heck, Courtney Love joked that her long deceased husband had suffered “Cobain’s disease.” I haven’t seen the film, but apparently Cobain’s troubled guts are a running theme in the intimate doc.

Love said he had “serious” issues, even tossing out that he had Crohn’s disease, the first time an actual diagnosis has been named. Biographies usually reference severe gastric issues but claim that the rock icon’s doctors were stumped. Kurt wrote about his stomach ailment often in his journals, and even referenced them in his suicide note. “Thank you all from the pit of my burning, nauseous stomach for your letters and concern during the past years,” he wrote in the farewell letter addressed to his childhood imaginary friend Boddah.

In an unsent letter her wrote to his fans presumably before his serious heroin addiction took hold, Kurt says he used it as a medicine after trying lots of other different things but found it not to be the cure he was looking for. “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[sic} for a walloping three whole weeks,” he wrote. “It served as a band-aid for a while, but then the pain came back, so I quit. It was a stupid thing to do, and I’ll never do it again and I feel real sorry for anyone who thinks they can use heroine[sic] as a medicine because um, duh, it don’t work.”

Although heroin addicts never need a reason beyond the unparalleled, life-sucking bliss the drug transmits to them (at least at first,) there’s been a degree of speculation that Kurt wasn’t only self-medicating depression or malaise with opiates, but also his intense stomach pain. Kurt also had depression, though, and stomach problems including Crohn’s disease and IBS are often linked to depression. Much like depression, the causes of Crohn’s disease are still a mystery to us.

We often think of our moods and emotions as separate from our body, but it’s all tangled together. From our current understanding, Crohn’s doesn’t cause depression, and depression doesn’t cause Crohn’s, but they both exacerbate each other. Our nervous system is integral to both our experience of moods and emotion and how we digest our food. We often compartmentalize our sensations in an attempt to understand ourselves, but it’s all functioning (or dysfunctioning) together. We tend to think of ourselves in terms of our thoughts and our brains, but we are our guts just as much.

If Cobain did suffer from Crohn’s disease, it’s an incredibly painful and debilitating illness. Ulcers and lesions can line the entire GI tract, and the pain and digestive symptoms can swallow up a person’s entire existence. There is a degree of pain and discomfort that we can fight through, that we can be inspired by in a way, and then there is just pain that consumes us and wipes us out.

Montage of Heck is showing in select theaters, and will premiere on HBO May 4. An accompanying book drops the next day.

  • Victoria

    Crohn’s disease was diagnosed in 1932. I’m surprised that doctors in the 90s didn’t recognize this and at least attempt to help Kurt. He self-medicated as he apparently had no other choice; the medical community had no answers for him, but they should have.

    • any_old_username

      I was undiagnosed for years. Having to go to Gt Ormond St to get my diagnosis. That was in the early 90s. It was less common back then and it isn’t an easy one to diagnose as the disease isn’t always aggressive and can remain hidden.

    • Casey Mitchell

      Average time to diagnose Crohns is 4 years. I am a Crohns mentor so i know this for sure!

  • NJRichie

    It would not be uncommon in the 90’s for docs to be stumped. I went through the 80’s into the early 90’s visiting doctor after doctor before finally being referred to a rheumatologist for related recurring joint pain and swelling and was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease after a significant amount of testing.

    • xit

      I work in the medical field for a long time and also took pills and every for of opiates for year…after withdrawing I had stomach issues for about a year. I had an upper gi scan ..ultrasound and nothing…they were able to diagnose crohns disease easily. ..even in the 90’s. I went to hospitals and doctors with no help. Finally a place in Detroit that I went to for rapid detox said to me.. ( after I was complaining about long tern stomach pains and intestinal problems) they were the only ones that told me up to that point. They said of course you have these issues…from years of your intestines absorbing medication and the effects of opiate causing deadening of the intestines you have a lot of discomfort. ..cause bloating and pain and you are afraid to eat. Right now a friend is going through the same thing..he called me last night telling me that he can’t sleep at night because of the pain he is having. After stopping drugs for three month’s now. I had to assure him this will go away. It did for me and it would have for kurt. The other issue is you want to use drugs…so all pain is something you don’t want to feel. If kurt had crohns they would have found it…I’ve been in the medical field for 30 years…the 90’s wasn’t too far where we are today. Last thing..kurt said that he went to many doctors and no one could tell him..I think someone said that to Courtney and it sounds good but crohns would have been one of the first things they thought. It is still diagnosed the same way today..

      • Thanks for this! Opiate use was definitely contributing to the stomach issues, and could have been the main cause.

      • DanSharpIBD

        I don’t know that Kurt had Crohn’s. I’ve never heard or seen any convincing evidence of it. But, you are very misinformed on Crohn’s disease. Even today, it can be difficult to diagnose. Even today, it can take years for a patient to have a definite diagnosis. In the 90’s, it was far less likely that a patient would be diagnosed in a timely manner. This is objectively true, backed by a whole lot of research into the matter.

        What you’ve described throughout your comment, generally speaking, is some type of opiate bowel dysfunction. Chronic opiate can wreak havoc on the digestive system, but it does not cause Inflammatory Bowel Disease (eg Crohn’s disease).

        I’m an Inflammatory Bowel Disease patient advocate. You should be careful about spreading misinformation on a topic you aren’t very familiar with.

      • Barbara Soley Watson

        My daughter, a musician with severe Crohns disease, 2 years ago stated she was sure Kurt had Crohns . The severe pain, bleeding, constant bathrooms trips, and then deep depression from pain and isolation. She writes a lot of music while hospitalized. Crohns is not easily diagnosed but more tests are available now than 15 years ago. Ulcerative Colitis and Crohns are similar in presentation, extra testing is required to diagnose. Treatments are different. There is no know cause or cure for Crohns. Often surgery is needed to remove bleeding inflamed tissue. Permanent colostomy or ileostomy may be needed. Pharmaceuticals have evolved immensely in last 15 years, helping in degrees of some remission although some patients still need more experimental medications to ease symptoms. This cruel disease is growing in numbers impacting some children as young as 1. Research is continuing to find a cure. As always with research, more government funding and donations are needed. Please donate to the Crohns and Colitis Foundation CCFA if able. A giant supporter is Pearl Jams Mike McCready who was diagnosed with Crohns at age 21. He plays an annual concert fundraiser for CCFA. See his bio on Wikipedia.

  • Jen

    After watching the documentary I came away from it thinking he had Asperger’s syndrome. People with autism or Asperger’s frequently have a lot of GI problems. The other signs include all the obsessive drawing aand weird interests, the comment about people being carbon copies of one another, the seemingly contradictory comment about constructing his personality from bits and pieces of other people’s personalities, the lack of interest in hygiene, wanting to be close to people but also wanting to be alone, feeling like an alien, and all the difficult behavior from his childhood on.

    • Forbidden Fruit

      As an Aspie myself, I always thought Kurt seemed autistic in many ways. Glad someone else agrees.

  • Casey Mitchell

    I have had crohns for 9 years, someone here wrote its easy to diagnose, well it took them 4 years (and thats average) to diagnose mine. Its really a screwed disease, sometimes u feel well and other times ur REALLY sick. If Kurt had it, i am so sorry for him. Its painfula dn nasty!

    • Dom

      I know exactly what gastric disease feels like. I’ve been diagnosed with IBS, Chronic Gastritis and Migraines (Basically the doctors admitting they have no clue what’s wrong with me) and wen’t through a really tough period for the past year when I first started feeling the symptoms. I’ve been tested for Crohn’s multiple times but it was not found. Kurt pretty much kept me alive through his similar struggles and music. Wish you all the best with your stomach!

      • Maxi Juarez

        Maybe you are all celiacs. Get your small intestine tested (a biopsy is needed, not only blood test, the biospy you need to get done)

  • Ryan Gittens

    I can totally relate to Kurts illness. I also have been in the same situation with seeing doctor after doctor and not being able to find out what is wrong with my gastrointestinal problems. I suffer with Gastritis, Esophagusitis and IBS and I also have Multiple Peptic Ulcers in the pylori part of my stomach. My flare ups can cause me to be severely debilitated because of the extreme agony from my insides.. if the pain gets bad in my bowels, I can sometimes pass out with the pain. On that note; I’m also a Vegetarian and I do not partake in recreational drugs or do not smoke or drink.. I understand why Kurt would of wanted to commit suicide, this problem can dominate your life and affect your love ones lives as well.

    • Maxi Juarez

      You all make sure you are not celiacs… small intestine biospy is a must.

  • Leeanne Robert Arial Moulton

    It should be noted that Kurt’s stomach problem has NEVER been diagnosed, even after seeing some of the best specialists in the world, he was never given a confirmed diagn

  • Leeanne Robert Arial Moulton

    It should be noted that Kurt’s stomach problem has NEVER been diagnosed, even after seeing some of the best specialists in the world, he was never given a confirmed diagnosis. His case is, in fact, SO rare that in medical schools with his name taken off the file and either given a “John Doe” or number of some sort, they are still studying and debating it to this day. How cocky must we, and that b**** Courtney to think that we could somehow diagnose something experts couldn’t. I have serious problems with my stomach, many of which match Kurt’s but I’m not so narcissistic as to think that I, above all these other specialists, know what he had.

    • joão da silva

      I have Crohn’s. I’m 44 ys now. My first event was when I was 29. I saw more than 30 doctors, surfered since my childhood with fistulas and abscesses, extensive mouth sores, throat ulcers several times I was hospitalized (including in unversity hospitals). All of the specialists that saw me NEVER helped me. Only when I had a VERY strong event, that made my body entered in almost total collapse, facing the death in a hospital room, with a sepsis, only after this, I’ve been diagnosed with a rare and severe form of Crohn’s. Today, I am well, after took all meds that exists to treat Crohn’s (and large amouts of morphine….). So, I think is percfectly possible that Kurt’s gut troubles was a form of Crohn’s Disease

      • Leeanne Robert Arial Moulton

        I’m sorry that it took you so long to get a diagnosis and took something so extreme to do so. I re-read my comment and it’s a little more harsh than what my actual opinion is, having evaluated everything over the years. I’m not sure what I was upset about at the time (in all honesty, it could have even been my own stomach pains). I take some issue with, Courtney and the whole presentation of her relationship and what she may think Kurt’s stomach issues stem from. I definitely didn’t mean to make it sound like specialists are infallible or sing their praises, as my own stomach condition has continued to go undiagnosed and I’ve dealt with specialists for this and other issues, so I should have also thought to mention that by no means, do they sometimes even do their job properly. However, it should also be acknowledged that Kurt probably had a lot more access than your average person, even those that have seen a large amount of specialists. He had access to worldwide doctors and specialists, which, probably at least gave him a wider variety of opinions to work with.
        My issues are basically 2 or 3. Like I said, I take issue with where the information is sited (MOH and Courtney, herself) and that while it IS entirely possible that he had Crohn’s, I have also seen many theories or people that relate to his pain from irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance (and poor diet) to even the very way he got his trademark gutteral scream, screaming directly from his gut instead of his diaphragm which, people theorize if he had done the latter with professional lessons, may have left him in far less pain. Any of these things are possible. People look up to Kurt, I’m sure it might even make some people feel better to feel like at least it’s something they share with him. I mean, it’s pain, chronic pain, and as a sufferer (I suffer from multiple issues in my stomach to my uterus, nerve damage and no clear diagnosis other than the nerve pain was brought on by an attack…) I know you take comfort where you can.
        The fact that Kurt’s stomach problems are still being studied to this day, is something I think should be noted in any article which contains an opinion about his diagnosis, lactose intolerance, Crohn’s or otherwise. It should be noted at the top of an article, or asterisks or wherever. Maybe I’m a little protective of Kurt but, I feel like there’s enough misinformation about who he was without adding his stomach to the mix, however, the possibility IS there and if people can relate to that, I think it’s good. I’ll admit, it bothers me that Courtney Love “throws out” the idea that he had Crohn’s much like she threw out the idea the he killed himself and for those that believe he ended his life, to this day, I would hate for them to think as that or heroin (even though sometimes strong opiates can be one of the only answers) take that as THEIR route to escape the pain. I, for one, have never read Kurt’s journals, nor do I intend to, however I do know that the idea that he quit smoking and changed his diet radically is highly contested by those that knew him. Peace, love, empathy and hope that those of you seeking solace from pain or someone to relate to can maybe find it here but also, I know a lot of people who take things written like this as fact and that’s where cautioun needs to come in. It also, should NEVER take being near death to get a proper diagnosis from a doctor.

        • Miaoiu

          That was over 20 years ago, I
          Am in med school, I get to read a lot of information from
          Different countries. Do you know how commun misdiagnosis is ?
          It is the scariest thing ever !
          If I gave you the stats you would not believe it.
          When science does not know enough, the best doctors in the world Will not do much. They just do not know but they hate to say they don’t.

          • AS1124

            please contact me. I need to ask you some questions off line. Very urgent.thankyou!

      • Miaoiu

        Hello, That´s hell, you are describing here my friend…. . How long has it been since it is under control ? Was cobain ever tested? Do you have that in Your family ?

      • Forbidden Fruit

        I didn’t think so at first, but then I read that Crohn’s isn’t simply a bowel disease and can affect any portion of the GI tract from mouth to anus. So it could’ve absolutely caused problems in Kurt’s stomach. I wonder how much was known about Crohn’s back in the early ’90s?

    • Miaoiu

      Well courtney knew her child was going to be well despite the heroin use at the beginning, she knows about everything. A friend of my older brother had a baby, she only did heroin once during her pregnancy (that is the truth, only one time), her child is missing two fingers. The doctors said she must have done it at a (more) critical time during the pregnancy and every baby is different.

    • Forbidden Fruit

      How do you know that about his file being used in medical school? I’ve never heard that before. From my understanding, it’s not uncommon at all for doctors to not be able to diagnose GI conditions and to simply label them “IBS” (as they did with Kurt). What was so rare about his case? Were H. Pylori tests even available back then?

      Hope you’ll answer, as I’m genuinely curious. Not trying to be a snot 🙂

  • Forbidden Fruit

    It would’ve had to be Crohn’s of the stomach rather than the bowel, since that’s where the “red irritation” and pain originated. I know Crohn’s can happen anywhere “from mouth to anus” but stomach Crohn’s is more rare.

    One thing I noticed is Kurt said his mom had the same problems with her stomach. H. Pylori is often passed from mother to child by premastication (pre-chewing) of food for a baby or by other daily activities, and it can sometimes cause the “irritations” or red patches in the stomach that Kurt spoke of. I know smoking cigarettes is horrible for ulcers because it increases acid production while reducing bicarbonate in the stomach, so this would’ve made it much worse. And smoking has been listed as a possible risk factor for both developing and worsening of Crohn’s.

    The heroin came into the picture years after the stomach thing started, so that’s really not relevant. Kurt was always underweight, pale & sickly looking even before he was an addict. (Though I’m sure heroin withdrawal doesn’t exactly soothe the GI tract, lol).