By Jennifer Pushic — Pediatric Alliance, Chartiers/McMurray Division
I was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of 29. I was lucky, I suppose, because I had the classic symptoms of celiac, which include stomach pain, bloating, cramps and diarrhea. I say “lucky” because there are many other strange ways in which celiac can present itself: Skin rashes, confusion, tiredness, depression, infertility, anemia, weight loss, hair loss … the list goes on and on. And with those vague symptoms, it can be very hard for doctors to pinpoint a diagnosis.
It all started for me with the pregnancy of my second child. I suddenly had the most intense cravings for carbs. This was strange to me because I have never liked bread or pasta very much. I can remember being a little kid and my mom would make spaghetti for the family. She would reserve a little bowl of meat sauce for me minus the noodles, while the rest of the family would eat the pasta.
The moment my son was born I knew my insides had taken a turn for the worse. I assumed it was the c-section plus all the stress of a new baby in the home, so I ignored my frequent trips to the bathroom and constant feelings of nausea. Then on came his colic. I wasn’t eating or sleeping with his constant crying so the last thing on my mind was my own health. It wasn’t until 4 months later, after explaining my symptoms to a co-worker, when she turned to me and said: “Your symptoms sound exactly like my daughter in-law. She has celiac.” There it was, my light bulb moment!
I made an appointment with my doctor, told her all my symptoms, was prescribed an anti-anxiety medicine, and sent on my way. Not exactly the fix I needed! My symptoms continued and I was drastically losing weight. In 4 months I had lost all my baby weight plus 10 pounds. I went back to the doctor, sat down in the exam room, and said: “Please test me for celiac.” She sent me to the lab and called back 2 days later to tell me: “Your antibodies for celiac were sky high. You have celiac. The only treatment is a gluten-free diet for life.” Ok, you’re thinking this can’t be too bad for a person with a natural aversion to bread and pasta, but think again.
The culprit in celiac disease is gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Celiac is an autoimmune disease in which your body wrongly accuses those proteins as invaders. It causes your small intestine to attack itself. It will literally do enough damage to completely strip the lining of your intestines, which will inhibit the absorption of vital nutrients.
So now I have to find out the ingredients in every single thing that I eat. Think about that again: every single thing. So when your friend offers you a piece of gum, you have to think: “Is it gluten-free?” When you eat lunch at a restaurant you have to explain your “allergy” to the waiter, hoping he doesn’t go in the kitchen and roll his eyes at the crazy lady who can’t have flour. And here’s the worst one: When you kiss your children you have to think: “Did I wipe that grilled cheese off their face well enough?” Because when you have celiac, just one crumb can cause damage to your body. So it isn’t just foods made with gluten. It’s foods made next to gluten, or even in the same room as gluten! Cross contamination is a major problem. Bakeries are a no-no. Flour becomes airborne and settles onto every single surface, including any uncovered food item. Shared kitchen equipment like utensils, pots and pans are also unsafe.
Being gluten-free may be a fad weight loss diet for some, but for those of us with celiac it is a necessarily strict diet for the rest of our lives. No mistakes, no cheating, no gluten, ever! I have just begun this journey and I have much further to go. As a genetic disease, I have my kids to worry about. Will they be able to eat cafeteria food at school? Will I have to send them with a slice of “special cake” to their friend’s birthday party? Will they feel normal? I will have them genetically tested when they turn 3. For my daughter that is only days away. I’m anxious. If she doesn’t have the gene she has almost no chance of getting it. I worry about that every day.
But for myself, I’ve been gluten-free for almost a year now and the difference is remarkable. My intestines have begun to heal, and my body is now functioning normally as long as it stays away from any and all gluten. I’ve learned to appreciate the greatness of a home-cooked meal: Not only do I save money and eat healthier, I know my meal is not contaminated. And that is priceless to me!
Great links for celiacs:
http://www.celiac.com/categories/Safe-Gluten%252dFree-Food-List-%7B47%7D-Unsafe-Foods-%26amp%3B-Ingredients/ – Includes an up-to-date list of safe and unsafe foods.
http://www.triumphdining.com/volusion/stickers – Gluten-free sticker kit. Keep shared food environments safe for gluten-free with clear warnings and reminders.
http://www.findmeglutenfree.com/ – Gluten-free restaurant finder.