Melanie had been feeling out of sorts for years. No matter how well she slept, she was often fatigued. She had frequent headaches. She had diarrhea so often, she figured it was just how her body worked. She wryly said that she knew where every bathroom in town was located.
Although an upbeat person by nature, it was hard for her to be happy when she felt bad so often. Nonetheless, some days were better than others. She was determined not to let how she felt physically get her down.
Mel had been going to doctors for years to try to get an answer. Diagnoses included irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), migraine, lactose intolerance, anxiety and depression. Interventions helped her live with the symptoms but didn’t offer a cure. Then one day a friend suggested to her that just maybe she had celiac disease.
“What’s that?” she wondered. So, she started searching the web. Once she landed on the site of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, she was both relieved and concerned. Yes, she could check off almost every symptom. Finally. Maybe she had an answer. But the “cure” meant a major lifestyle change.
Celiac is an autoimmune disorder that is set off by gluten, a substance found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt. Gluten causes damage to the villi in the small intestine. Those villi help make it possible for the body to digest and absorb the nutrients from food. When damaged, diarrhea and constipation often result. Despite eating well, Melanie’s body was not getting enough nutrition. That explained her fatigue and difficulty maintaining a healthy weight.
Melanie is not alone in her distress from the disorder. One in 133 Americans are thought to be suffering from it. Yes, that’s only about 0.75 percent of the population, but it’s still a substantial number of people. Frankly, if you’re one of those people, you don’t care that you’re in a minority. You just want the symptoms to stop.
It is estimated that over 80 percent of the people who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Sadly, it’s been reported that it can take the average person from six to 10 years to get an accurate diagnosis.
It’s important to get a diagnosis. Left untreated, not only is the person miserable, but the disease can lead to osteoporosis, thyroid problems, infertility and even some kinds of cancers.
If you suspect you may have celiac disease, see your doctor. It does run in families, so if you have a close relative who has already been diagnosed, be sure to share that information. A blood test and perhaps a biopsy of the small intestine can confirm whether you are correct.
If you have questionable results, another simple test is simply to go off gluten for a month and see what happens. Some people are gluten-sensitive but don’t test positive for celiac disease. If your symptoms decrease and you feel better, that may be “diagnosis” enough.
There is no known cure at this time. There is no pill or syrup or surgery that will prevent or repair the damage. But there is a way to manage it.
Since the problem is caused by eating gluten, a gluten-free diet can change your life. It’s not easy. It means giving up bread and pasta and cakes and pies. It means that pizza and most fried and fast foods are things of the past. Gluten-free means exactly that — no gluten. None.
People who have started and stayed on the diet report that they feel healthier, are more energetic and are in better spirits. They also often report that cheating even a little — with a bite of pizza or just “a little” cake or trying to eat fried food by scraping off the flour coating — can send them right to the bathroom or make them break out in hives. They soon learn that it isn’t worth it.
Fortunately, the food industry is now responding. Gluten-free products, once only found in health food stores and natural food co-ops, are now making their way to your local grocery store. Gluten-free options can now be found on many restaurant menus. Some pizza shops are even making gluten-free pies.
Eating gluten-free means finding substitutions for things that contain gluten. Rice flour often works well in place of wheat flour as a thickener. There are pastas on the market that are made from corn or rice flour. If you want crackers or snacks, stick to those made from potatoes, rice and corn. If you focus on what you can have (fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and chicken, potatoes, rice, quinoa, nuts and soybeans) instead of what you can’t, you really can take good care of yourself.
Melanie is a success story. After a month on a gluten-free diet, she felt much, much better. She no longer had stomachaches or symptoms of depression. The frequency of headaches was way, way down. She no longer had to think about bathroom locations before she could go out for dinner. She’s learning to make jokes with waitstaff about being “high maintenance” when she orders food at restaurants or when friends invite her over for dinner. Most people understand. Sometimes she brings her own food to family and friend events. Yes, she says, staying gluten-free can be inconvenient at times. But being symptom-free is its own reward.