CELIAC DISEASE, A BLESSING
GLUTEN IS AN ALIEN LIFE FORM
Dorothy J. Chambers
Celiac disease, the result of a serious immune reaction to gluten, has increased dramatically in the last half century according to recent research by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
I am one of those statistics. About two years ago, after surgery for a spinal problem, a breast cancer scare that proved to be an error, and in the midst of my mother’s final decline, I developed serious gastrointestinal issues.
As in, whatever I ate produced the feeling I had swallowed the Alien from the movie of the same name. And the monster was attempting to crawl out through my chest wall. Furthermore, unlike Sigourney Weaver, I did not have the strength to fight the Alien if it should emerge. I was fatigued. Every body part, even my eyes, hurt.
The first episode occurred after eating Mexican food at a new restaurant. I considered the usual suspects. But food poisoning was unlikely given my then three-year-old granddaughter had been eating off my plate and was as bubbly and healthy as ever.
Repeated doctor visits and medical tests indicated a stomach irritation and the appearance of some tell-tale signs of celiac disease. However, the biopsies for ulcer and celiac came back negative, as did the test for reflux. The doctor suggested, since celiac disease would mean a major life-style change, we should first try to rule out other things. He put me on an expensive acid reducer, of which my insurance company reluctantly reimbursed a portion. The doctor also suggested a low-acid diet, which I followed. All to no avail. I continued to feel as if the Alien had taken up residence in my chest cavity and I was barely crawling through my life.
Of course, I denied any of my stomach problems could be the result of stress or the fact I was making regular long distance trips to visit my dying mother while I still had not fully recovered from the problems necessitating the spinal surgery. But with all the things going on in my life, my psychologist-husband thought stress as a possible cause should not be overlooked. I figured, of course, what would a psychologist-husband say?
After several months, the medications and low acid diet still did not show any results except my getting closer to meeting my deductible. My gastroenterologist suggested I try a gluten-free diet. Even though the biopsy had not confirmed celiac disease, he said the best way to find out if gluten was the culprit was to avoid eating gluten. I said, “What, no medication, no magic pill to cure celiac disease, if that is what this is?”
His reply was “No. It is entirely treated with a gluten-free diet.” The doctor suggested I check on-line and I would find plenty of information about celiac and gluten-free eating. I thought I knew what gluten free meant and stopped eating bread, pasta, and anything with wheat obviously in it. I followed that diet for two weeks. I still felt awful. The only good thing was I was losing weight. I was afraid to eat anything because everything I ate fed the Alien life-form within me.
So, I did what I should have done to start with. I undertook more thorough research on gluten. Turns out gluten free does not just mean no pasta and bread. Gluten, a protein found in wheat and other common grains, is in almost everything packaged or canned, unless it specifically says “Gluten Free”. Campbell’s canned chicken broth contains gluten. As do many salad dressings, sauces, mixes, soy sauce, vinegars, beer, alcohol….You name it. If it comes in a box, can, or jar and does not say “gluten free” it probably contains gluten. So again, I began a two week gluten-free trial. But, this time, it really was gluten free.
After two weeks I still did not feel well. But I was so desperate I kept with the gluten-free diet another week. And I finally started to feel better. Along with feeling better came the realization that I did, in fact, have celiac disease. For the first week I let self pity wash over me: mourning the pizza, cakes, sweet rolls, bagels and fresh breads I would never eat again. However, the self pity did not last long. The longer I avoided all gluten the better I started to feel.
Contrary to some of the hand-wringing, hardship accounts of living with celiac disease, and my doctor’s prediction of how difficult it would be to eat a gluten-free diet, I learned in a relatively short time to love the gluten-free life. You may have heard people say illness or difficulties can turn out to be a blessing. Yeah, I know, the amazing power of rationalization. So you probably think that is what is going with me when I say, I’ve never been healthier than since I “came down” with celiac disease, had it diagnosed and changed my diet to gluten-free foods. But it is true.
There are gluten-free mixes, breads and pastas. The pastas are ok but the breads for the most part are unpalatable. Rather, I have learned the easiest way to eat gluten free is to prepare my own food. Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten free. Meat, fish, rice and many other foods are gluten free, delicious, and can be easily and simply prepared. Not only are the meals I prepare gluten free, but they are lower in sodium, which recent reports indicate is vastly over-represented in the typical American diet. I now often and easily fix meals with fresh ingredients, even fresh herbs and spices, but without excessive salt, added preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, or excessive or unhealthy fats. And the food tastes better.
You might think dining out is a problem. I have found, on the contrary, most restaurants readily will serve a gluten-free meal: fish or meat, simply grilled, with vegetables and salad, leaving off the extra sauces. I just need to make the request and make clear gluten is a serious health issue for me, even in trace amounts.
In my research about this autoimmune disease, I have learned there is much more gluten in our diets now than there was a generation ago. People of northern European ancestry often have a predisposition towards developing celiac. Times of stress, physical or emotional, frequently will trigger the development of celiac. (So, much as it pains me to admit, my psychologist-husband was right.)
Once you have celiac disease the only treatment is a gluten-free diet. Untreated celiac disease can produce a variety of symptoms and serious health issues. And the average time from onset to diagnosis is often much longer than the six months it took to identify my illness.
Now, after more than a year on a gluten-free diet I have never felt better. I have easily maintained the weight loss even though I eat an abundance and variety of foods: fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, and dairy. Not only can I walk in the park, swim laps at the pool and keep up with an exercise class, but I ENJOY those activities and fully partaking of life’s adventures. Perhaps coincidentally or perhaps the combination of weight loss, increased exercise and a more healthful diet, but my blood pressure has dropped so dramatically my internist has taken me off the two medications for hypertension she previously had prescribed.
I count myself lucky to be one of the “sufferers” of celiac who has immediate and strongly adverse symptoms to gluten. As a result, I have no desire to cheat on my gluten-free diet. A bite of even the most wonderful bread or donut does not compare with how good it is to feel strong and healthy. How much nicer it is to have celiac disease. Really.