I can't pinpoint when I first started feeling sick.
In the past few months, I went from feeling not quite myself to struggling with daily pain and problems.
I battled digestion problems, which worsened into severe abdominal cramps, gas, bloating and nausea. Then came headaches, chronic sinus infections, hives, extreme fatigue, skin changes and painful body aches.
Brain fog felt more like mud that had been poured onto my skull. My mind was working, only slower and with fatigue, a slippery state for someone whose life revolves around words.
I decided to change my diet. I ate healthier by adding more whole grains. I tried to appease stomach upsets with cinnamon toast, crackers and more fiber-rich foods.
I plugged through each day and hoped the new medicine or lifestyle change would finally resolve the umpteenth sinus problem or stomachache.
The problems became more than an inconvenience; they were affecting my career and family.
My mama lion pride pulled me through our son’s special events and middle school graduation. My husband stepped up to ease my worries when possible.
If you’ve ever dealt with a health problem, you’ve probably run into the well-meaning friend who knows a friend of a friend's neighbor who had the exact same symptoms. Right before the person died of some horrible disease.
Fortunately, I missed the terrible stories. I finally found the answer after hearing from a couple of friends with symptoms eerily close to mine.
After consulting with my doctor, I was diagnosed with celiac disease.
1 in 133 Have Celiac Disease
It turns out that increasing your intake of whole grains isn’t part of a healthy lifestyle if your body can't tolerate gluten.
The disease is more common than you may realize.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one in 133 people have celiac disease. It can occur at any age and affects men, women and children. More than 97 percent of people who have the disease are undiagnosed.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, in which the body attacks itself.
For people with the disease, the small intestine is unable to process gluten, the protein molecule found in wheat, oats, barley and rye.
In addition to those grains, gluten can be hidden in thickeners for sauces, processed foods, soups, salad dressings and more.
Hidden gluten can be found in product ingredients (food, vitamins and medications), labeled as unidentified starch, binders, fillers, extenders and malt.
Gluten is the protein that preserves moisture and prevents foods from falling apart. It also helps breads, muffins and other bakery goods to rise.
Normally, our intestine uses small, hairlike villi to absorb nutrients. For those with the disease, the villi are damaged and unable to absorb nutrients from food.
Left undiagnosed, the disease can cause severe intestinal damage, nutritional deficiencies and the development of other health problems.
Tests, Symptoms, Family History Can Help Identify Disease
Celiac disease can be associated with other autoimmune diseases, such as insulin-dependent type 1 diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Turner syndrome and more.
It can also be associated with people who suffer from fibromyalgia, Down syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Symptoms vary and often include gastrointestinal effects, but not always.
Research shows the disease has a genetic predisposition. When one person is diagnosed, other family members should consider testing.
Testing initially involves blood tests to see if you have an intolerance, allergy or the disease itself. You may need to undergo a biopsy to determine whether your intestines show villi damage.
Some people may have similar symptoms without having celiac disease. They may be allergic to wheat or intolerant of gluten.
Gluten-Free Diet Comes With Trade-Offs
It’s not advisable to eat gluten-free if you don’t have celiac disease, a gluten allergy or intolerance. The diet typically lacks fiber and nutrients that must be supplemented.
Gluten-free eating has been on an upswing recently with news of celebrities using it as a weight-loss diet.
For those with the disease or a gluten intolerance, gluten-free diets are a lifeline to better health.
With an increased awareness of celiac disease, more gluten-free foods are being made, and many have as much flavor as the gluten-filled counterparts.
For gluten-free living, look for gluten-free restaurants and check local grocery stores for gluten-free products. Support groups are available in person and online.
As my body heals, I'm paying close attention to nutrition: increasing important vitamins, minerals and fiber. I plan to take additional tests to see if I have any other food allergies.
Researching foods is the first big challenge, especially in hunting for foods that don't have hidden gluten.
Overall, the diagnosis has been a positive experience.
I've found new friends, helpful resources, great new dishes and foods that are delicious and make me feel good.
How to Get Help
Gluten Intolerance Support Group of St. Petersburg offers help to those with celiac disease.
The following are common symptoms of celiac disease:
- Abdominal cramping
- Intestinal gas
- Distention and bloating of the stomach
- Chronic diarrhea or constipation (or both)
- Unexplained anemia due to folic acid, B12 or iron deficiency (or a combination of all)
- Unexplained weight loss with large appetite
- Unexplained weight gain
Other symptoms can include osteopenia, osteoporosis, bone or joint pain, fatigue, weakness, lack of energy, depression, mouth ulcers, tingling or numbness in hands or feet and migraine headaches.
Resources for gluten-free living:
- Celiac Disease Foundation
- The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness
- American Celiac Disease Alliance
- The National Foundation for Celiac Disease Awareness (on Facebook)
- Federal Drug Administration
- Gluten Freely (General Mills' resource for information, foods and recipes)
- Gluten Free: Celiac Forum (for celiacs and people with gluten or wheat intolerance)
- Spark Gluten Free Group
- Gluten Free Tampa Bay (also lists gluten-free restaurants in the Tampa Bay area)
- Udi's Gluten Free on Facebook
- Gluten Free on a Shoestring (Facebook page)
- Gluten Free Ideas (Facebook page)