Forgoing Daily Bread
Celiac disease: happiness is a new diet
by Katie Byers
Published in Huntsville, AL local spotlight
Jeana Swaim began having stomach pains about six years ago. She couldn’t figure out what triggered them, but as a nurse and busy mother of five, she didn’t have time to worry too much about them. Then her symptoms started to snowball. Over the next year and a half, she lost nearly half her body weight and became pale and fatigued. She was hospitalized four times for anemia and had a hysterectomy and bone marrow biopsy before she finally found a doctor who pinpointed her problem: celiac disease.
“I was completely freaked out,” Swaim recalls. “I had never heard of it, and nobody in my family had it.”
Once considered a relatively rare condition, celiac disease occurs in as many as one in every 150 people, particularly Caucasians, says Dr. Prasad Vankineni, a Huntsville gastroenterologist. “People are generally unaware of this disease,” says Dr. Vankineni, who diagnoses about three or four cases a year. “It takes time for a diagnosis because many patients do not present classic symptoms.”
People who have celiac disease can’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. When they ingest gluten--which can be found in anything from bread to pasta to envelope adhesive--it triggers an autoimmune response that damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients in food. It often causes chronic diarrhea, gas, bloating, and abdominal pain. People with celiac disease can wait years for a diagnosis because the symptoms are so varied and similar to those of other diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome, iron-deficiency anemia, and Crohn’s disease. A blood test and a small bowel biopsy are used to test for celiac disease.
A Lifestyle Adjustment
The only treatment for the disease is a lifelong gluten-free diet. But it can be a difficult adjustment. Swaim, 44, lost even more weight because she was afraid to eat. Her low point came when she reached into her pocket for some lip balm, only to read the label and discover it contained gluten. “I said, ‘I can’t even have my lip gloss,’” she recalls. “I started crying and threw it in the trash.”
But three weeks into the new diet, she started noticing changes. First, her feet and heels stopped hurting. Then everything started feeling better--she had more energy, and the rash on her arm and the scabs on her scalp disappeared after she switched to gluten-free shampoo and makeup. “So many things started getting better that I got psyched about it,” says Swaim, who lives in Athens. She attended a gluten-free conference and came back so enthused that she formed a local support group, the Gluten Intolerance Group of North Alabama. The group meets monthly and shares information about new research, recipes, gluten-free products, and restaurants offering gluten-free menus. Members also learn where to shop for gluten-free foods, such as Garden Cove Produce in Huntsville. Now, when newcomers attend the group, Swaim starts by warning them away from three key culprits: communion wafers, stamps and envelopes (the adhesive has concentrated gluten), and salad dressing.
Often the biggest challenge for celiac patients is eating out. “As long as I’m eating at home, I’m fine,” says Shirley Holt, 59, who was diagnosed with celiac disease four years ago. “Going on trips or going to the Southern pot luck--that’s where the pressure is on. It’s embarrassing to ask, ‘What is in your dish?’”
Because celiac disease runs in families, Dr. Vankineni encourages patients to have family members tested. He also advises testing for those experiencing vague abdominal symptoms (such as diarrhea or bloating), fatigue with or without iron-deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, thyroid disease, abnormal liver functions, and Type 1 diabetes.
Swaim has discovered that her son likely will have the disease one day, though he is not showing symptoms and doesn’t follow a gluten-free diet yet. But she’s not as nervous about him having to adjust his diet as she once was about herself. As a support-group leader, she regularly receives panicked calls and e-mails from those recently diagnosed with celiac disease. “You can’t let this disease cripple you,” is her advice. “Once you get adjusted to the diet, it’s really not all that bad. You replace the food you love with things you can eat. It’s not this big scary thing after awhile. The people I see with this are bright, healthy, and happy. You can tweak your life to make it work, and move on.”
The Gluten Intolerance Group of North Alabama meets in Huntsville every fourth Saturday at 4 p.m. For information about the group, e-mail Jeana Swaim at email@example.com.
KNOWLEDGE = POWER. BODY = TEMPLE. FOOD = MEDICINE. PREVENTION IS THE CURE. YOU ARE WHAT YOU ABSORB!
One person's food is another person's poison.
Celiac Disease: An autoimmune reaction from eating gluten grains: wheat, rye, barley and contaminated oats=nutrient deficiency=cancer. Have 1 of 300 symptoms? bit.ly/cdsymptoms
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|3,001 Days since: gluten