Getting The Gluten Out

It started with what I assumed was food poisoning, but days later, the nausea and lack of appetite were still lingering. I have always been hypervigilant about my health, so I made an appointment with my doctor. A nurse practitioner immediately sent me for an abdominal ultrasound. That was the beginning of a rapid series of appointments, tests, Internet searches and frustration before I was finally diagnosed through a biopsy with celiac disease, also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy.

I was shocked to learn that I could suddenly develop celiac disease at age 32, but after doing some reading I found out that some people carry the gene for years without symptoms before it gets triggered by a stressful event, like a virus. I knew that I had to cut gluten out of my diet completely, but I didn't even know what gluten was. Luckily, I live near Baltimore, where the Center for Celiac Research is located at the University of Maryland. I quickly made an appointment with Dr. Alessio Fasano, a world-renowned expert in celiac disease, and his wonderful team of nurses and dieticians. They quickly assessed my nutritional needs and explained I'd have to cut out all sources of gluten, both obvious and hidden, from my diet. I also learned that I needed to be aware of cross-contamination, a real concern in a house with carb-obsessed toddlers.

After leaving this first appointment, I realized just what an impact having celiac disease would have on my family and me. Would we be able to go out to dinner? Would I have to cook separate meals? Would I become one of the (gluten-free) granola people who only shopped at small health-food stores? Would I become anxious and afraid to eat out with friends?

It only took a few weeks to realize that the world is slowly becoming more aware and accepting of celiac disease. Many large chain restaurants offer gluten-free menu options. I don't have to stick to small health-food stores (although they aren't as scary as I thought) to buy specific gluten-free foods. More and more, the regular and upscale grocery stores are carrying tasty gluten-free products. And even local bakeries are realizing that a captive audience is always willing to taste-test new gluten-free treats. But even better, after only a few weeks on the diet, my symptoms improved and I felt better than ever.

So what was so lucky about my diagnosis? First of all, the average time for diagnosis of celiac disease is years, and I was diagnosed in less than two months. While I now have a chronic illness to deal with, I can completely control the symptoms and consequences through diet alone. I feel fantastic, and I know that I'm not alone. There are tons of other celiacs out there willing to provide advice, support and suggestions. Each person I meet learns a little more about this condition, so they can act accordingly and thoughtfully the next time they meet someone with the disease. I am being proactive about my health and more aware of my food choices. I know what symptoms to look for in my children, so if they begin to show signs of the illness I can help them before they get sick like I was. And someday soon, some intrepid baker will find a way to make me a delicious chocolate-mousse cake. That will truly be a triumph.