Living the G-free Life – Celiac Disease Story
BY: DR. MELINA ROBERTS
When I first moved to Calgary I did not have a GP. After 3 years without one, I decided to go to a private clinic to get a physical and routine blood work. As part of the routine blood work, this GP ran a celiac screen. I had high antitissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTGA), which is a positive screen for celiac disease. She asked if I eat gluten. I said yes but I’m mainly wheat-free. She said if you are mainly wheat-free and your antibodies are still this high, then there is a high probability of celiac disease. This was a huge surprise…I tested positive for celiac disease! I had none of the typical symptoms of celiac disease. I didnT experience abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, nausea or vomiting when I consumed gluten.
I realize that the definitive diagnosis for celiac disease is a biopsy of the small intestine, therefore it is not recommend to stop eating gluten with a high tTGA alone until you get a positive biopsy screen. For me a high tTGA was enough, I was more concerned about stopping the damage to my intestines by stopping gluten immediately rather than continuing to eat gluten, continuing to damage myself, while I waited several months to get in for a biopsy in order to get that definitive diagnosis. But that was simply my decision, I recommend that patients get a definitive diagnosis after screening positive for high tTGA.
For those of you that are not familiar with celiac disease; it is an autoimmune disease that damages the lining of the small intestines, which prevents proper absorption of nutrients. The damage occurs due to eating gluten which is in wheat, barley, rye, spelt and possibly oats.
I have been predominently wheat-free for many years, which may have diminished any symptoms of celiac disease but I had no digestive symptoms that would make anyone including myself suspect that I had celiac disease. I diagnose it all the time in my practice, but I didnT exhibit any of the typical signs that would alert me to this diagnosis. My only symptom was that I would feel tired after eating. But in retrospect it may explain my chronic allergies and hyperactivity as a child.
Now that I’ve been gluten-free for about a year now, if I ever accidently consume gluten, my body does reject it, alerts me with a stomachache then proceeds to move it out of me as quickly as possible.
I’ve been asked, how do you stick to a strict gluten-free diet? For me, it is understanding what is happening to my body when I consume gluten. When I consume gluten, I am damaging my small intestines, which are responsible for my absorption of nutrients. I have a clear understanding that I am injuring myself and quite honestly slowly killing myself. This makes it an easy decision for me to be gluten-free.
In my practice I educate patients on what gluten is, where you find it and how to live without it. I have been wheat-free for many years, but not too strictly, I would still have the occasional warm bread at a restaurant, cake at a birthday party, pizza at a special event. Since I was already living a relatively wheat-free life with occasional cheats, the transition to gluten-free was not as traumatizing as I’m sure it would be to the average Canadian. My meals mainly contain a protein, vegetable and rice, with fruits, nuts and seeds as snacks, so the transition for me was not terribly challenging. I knew what I had to do, what changes I needed to make and how to effectively implement them. Now I don’t just tell people what to do, I have done it myself! What I’ve learned is that I have to read labels more closely than ever.
One of the biggest challenges for me is travelling and eating out. I always bring gluten-free bars and snacks with me when I travel, so I won’t ever go hungry if the options are limited, such as on a plane. At restaurants, I always tell the server that I have celiac disease and if they can please ask the chef if the meal I’ve selected is gluten-free. I am happy that most restaurants are familiar with this request and are very accommodating. I’ve been surprised to find that many restaurants have gluten-free menus. I’m amazed to see how many gluten-free options there are at the grocery stores and health food stores. I’ll admit that there are some gross alternatives, but you’ve got to try out a bunch of different options because there are honestly some tasty gluten-free options out there. There are many more options than there were even 5 years ago.
What has surprised me the most is the non-edible products that have wheat in them, such as shampoos, conditions, body washes, body lotions, face creams and lip balms. It surprised me to get a stomach ache from lip balm, then reading the label and no wheat is mentioned on the label, but with further research finding out that there are wheat proteins used in the manufacturing process that are listed as vegetable proteins. It’s tricky when it’s not explicitly on the label.
In the end, I’m happy I found out, after 30+ years of injuring my intestines, I can start to truly heal them. I feel healthier than ever. I no longer get my narcoleptic fatigue after meals. I have the occasional, Oh that cake looks good, but when it comes down to it, I don’t really miss gluten. I am okay living without gluten for the rest of my life, knowing I’ll be healthier for it. I’m happy to be living the g-free life!