Gluten intolerance can be an insidious condition. Those who’ve suffered through years of gluten-induced physical maladies know this all too well. And yet, there are those well-meaning, but annoying folks, who look at us like fad diet drama queens and hypochondriacs.Eating gluten-free makes sense. And for many of us, gluten-free living is a necessity– born out of seeking health.
For my daughter, Haley, latent celiac disease caused years of seemingly unrelated illnesses. When persistent joint pain lingered in spite of multiple doctor’s visits, and caused Haley–a talented athlete and prize winning sprinter– to drop track and field, a red flag sounded in my head. Yet, the orthopedic specialist felt it was a benign condition she’d grow out of with some exercises.
Rashes appeared on her legs, blister-like and horribly itchy. We mistook these for flea bites from our cat’s forays or perhaps allergies to skin-care products and began using a wide variety of hypoallergenic items instead. It never occurred to us this was in fact a gluten reaction called dermatitis herpetiformis.
Once in a while, she’d have some tingling or problems with an arm or leg, but the doctors found nothing abnormal in visits. There were canker sores occasionally. My once sunny and cheerful daughter became anxiety-ridden and irritable. She was 17, and we attributed this to the emotional nature of teenagers- certainly not to wheat proteins.
Then it was off and on again “stomach flu” — but no one else in the family contracted these bouts of “flu.” We determined this was perhaps related to milk and switched to lactose-free milk, which offered some relief, but never cured the situation. About the time I was ready to take her to a doctor for a full workup and evaluation for the gut problems, she became weak, light-headed, confused, short of breath during even limited exertion.
Given her symptoms, the doctors first investigated parasites, thinking our old drinking well had been a source of contamination. A blood draw had shown a very high level of eosinophils and basophils- types of white cells related to parasites or allergic responses. We didn’t know that some very credible sources, including the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, had linked elevated eosinophils to celiac disease as well as parasites and allergies. And of course, after two more weeks of testing, there were no parasites.
But Haley worsened, deteriorating before my eyes each day. Another blood test showed a very low ferratin (stored iron) level…dangerously low in fact, for a teenager. For a kid who took a daily multi-vitamin with iron and ate a very balanced diet, she was horribly anemic with no apparent cause.
At last, celiac disease was found to be the issue. The day the doc scrawled the words, “gluten-free” on a paper and told me to “Google” it and start Haley on this diet immediately and permanently. It was hard for me to believe this disorder could be connected to all these symptoms. Could ingested wheat be causing joint pain or blisters on her legs?
It took months of weekly hemoglobin interveneous treatments to bring her iron levels up to even low normal levels–and a gluten-free diet– to change all her symptoms. Gone were the joint pain, the rashes, the irritability and mental confusion, canker sores, odd neurological symptoms and the stomach complaints.
Through all of her illness, she never lost weight, failed to “thrive” or presented with classic symptoms of celiac disease. Even her bouts of nausea and diarrhea were very intermittent until the last month prior to her diagnosis, when she completely bottomed out and became very ill. Gluten can and does cause many severe reactions in individuals– even without classic symptoms. In Haley’s case, she’d been sick for years, the doctors conjectured, to have iron levels as low as they were.
Mark Hyman, who is a medical doctor and a blogger with the Huffington Post, best summarized the link between gluten and a range of disorders. Below is a brief from his excellent post.
“A review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 “diseases” that can be caused by eating gluten. These include osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, and rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, and neuropathy (nerve damage). It has also been linked to autism.
We used to think that gluten problems or celiac disease were confined to children who had diarrhea, weight loss, and failure to thrive. Now we know you can be old, fat, and constipated and still have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Gluten sensitivity is actually an autoimmune disease that creates inflammation throughout the body, with wide-ranging effects across all organ systems including your brain, heart, joints, digestive tract, and more. It can be the single cause behind many different “diseases.” To correct these diseases, you need to treat the cause–which is often gluten sensitivity–not just the symptoms.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that ALL cases of depression or autoimmune disease or any of these other problems are caused by gluten in everyone–but it is important to look for it if you have any chronic illness.”