When it's not a choice to eat gluten-free

Stomach issues. Loss of appetite. Feeling depressed. For someone recovering from surgery and coping with a family member with cancer, these may seem like normal experiences. That was the case for Patricia Reynolds before she was diagnosed with celiac disease.

“I attributed feeling sick to what was going on in my life,” Reynolds said. “My husband finally insisted I go to my family doctor because I had lost so much weight, had severe depression and could no longer travel to Lexington to visit my sister, who was very ill with cancer.”

After some testing, Reynolds was referred to gastroenterologist Edward Adler, M.D., who diagnosed her with celiac disease.

Celiac disease has been gaining attention as doctors diagnose one of every 133 people in the U.S. with it. It is an autoimmune disease that is unique in that it has a food trigger — gluten, which is found in wheat, rye and barley.

“When gluten is eaten, the villi (tiny hairlike projections that absorb nutrients) in the small intestine are damaged,” Dr. Adler said. “They do not effectively absorb basic nutrients. If left untreated, damage can be chronic and life threatening.”

Celiac disease can be triggered for the first time after surgery, viral infection, severe emotional stress, even pregnancy. Though Reynolds had gone through surgery and emotional stress, she believes she’s always had the disease.

“As a child, food would make me sick,” Reynolds said. “As I grew older, I thought spicy foods were the trigger for stomach issues and other symptoms. Once I was diagnosed and cut out gluten, it was clear that was the culprit.”

The only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet. When gluten is removed, the small intestine heals and overall health improves.
“It’s a lifestyle change. You have to get past looking at it as a diet,” Reynolds said. “You can’t think about the foods you can’t have; instead focus on the foods you can have. You can’t let it run your life.”

Those who don’t adhere to a gluten-free diet run the risk of severe anemia, osteoporosis, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, gastrointestinal cancers and even neurological problems, according to Dr. Adler.

“Even small amounts of gluten can affect those with celiac disease,” Dr. Adler said. “They have to be diligent about reading labels — gluten is in unlikely places, such as salad dressings, spices and even pharmaceuticals.”

Want to know more?
For a referral to a gastroenterologist, call (502) 629-1234. If you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, the Greater Louisville Celiac Chapter has a support group directed by Dr. Adler. Visit www.glutenfreelouisville.org for more information.