When 15 year-old Molly began losing weight, her parents were worried. They suspected her new early lunch period in school was the culprit, but they took her to a doctor to be sure. After about a year of testing, Molly was finally diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disease that affects about three million Americans. People with the disease cannot consume gluten, a protein found in most grains, cereals, and breads.
“The gluten triggers an immune response so that your body attacks itself and the little hairs on the intestine get blunted so that you can’t absorb your nutrients,” explains Molly’s mother Jennifer North, who is now Vice President of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Essentially, the body attacks itself every time a person with celiac consumes gluten. People with celiac disease must adhere to a strict gluten-free diet.
Throughout my career, I have taught many children with food allergies. Some have been allergic to peanuts, but our school is now a peanut and tree nut-free environment, so we no longer have to worry about that. Others have had dairy allergies, and one little girl, sadly, couldn’t eat anything at all. Lately, we are seeing more celiac disease.
One of my students, Rachel, had a failure to thrive between ages one and two, gaining no weight and having skin that appeared practically translucent. Doctors knew something was wrong, but it took many tests to finally conclude she had celiac disease. Since the snacks we serve in school are typically crackers, cookies, and pretzels, Rachel could not eat what we served the other children. Her mother provided a basket of snacks specifically for Rachel. They were similar to what the other children ate, but were all gluten-free.
Even at three, Rachel knew that she had to eat her own snacks, and if someone mistakenly put something in front of her that she couldn’t have, she was able to say that she couldn’t eat it. When Rachel was diagnosed, her doctor pointed out that the disease is genetic, so if Rachel had it, one of her parents must have it also. After testing, it turned out that it was her dad. He only recognized his symptoms in hindsight.
“I knew that if I ate certain foods I didn’t feel good, so I stopped eating those foods,” he explains. “I would eat breakfast when I was in grammar school and I would never feel good after breakfast. So, I stopped eating breakfast.”
Though he wasn’t diagnosed until he was 41, he likely had the disease for much of his life. That’s the word the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness is trying to get out. “Celiac has over 300 symptoms, so there really isn’t a typical profile,” points out North. “It can onset at any age.”
As many as 90 percent of people with celiac disease do not even know they have it. Symptoms range from stomach aches and headaches, to bowel issues and discolored teeth. It can also trigger other autoimmune diseases such as thyroid disease or lupus, and even infertility and migraines.
Now that father and daughter are on a strict gluten-free diet, they are both feeling better than ever. Several area stores carry gluten-free foods, and more restaurants than ever offer gluten-free entrees.
People with celiac must be very careful. Gluten is an invisible ingredient, so if a food were contaminated with it, it would be impossible to see it. When Rachel’s father has eaten gluten by mistake, he says he feels like he has the flu for about a month.
North urges people to speak with their doctor and be tested before going on a gluten-free diet on their own. For more information visit www.celiaccentral.org. If your child has any food allergy, be sure to educate her teachers about her disease, what her restrictions are, and how they can best suit her needs seamlessly in the classroom. She shouldn’t be made to feel badly because of this difference from the other students. Also put a large sign in a place that is easily seen by all, which points out the child’s name, picture and allergy. That will ensure that a substitute teacher or parent helping out, won’t mistakenly give the child something she can’t have.