Few would argue that sidesplitting pain or violent mood swings are normal after-supper digestive routines. But for those suffering with celiac disease and similar intolerances, such symptoms are not uncommon.
Celiac disease is the inability of the body to absorb certain nutrients. The mediating ingredient, gluten, causes a reaction of the body’s immune system that damages the lining of the intestinal tract and results in intense pain.
Professor Tracy of the biology department describes the experience like trying to run a 5k race with 10 pound ankle weights. “If you’ve always run with ankle weights, you’d never know the difference.”
Professor Tracy discovered his celiac disease five years ago but has dealt with harsh symptoms since he was little. “I had stabbing abdominal pain and [the doctors] said it was because I had had too much candy. They would give me a pack of M&M’s and send me home.” At the time, few knew what was really happening internally.
In college, Tracy was narcoleptic and dealt with bouts of intense anxiousness and the inability to focus. Tracy also suffers from mouth sores and intoxicated-like symptoms when he has gluten. “If I get glutenated my hands go down. Four hours later I’m nearly drunk, I can’t hold utensils correctly, and I can’t think straight.” After thirty minutes, the symptoms regress, but it isn’t something he can just call off.
Tracy described various instances of having to pull over on the highway to take a nap or walking aimlessly in his office, staring at the ceiling until the episode passes. At a Good Friday service, Tracy recalls becoming lethargic and feeling the effects of gluten exposure. “I was losing feeling in my hand, switching the candle between which hand was numb.” For Tracy, gluten affects his neurons as much as if not more than his stomach.
For senior Allie Strawhacker who suffers from celiac disease, removing gluten from her diet made an immediate difference. In the second semester of her sophomore year, when blood testing and other efforts didn’t relieve her severe sickness, Strawhacker tried a gluten-free diet. “It was a night and day difference,” she said.
Sophomore Abby Hoekstra experienced a similar fate.
“I was so miserable. I lost a ton of weight because I couldn’t keep anything down.” Her weakened system led to other issues as well, including mono. “I was in bad shape,” Hoekstra said. Her illness was controlling her life. “After I changed my diet, I felt immediately better.”
While the effects of eliminating gluten may be immediately evident, making a drastic lifestyle change is a gradual adjustment. “I lost 21 pounds my first year. I walked around hungry for a whole year,” Tracy said. “There’s a learning curve.” For Tracy, it took a good year to gather recipes, adjust eating habits and get into a new mindset.
It also isn’t cheap. “Experimenting is expensive,” Tracy said.
Initially, the cost difference wasn’t worth the taste sacrifice for Hoekstra. “I’m sorry, but eating gluten-free bread is like eating cardboard,” she said. For Hoekstra, the alternatives are nothing to get excited about.
But Hoekstra is learning to cope and is thankful for the Cafe’s efforts to accomodate. “On Mongolian day, they use separate hands for the noodles, and I get my own spatula,” Hoekstra said.
For all three, the changes in diet have led to more than just happy stomachs. “My mood was better, I had more energy,” Strawhacker said. “It affected more than I realized.” The change was apparent to many of her closest family and friends.
However, learning how to manage celiac disease takes time. “It took a year to figure out what tastes good,” Tracy said.
Whether fueling our bodies or gathering in community, food is unavoidable. “We are a society that revolves around food,” Tracy said. Extreme food allergies become more about the entrée than about the atmosphere. “It is a social issue,” Tracy said. Eating out is a pain and special requests are inconvenient.
Some wish that people would respond normally. “It’s hard when people say, ‘let’s go where you can eat.’ I don’t want people to make a big deal out of it.” Adjustments are necessary, but there’s nothing to say that gluten has to change everything.