My Coeliac Story

What happens when a coeliac eats something with gluten?

I have a Master’s degree in Sport and Exercise Nutrition and I have always been interested in diet and nutrition, especially as it relates to sports performance. Looking back this is ironic as I was the least sporty kid in school; I was too sick.

I had all the classic symptoms of Coeliac disease. All through my childhood and adolescence I suffered from frequent bouts of diarrhoea and stomach upset, and was often very tired.  I had such bad anaemia I was weak and breathless the minute I started to run around or exercise. There were also constant colds and flu, which twice developed into pneumonia (when I was 15 and 21). I was deficient in several key vitamins, which among other things led to nerve damage in my fingers and toes (from vitamin K deficiency) and several bouts of depression (compounded by exhaustion due to starvation). The healthier I tried to eat, adding more whole grains to my diet, the sicker I got, with constant indigestion, bloating, wind, stomach cramps and frequent bouts of diarrhoea. I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in my twenties, and given three different tablets to treat the symptoms.

Despite this, it wasn’t until I was 30 years old and living in Switzerland, with their lovely public/private health care system that I was diagnosed with Coeliac disease. I was going through another round of unexplained severe anaemia, despite loving red meat and having very light periods. My doctor was determined to find the cause, rather than simply treating the symptoms, so I was sent for a variety of tests, including an upper GI endoscopy to sample my small intestine. This clearly showed a pan flat intestinal wall, without enough villi, the finger-like projections on the inside of the intestine which help it to absorb the nutrients from food. Without healthy villi,  food doesn’t get absorbed properly, leading to malnourishment and a whole host of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

I was put on a gluten free diet on the first of October 2008. Within one week I was no longer bloated (all my clothes fit perfectly!), had no stomach cramps or wind, no stomach upset, and had lost over 5 pounds. Within a month I had more energy than I had ever had, I no longer needed asthma medication, the anaemia disappeared and everyone kept commenting on how much healthier I looked with some colour in my face.

With all my newfound energy I discovered I could actually run! It was hard, but as I could never even jog slowly for five minutes when I was a kid, jogging for 10 minutes straight without feeling faint and breathless was a revelation. I loved being able to run!  I couldn’t help thinking, if this is how “normal” people feel all the time, why doesn’t everyone run marathons?

In an odd twist of fate my life now revolves around sport. I spend my days blogging about sports nutrition and advising athletes on what to eat to win their next competition. I also coach sprinting and throw javelins for fun, which means you can find me at the track or in the gym most days. Funny how life turns out!

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