Sunday 18 March 2018

'Even the smallest crumb can cause inflammation and damage the intestine' - life with coeliac disease

Amy Mulvaney (21) was diagnosed with coeliac disease six weeks ago. Like most sufferers, avoiding gluten has become an unrelenting priority

Amy Mulvaney found herself in the 1pc of the Irish population with coeliac disease. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Amy Mulvaney found herself in the 1pc of the Irish population with coeliac disease. Picture; Gerry Mooney

They are the four words that I hate to say, simply for fear of which reaction they will elicit. Will it be irritation, will it be arrogance or will it be indifference? Each time it varies.

I take a deep breath, brace myself and ask apologetically, "Is this gluten free?"

This is what I have become accustomed to when eating out, visiting friends and family and at any social event that involves food, which is any good event, if you ask me.

Since being diagnosed with coeliac disease six weeks ago, gluten has become my enemy. It's found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, and hides where you least expect it, like a sniper ready to shoot, with even minuscule amounts resulting in an eruption of pain.

Coeliac disease is a lifelong auto-immune disease that causes the affected to react abnormally to the ingestion of gluten, with the intestine becoming inflamed and damaged upon consumption.

This can cause the affected individual to experience a range of symptoms, including diarrhoea, bloating, chronic tiredness and constipation.

While just 1pc of the Irish population have been diagnosed with coeliac disease, a new report by Bord Bia has shown that one-in-five Irish people regularly shop for gluten-free products.

Before my diagnosis, hearing the words "gluten-free" made me think of Gwyneth Paltrow, hipster restaurants and the one lonely "free from" section in every supermarket. However, once I learned that I was among the 1pc of sufferers in Ireland, my perception totally changed.

Despite some people choosing to eat gluten-free, for me and other coeliac sufferers, avoiding gluten has become a silent but unrelenting priority in my daily life.

For nearly four months before I visited my GP to enquire about my symptoms, I dealt with bloating, pain and tiredness like I had never experienced before. Issues with my stomach were non-existent until last winter, when randomly (or so I thought) my stomach began to swell triple its size and become as hard as a rock.

It may seem naïve to have not been able to pin-point exactly what was causing the reaction, but prior to my diagnosis I couldn't.

Sometimes my stomach would become like a bowling ball straight after eating, while other times it might not happen at all.

Amy Mulvaney found herself in the 1pc of the Irish population with coeliac disease. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Amy Mulvaney found herself in the 1pc of the Irish population with coeliac disease. Picture; Gerry Mooney

It wasn't until one evening when I went to get up from my desk and I realised that I could hardly walk due to the pains in my stomach and in my chest that I decided to look for reasons. I waddled to the bus stop with my eyes half-closed in pain, rolled into bed after struggling to reach my feet to take off my shoes and tried to sleep it off.

After describing my symptoms to my GP, she suggested a blood test to rule out coeliac disease. "Ninety nine per cent of people don't have it, but just to be sure," she told me. A few days later, I was in the elusive 1pc. A colonoscopy and gastroscopy were then carried out to confirm the results and a biopsy was taken from the wall of my intestine.

Following the procedures, I was told to immediately begin a gluten-free diet and was referred to a dietician, who listed off one-by-one the much-loved foods that I could no longer eat; pasta, bread, pizza, cakes, beer, chocolate… the list is never ending.

Over the next 24 hours, I learned everything that I could about coeliac disease. I joined the Coeliac Society of Ireland, memorised which versions of my favourite foods are gluten-free and learned that you can develop coeliac disease at any time in your life.

No longer could I use the same toaster, butter or spreads as anyone who eats gluten. Even the smallest crumb from cross contamination can cause inflammation and damage the intestine.

Since then, I've become familiar with what feels like every gluten-free food item and every coeliac-friendly restaurant in Dublin, and have been pleasantly surprised by the availability of gluten-free products on the market.

I've taken the opportunity to try to make my diet healthier than it was before, with fruit, vegetables and fresh fish and meat being naturally gluten free, affordable and readily available options, and made the effort to ensure that I get all of the nutrients I need.

I've become accustomed to scrutinising every packet of food that I'm unsure of, scouring its list of ingredients with my fingers crossed that it doesn't contain gluten, and preparing my own food whenever I can.

It's not until you begin looking for the gluten-free label until you realise just how common it has become. I've tried and tested gluten- free pasta, bread, pizza and beer with little disappointment, while restaurants and fast food chains are generally quite accommodating.

However, it's the stigma around being gluten free that has affected me the most. For the majority it's a silent condition, with some people even dismissing the fact that it is a medically diagnosed disease.

Thanks to Gwen and co for praising its "life-changing" effects, being gluten free has become almost a taboo, meaning it can be difficult to enquire about products being gluten free without fear of judgement.

I made the mistake soon after being diagnosed in watching a deli assistant fail to change the chopping board when making a sandwich, biting my tongue for fear of "making a fuss," which subsequently resulted in bloating and discomfort less than an hour later.

It was then I decided that I wasn't going to let my diagnosis and the huge changes in my diet negatively affect my life.

The only treatment for coeliac disease is avoiding gluten.

I don't have to take medication or have surgery, and for that I'm hugely grateful. While my symptoms have begun to improve since immersing myself in a gluten-free diet, it can take between six months and two years for blood tests results to come back normal. Other than that, it's pretty simple.

Being gluten-free is a way of life, and judging by the growing figures of people leading gluten-free diets, it's only going to get easier.

My day on a plate

Breakfast - Two slices of gluten-free brown bread with a boiled egg

Some yoghurt and berries

Snack - Alpro soya yogurt with berries, sunflower seeds and honey

Lunch - Tuna, sweetcorn and cheese on a gluten-free chia seed wrap

Snack - Milk chocolate rice cakes

Dinner - Chicken and vegetable stir fry with rice

Before bed - Green tea

Health & Living

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life