I’ve questioned this so many times. More than 40% of Americans have at least one of the celiac genes, HLA-DQ2 and/or HLA-DQ8, yet only 1% go on develop the full-blown disease. I recently read an article in the magazine Living Without called, “Celiac Disease, By Accident,” in which possible environmental triggers are discussed (see link). Many people report that they have developed celiac disease after major life stressors, including accidents, surgeries, and infections. I am pretty sure that my trigger was pregnancy.
Although my symptoms waxed and waned for 20+ years, it was shortly after I had my 3rd child that I got very sick. At first I thought that my symptoms of fatigue and continual diarrhea were due to being postpartum, stressed, and drinking too much coffee to stay awake. Then I began to feel like I was getting food poisoning all of the time, and I actually blamed my husband for a while because he was doing most of the cooking at this point (sorry, Tom!). I blamed my hair loss on the pregnancy but thought it was strange when it didn’t grow back in. When I was about 8 months postpartum I developed additional symptoms….arthritis in my hands, knees, and ankles, diffuse oral ulcers, daily low grade fevers, low back pain, and huge bruises all over my body. At this point in time I remember feeling like I was continually “hungover” and that my brain was in a fog, even though my baby was sleeping through the night and I was no longer working the crazy night shifts that I had during my medical training. I suspected that I had an autoimmune illness and actually thought that it was probably rheumatoid arthritis.
It was around this time that I had the most memorable gastrointestinal virus of my life! I subsisted on Gatorade for about 2.5 days and all of my autoimmune symptoms went away. The fatigue, joint pains, and mouth ulcers miraculously disappeared, and I felt better than I had in ages, despite having a nasty GI bug. Then, once I did start eating again, mostly toast, saltines, and chicken noodle soup, all of the symptoms came back with a vengeance, including the GI symptoms. I was diagnosed a few weeks later. Now, every time I get “glutened,” I experience immediate GI symptoms (abdominal pains, bloating, food poisoning symptoms) followed by about 5-7 days of arthritis, lethargy, oral ulcers, brain fog, headache, and overall feeling really crummy. This is why I am so cautious with what I eat. As the breadwinner for my family I cannot afford to be sick on a regular basis. If my reaction was just a little GI discomfort, or just lasted a day, I’d probably consider cheating on the diet from time to time…..