I’m finishing up the last two days of Celiac Awareness Month with two important guest posts. Tomorrow, my husband Jeff will be writing about what it’s like to live with me (hmmmmm, do you think he’ll be honest?), but today I have a very special guest for you. Alex Borsuk is studying to be a dietitian, is a former college athlete and was recently diagnosed with celiac disease. This combination fascinated me, and I hope it will fascinate you too. I’ll let her take it away in her own words…
A little over two years ago, as a sophomore in college, I began suffering with the most severe stomach pain I have ever experienced. I seemed to be in pain throughout the day, without even the slightest of sign of relief. I was also experiencing headaches and found myself tired all of the time. At the time, I was running cross country for a Division I school, and the team doctor attributed my symptoms to a bad case of iron-deficient anemia. It was true; my hematocrit and hemoglobin were way below the charts, which left the doctor puzzled, but certain my diagnosis was correct.
Hopped up on mega-doses of iron, I was anxiously waiting for my symptoms to resolve and my running to return to normal. My 5k time had worsened to several minutes above my personal record and I was beyond frustrated with my running ability. I had no answers as to why I was running so poorly, and nothing seemed to provide me with the answers I desperately sought. Weeks went by with no improvements on either my runs or my serum blood levels.
Beyond frustrated and depressed, I quit the cross country team. My training was becoming even more difficult and my race times were getting worse and worse. It was embarrassing to run such poor times on a team full of elite women. Shortly after this, I ended up in the hospital for a very serious case hypokalemia, a condition that affects your heart when your body is low on potassium. As a girl who always eats her fruits and vegetables, I could not seem to figure out why I was low on potassium, of all things.
After that hospital stay, I was even more curious as to what was going on with my body. By this time, I had lost close to 15 pounds over the span of just a couple months, my stomach aches were worsening, and I hardly had enough energy to make it through the day without napping. My hair was thinning and falling out in chunks, my legs always felt restless, and I was continuously nauseous. I was too weak to even run or do the activities I loved, like climb, hike, and bike.
I actively sought many doctors who provided me with diagnoses such as irritable bowel syndrome, the flu, acid reflux disease, lactose intolerance, and even an eating disorder. By the end of summer, I met with one last doctor who thought that my symptoms might point to celiac disease. I had a colonoscopy and endoscopy and the diagnosis was confirmed- I did, in fact, have celiac disease.
The only cure for this life-altering disease is strict adherence to the gluten free diet. As a girl who grew up in a house full of pretzels, bread, and homemade pastries, I was weary and somewhat depressed with this diagnosis. Sure, it was finally nice to know what was wrong with me and that there was a cure for my awful symptoms, but how could I ever give up my favorite food group- the “bread group?” And beer? What would I do without my favorite beverage of choice?
My solution? Instead of choosing to focus on all of the food I would miss on a gluten free diet, I chose to focus on the positives. I could still eat bread and drink beer, but I would have to find or make gluten free versions. As a self-proclaimed foodie with a love for cooking, I began to set new goals for myself. Instead of focusing on how I could no longer run like I used to, eat the bread I loved, and go out for beers with my friends, I set goals in the kitchen.
I began experimenting with different flours, gums, and starches to create gluten free versions my favorite gluten-filled foods. I was finding success in the kitchen and began a gluten-free and vegetarian- focused blog where I documented all of my recipes. Before I knew it, my depression was improving and my body was feeling stronger each day. I put on healthy weight and started to slowly resume the activities that I loved, like backpacking, climbing, hiking, and trail running.
I no longer find myself feeling deprived or sad that I cannot partake in the same activities as my friends. I can still go out with them and drink gluten-free beer. I can still go out to restaurants, but I have to be extra careful with cross contamination or foods that may contain hidden gluten. I can still backpack, but I need to pack my meals carefully. And best of all, family gatherings and holidays don’t feel like a nightmare waiting to happen. My gluten-free creations have convinced even the most skeptical family members that gluten free foods can be delicious. Family gatherings are now filled with yummy gluten free options so that I can enjoy holidays too. Yes, even with celiac disease, it is still possible to have fun and eat delicious, healthy food.
I went from a sick, depressed, and overwhelmed undergraduate student to a confident and healthy graduate student, knowing exactly my purpose in the field of nutrition and dietetics. Where my future is headed, I am not entirely sure. However, what I do know is that if I can help those with celiac disease eat delicious, nutritious food and live a happy, fulfilled life, then my job is done.
Make sure to come back tomorrow for Jeff’s story.
And don’t forget to enter the Gluten Free Bar giveaway which ends on the 31st!