The Gift of Celiac Disease
An Unexpected Silver Lining
While pondering about this year’s Celiac Disease Awareness Month, I was surprised by
how my thoughts kept making a beeline to the gifts of this newly discovered autoimmune
disorder. These gifts come not only in the form of personal transformation, but also as
windows of opportunity for greater health on a global level. A lifetime sufferer of gluten-
related health challenges myself, finally having been clinically diagnosed with celiac
disease in 2010 at age 45, this may seem strange that I now find myself extolling the
gifts of such a life-changing and sometimes devastating condition. Even so, here I am
doing just that.
I’d like to begin by sharing a bit about my own personal transformation that was a result
of being diagnosed with celiac disease, but then I’d like to share my excitement about
the much bigger implications that are being discovered by researchers who had the
courage to remove their blinders and question what had previously been unquestioned
about our society’s most beloved grain.
Celiac Disease and Me
Not unlike many other gluten-sensitive sufferers, learning that wheat and other forms
of gluten were my nemesis and not my friend came with a barrage of mixed emotions.
Probably the most obvious of my reactions and of those in my family was confusion
and uncertainty, both of what to eat and of how to navigate awkward social situations
that typically involve gluten-containing food. There was also the poignant feelings of
grief and sadness, knowing that many previously beloved foods that carried with them
positive memories and associations of celebration would no longer be a part of my life.
If you or someone you love has celiac disease, you know these feelings all too well.
Why I Felt Grateful for the Diagnosis
The most unexpected and long-lasting emotions for me, however, were relief and
gratitude. Having spoken to countless others who have received similar gluten-related
diagnoses, especially those who suffered very significant symptoms, this response is
very common. Unlike many other health problems, celiac disease is a rare example of a
condition that has a very specific and effective solution. By following a strict gluten-free
diet, you can find relief. This sense of a simple (even if not easy) solution psychologically
creates a sense of empowerment to make a difference in how you feel. You can imagine
the sense of “Ahhh” many of us feel once we are fully able to digest the reality of our
condition. This is a gift I am forever grateful for.
The News You Won’t Want to Hear If You Don’t Have Celiac Disease
As empowering as such personal transformation is, the bigger implications I’m about to
share with you will blow your socks off. That said, once I share what I’m about to say,
you might want to initially run from the room screaming, most likely with your hands
simultaneously over your ears and eyes, if only you had a second set of hands. In other
words, while the news is important and empowering, it’s not at all what you will want to
hear—pretty much guaranteed. Don’t worry, while I don’t enjoy being the bearer of what
can seem like bad news, I also am not a fan of ignorance and suffering that is easily
Canaries in the Coal Mine
In a nutshell, what medical researchers like world-renowned pediatric gastroenterologist,
Harvard Professor, and author Dr. Alessio Fasano have unveiled is that those living with
celiac disease have in essence been like the canaries in the coal mine that are
demonstrating the deleterious effects of gluten on not only those with celiac disease or
nonceliac gluten sensitivity, but on those without any known sensitivities as well.
All Humans Are Unable to Digest Gluten
Without getting into the complexities of the science, what Fasano and other researchers
have discovered is that the human body is unable to properly break down the gluten
molecule (which is a combination of two proteins), because we lack the proper enzymes
in our liver and pancreas to do so. Even worse: They are now better understanding how
the large undigestible fragments interact with the body.
Zonulin, Leaky Gut, and More…
The most noteworthy of the five identified problematic fragments are the two gluten
fragments that cause a rise of the protein zonulin, creating more permeability in the
walls of the digestive tract (more commonly known as “leaky gut”). The other three
problematic fragments that have recently been identified are peptides that cause
programmed cell death, inflammation, and an exaggerated immune response. If you
want to learn more about this research, you can watch a short video about these
findings on YouTube entitled: “MD Alessio Fasano - Gluten undigested”
Where’s the Good News?
You may be wondering where the good news resides in all of this is. Well, remember
when I mentioned earlier the relief and gratitude I and many others have felt when
discovering a concrete change that we can make to improve our health? Cutting-edge
research is now beginning to uncover an empowering key that helps improve the
health and quality of your life and the lives of countless others, even if you don’t have
celiac disease. The best part is that we not only don’t require gluten to survive, but
also are now discovering many easy ways to still enjoy many of our delicious favourite
foods that we have previously grown to love, especially those associated with times of
celebration and joy.
The truth is that with the emerging research about gluten that has come about
because of the relatively recent understanding of celiac disease, we have an
opportunity to choose to either pay attention to the information or not. If we are
willing to step out of our familiar habit-dominated comfort zone and open our
eyes and minds to the recent (albeit inconvenient) scientific discoveries about
gluten and continue to be curious, we open ourselves to the possibility of reaping
other untold health benefits that we might never before have imagined.
Theresa Nicassio, PhD, Psychologist
Theresa is a kindness advocate, chef, wellness educator,
and the award-winning author of YUM: Plant-Based
Recipes for a Gluten-Free Diet.