Migraines, severe joint pain, general malaise " 25-year-old Sara Lorenzen of Oklahoma City suffered from it all. She ate relatively healthy, tried to stay away from fried food and even went organic, but nothing seemed to alleviate her symptoms.
"I could never figure out what was wrong," she said. "After my mom was diagnosed with celiac disease, about three months into it, she had a really hard time sticking to the gluten-free diet. So I said, 'I've been wondering about this,' and I tried it."
Two days into a gluten-free diet, Lorenzen immediately felt better.
"Within two weeks, I had more energy than I had in the last three years. Now, two years later, I feel great. In fact, if I eat gluten, I immediately get migraines and joint pain and severe stomach problems within an hour."
It has now been three years since Lorenzen's mother was diagnosed with celiac disease, a digestive disorder marked by an intolerance to gluten, a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin found in grains like wheat, barley and oats.
For Lorenzen, her mother's battle to be diagnosed properly opened her eyes to the growing problem of celiac disease. Lorenzen herself is, at this stage, only gluten-intolerant.
"We had the same doctor for eight years, but she was only diagnosed two years ago. They had her thinking she was crazy," she said. "She was always going in with headaches, muscle aches, dry skin, and although she was overweight, she was malnourished. She thought she was crazy."
Now some studies suggest that celiac disease is on the rise. A new study even concludes if the disease goes undiagnosed, it is associated with nearly quadrupled mortality rates. For a disorder that's notoriously hard to diagnose, thousands could be suffering from gluten-intolerance without even knowing it.
INTOLERABLE AND MISDIAGNOSED
Celiac disease impairs the digestive system and usually means a life completely free of wheat, oats, barley, rye or anything with gluten in it.
The disease affects infants to seniors, and takes an average of 11 years to be correctly diagnosed. Although 1 in every 128 people in the U.S. has celiac disease, a total of 97 percent remain undiagnosed, according to the metro area Celiac Sprue Association. If left untreated, the disease can result in serious medical issues ranging from Type 1 diabetes to liver disease, thyroid disease and cancer.
According to a Mayo Clinic study published this month in the journal Gastroenterology, celiac disease is more than four times more common today than it was 50 years ago.
"Celiac disease has become much more common in the last 50 years, and we don't know why," said Dr. Joseph Murray, the Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist who led the study, in a recent Mayo Clinic release. "Some studies have suggested that for every person who has been diagnosed with celiac disease, there are likely 30 who have it but are not diagnosed. And given the nearly quadrupled mortality risk for silent celiac disease we have shown in our study, getting more patients and health professionals to consider the possibility of celiac disease is important."
Dietician Carol Banister, president of Oklahoma City-based Banister and Associates, said she's "absolutely" noticed an increase for some years.
"I would say in our own office, we've seen a noticeable increase in patients with celiac for the last couple of years, and definitely in the last year," she said. "I don't know if it's that more people are becoming gluten-intolerant so much as it is the diagnostic skills are more accurate."
Because patients with celiac may not display typical symptoms of gastrointestinal issues, many sufferers in the past were undiagnosed.
"We're hearing more and more about it and are becoming more and more aware," Banister said.
Unlike celiac sufferers of years past, those with gluten intolerance have a wider variety of gluten-free choices. Today, doctors, mainstream grocers, restaurants and manufacturers are more aware of the gluten-free movement.
"It's happening more and more often, people coming in asking for gluten-free options," said Greg Powell, general manager of Bricktown Brewery in Oklahoma City. "When I first started four years ago, it was very rare that people asked for gluten-free. It almost never happened. Now, almost once a week, someone requests those options. It seems to happen quite a bit."
New businesses are offering more and more options. Green Goodies by Tiffany, a new bakery, offers dietary-friendly cupcakes in the Oklahoma City area, and Coffy's Cafe in the Plaza District offers a full gluten-free menu. Popular restaurants like Iguana Mexican Grill are also a favorite for Lorenzen.
"I've met some people who were diagnosed 25 years ago, and all they could eat at that time was rice, veggies and meat," she said. "No bread. Now, you can buy gluten-free bread items, and they taste better these days. There are a lot of choices, and a lot of places to go out to eat that have gluten-free choices." "Heide Brandes