A gluten-free journey

Tackling the “wheat beast”

By Tim Anderl

While many people look back on their teens and 20s with fondness, author and certified health coach Caroline Shannon-Karasik spent most of hers incredibly sick. Her white blood cell count was out of control, and, as a result, her immune system was constantly being pummeled. She dealt with persistent digestive pain, nausea and woke each day with aching joints and all-over body pain. She developed migraines, sometimes for five or six days at a time. And she was tired – always unbelievabley tired. 

This was in no way in the typical health type of someone her age and in her shape. She was sick, stressed, depressed and looking for a culprit. More importantly, she desperately needed a solution.

“I spent most of my 20s being tested for a host of autoimmune conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, diabetes and leukemia,” Shannon-Karasik recalled. However, a real diagnosis didn’t emerge until September 2010.

“I was diagnosed with celiac disease [or gluten intolerance] in late September 2010,” she explained. “My husband and I were living in Dayton at the time and had decided to spend a lovely fall weekend at an annual Oktoberfest celebration. We had a breakfast of stuffed homemade crepes at our friends’ nearby home and then made our way up the hill to enjoy music, local vendors and, of course, beer. Within the hour I was doubled over in pain.
“This wasn’t the first time I was plagued by a host of digestive issues after eating and drinking,” she added. “In fact, now that I know and understand the symptoms of celiac disease I can see red flags dating back as far as my childhood. That day, however, was the last straw. My answer finally came: I had celiac disease.”

About one in 133 people in developed nations are intolerant to gluten. It is known to cause adverse health problems in those who suffer from the sensitivity or intolerance, primarily as a result of celiac disease. Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine, occurs in genetically predisposed people of all ages, from middle infancy onward. Symptoms include pain and discomfort in the digestive tract, chronic constipation and diarrhea, anemia and fatigue. About one percent of the United States population is sensitive to gluten due to celiac disease.

Truth be told, this isn’t new. The term coeliac derived from the Greek word for abdominal and was introduced in the 19th century translation of what is regarded as an ancient description of the disease by Aretaeus of Cappadocia.

Gluten, which is derived from the Latin word for glue, is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and other related grain species, including rye and barley. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise, and often gives a final food product a chewy texture.

For instance, in bread products, gluten molecules link to form a sub-microscopic network that contributes to thickness in dough. Gluten, along with starch, also stabilizes to shape the final product. Generally, bread flours are high in gluten.

Gluten, especially wheat gluten, is also often the basis for imitation meats. When cooked in broth, gluten absorbs the liquid and can resemble beef, chicken, pork, duck and fish. It is also often present as an additive in condiments, such as soy sauce and ketchup, treats like ice cream, and beer. The protein content of some pet foods is also at times enhanced by adding gluten.

Gluten is not only used in food products, but also in hair products, cosmetics and other skin products.

In modern medicine, several testing methods can be used to assist in diagnosis. Blood tests are followed by endoscopy, gastroscopy and biopsy. Other diagnostic tests can identify complications such as iron deficiency, folic acid and vitamin B12 deficiency, low calcium levels and thyroid function testing.

“When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I truly never looked back. I’ve never cheated and I’ve rarely mourned the loss of gluten,” Shannon-Karasik confessed. “I was so sick when I was diagnosed, I was absolutely desperate for an answer.”

“Our digestive system can take years to truly heal after removing gluten from the diet,” she continued. “However, within two weeks I started to notice my migraines had significantly decreased and I had much more energy. I wasn’t waking up in the morning with nearly as much joint pain and I was finally beginning to eat a meal and not run to the bathroom immediately after I had finished.”

Today, Shannon-Karasik has made it her mission to inform others about the potentially life-changing benefits from gluten avoidance. Her writing and recipe development have been featured in several publications, including the Dayton City Paper, VegNews, Kiwi and REDBOOK magazines, and at her own health, diet and lifestyle website, Sincerely Caroline (sincerelycaroline.com).

In early January, her book “The Gluten-Free Revolution,” published by Skyhorse Publishing, hit bookstore shelves. It has already garnered glowing reviews from HGTV and carries a five-star rating on Amazon.com.

“The ‘Gluten-Free Revolution’ susses out the difference between gluten-free food and healthy gluten-free food,” Shannon-Karasik explained. “The growing awareness of gluten-free diets has been largely beneficial to those of us who suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, but it has also caused large manufacturers to latch onto the fad-like nature of the ‘gluten-free’ label. It’s also resulted in a lot of misconception about what a gluten-free lifestyle looks like.

“Packaged snacks and overly processed foods are always unhealthy – gluten-free or not,” she added. “’The Gluten-Free Revolution’ brings readers back to basics and shows people a gluten-free diet looks like any healthy diet, minus the inclusion of very specific ingredients like wheat, barley, rye and contaminated oats. I don’t subscribe to an all-or-nothing lifestyle – with the exception of always eating gluten-free because of having celiac disease – so the book also relies on my philosophy you can have your green smoothie and gluten-free brownie, too. I wholeheartedly believe that.”

As a certified Pilates instructor and long-distance runner for over a decade, she also included fitness information in the book.

“I chose to include fitness in the book because I think so often we focus on our gluten-free lifestyle as the defining characteristic of this big, beautiful life we lead,” she said “And I don’t completely blame us for that – being gluten-free has had a huge impact on my life and has clearly shaped my dietary choices. But this gluten-free life of mine involves so much more than the food I consume on a daily basis!

“Fitness, for example, is a large aspect of the healthy life I choose to lead. I want people to see shaping their best gluten-free lives involves the whole picture: healthy foods, fitness, meaningful relationships, discovering a level of serenity and so on. All of those things won’t always be in check – and that’s OK. But it’s important that when we are seeking health, we address each aspect of our lives and not just the food we eat. Otherwise, we set ourselves up for feelings of disappointment – gluten-free or not.”

For those in Dayton who believe a gluten-free lifestyle could change their lives, Shannon-Karasik is reaching out with the solution that changed hers. She will be at the Dorothy Lane Annual Health Fair on Saturday, March 29 from 1 to 3 p.m., signing books and answering questions at the Gluten-Free Food Lovers Club table. The event features a number of vendors, speakers and samples of food, supplements, body care products and more.

“This book has given me an opportunity to have face-to-face interactions with people that I don’t get to have when I’m behind my computer screen, interacting with readers through my site and social mediums,” Shannon-Karasik said. “I’ve heard so many stories similar to mine – many of which include a very long road to an answer toward recovery. Hearing other people share their stories not only helps me and the people who are listening to learn, but it makes us all feel a bit less alone. People have shared with me stories that sound like carbon copies of my own, while others share [how] a gluten-free lifestyle has helped with their endometriosis, rosacea, energy levels and more.

“More recently,” Shannon-Karasik continued, “a man approached me during a meeting where I was discussing my book and said, ‘I could help but overhear your conversation and I just want to say thank you for all of the work you are doing for the celiac community. I was diagnosed 15 years ago and I literally ate the same thing every day because there were no options. It is so nice to have people who are out there working to change what gluten-free looks like.’

She added, “Moments like that mean more than I could ever express in words. And they always help remind me why I set out on this path to share my story with others. I know just how lonely – and scary – it can feel to figure this out, and it has always been my goal to be a voice of hope for even one person.”

For those unable to make the event at Dorothy Lane, she will also be on WDTN’s “Living Dayton” segment for a live cooking demonstration on Friday, March 28.

“Everyone has a different journey and the roadblocks vary for each of us,” Shannon-Kararasik explained. “I have always been incredibly in tune with my body and I knew the answers I was getting – you’re stressed, you’re depressed, etc. – were not sufficient. It wasn’t until I began reading about gluten intolerance and celiac disease that I began pushing my doctors to dig deeper.

“I say this to people all the time and I wholeheartedly mean it: ‘Trust your gut.’” Shannon-Karasik concluded. “In this case, it was quite literal! You know your body best. If you think something is up, then push until you get the answer that carries you toward better health.”

Tim Anderl is the web editor and a contributing writer at Ghettoblaster Magazine, and maintains his own music blog at youindie.com. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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