Son with Celiac Inspires Family

Posted: 7/5/2012

Posted July 5, 2012

Linda Witherspoon was poisoning her son.

She felt certain that what she was feeding her son would send him spiraling into pain. But Witherspoon knew that the only way to find out how to help her son was to hurt him.

She suspected Drew, now 10, had Celiac disease, also referred to as a gluten or wheat allergy.

"Here I have a feeling he has Celiac and it's poisoning my son to give him gluten, and I have to do it for two weeks before the tests," Witherspoon said, explaining how she had to feed her son in order for doctors to determine what was wrong with him.

Drew was diagnosed when he was 3, but only after Witherspoon kept telling people she knew something was wrong with her son. Doctors told her Drew was just a typical toddler. A few symptoms include severe constipation and diarrhea.

"I just knew there was something wrong with my son," Witherspoon said. "But the doctors said he's fine."

Witherspoon already suspected Drew had Celiac disease and knew she needed to find out for sure.

"If you don't get diagnosed you can get horrible health problems and can eventually die." Witherspoon said. "A lot more people are getting diagnosed in their 40s because for years they have been having problems."

A genetic component

Teri Gruss, the writer of, "Gluten Free Cooking Guide" for About.com said Celiac disease affects more people than many individuals may realize. She added that some people may not have Celiac, but could suffer from gluten sensitivity. Gruss said about 18 million people in the U.S. have symptoms of gluten sensitivity.

"I know lots of people that are affected by Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity," Gruss said. "There's a strong genetic link to both conditions which means if one person in the family is diagnosed, there is increased risk that others in the family also have the disease."

Karen Ansel, with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said more and more people are seeking out similar groups because of realizing they know someone affected.

"In 2003, a landmark Archives of Internal Medicine study found that as many as 1 in 133 people suffer from Celiac disease, far more than previously believed," Ansel said. "As a result, more and more people became aware of Celiac disease and gluten free diets."

Gluten not just in foods

So far, Drew is the only one in the Witherspoon family diagnosed with the disease. But his mother has to be careful, because gluten can be found in many household products, not just food. Witherspoon said gluten can be found in medicines, toothpaste, makeup and deodorant.

The fact that gluten can be found in so many items can be a bit overwhelming to someone just discovering they or their family suffer from the disease. Witherspoon first started getting information through the free support group, Raising Our Celiac Kids, or ROCK. She now operates her own branch of ROCK, helping out parents who are learning about their own children's illnesses.

Witherspoon added that one of the struggles she had with Drew when she started was making sure the food she brought into the home was gluten free. Now, because of label law changes, food manufacturers post whether an item is gluten free or not. But that wasn't always the case.

"It was really tough, because they didn't have the labeling laws so you would have to go through every single thing and have to really go through every single ingredient," Witherspoon said.

Because Drew needs gluten free foods, which often require preparation or are hard to find, Witherspoon has a freezer devoted just to the foods that Drew can eat. She added that more restaurants are adding gluten free items to the menu. There's even an online app to track down gluten free menus.

Gluten-free business

Witherspoon's research has now lead to her starting her own business, acting as the southern region sales broker for My Dad's Cookies, a gluten-free cookie company. She has already gotten the cookies into businesses in Davidson, Hickory and Charlotte, as well as Rocky River Coffee in Harrisburg.

"Everybody needs this and everybody wants it," she said. "It's just a matter of letting them try it."

More companies are getting on the bandwagon. One source said by 2015, gluten-free food sales are expected to top $5 billion in the U.S. alone. Witherspoon said she's paid more than $5 for a loaf of gluten-free bread.

Terri Gruss, with About.com, said that trend will continue.

"With increased medical diagnosis and media coverage, what food conglomerate or grocery chain would want to miss out on that kind of dollar growth?" she said.

Kristen Oliveri is the founder and head writer for the gluten-free website, Pasta's Kitchen, and is personally affected with Celiac disease.

"With the numbers of people being diagnosed with gluten intolerance and Celiac disease growing exponentially, supermarkets are reacting to the high demand for gluten free products," she said. "In your average supermarket these days, you can normally find one type of gluten free pasta, rice cracker and even gluten free bread."

Necessity and health fad

Oliveri said that she sees more people needing to switch to gluten-free diets.

"At the heart of it, I believe it's the way we've been producing and refining our products, such as wheat, over the last century," she said. "Our products in this country are packaged and processed in a certain way and my theory, along with many others, is that this could be a contributing factor as to why so many people are developing diseases and food allergies."

While some people may need to be on a gluten-free diet, others see it as a health fad.

Jackie Keller, founding director of the Los Angels health food company, NutriFit, said she's noticed many customers switching to the diet, even if they didn't necessarily need it.

"It's a popular fad right now and has been gaining momentum in the last year or so. Whether people need to switch to gluten-free diet is a different question, though," Keller said. "They're popular right now, because people in general are always looking for a magic pill to 'cure' dietary issues, like bloating and indigestion. Additionally, many people have gravitated to gluten-free in the mistaken belief that it is automatically healthier -- which isn't necessarily true -- and will help with weight loss, since the most obvious source of carbohydrate calories is removed, by removing the wheat."

While some people may not need to be on a gluten-free diet, others say the diet can help those who don't necessarily have Celiac.

"Others have been prompted to embrace a gluten-free diet to help offset side affects in children and adults from conditions such as Autism, ADHD and more," said Danny Bolstad, with Allens Quality Vegetables. "By removing gluten from the diets of those whose bodies cannot effectively digest or tolerate wheat, a general sense of health and stability, overall are often celebrated."

©2012 the Independent Tribune (Kannapolis, N.C.)

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