If you came on one of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s (ADK) guided trips last fall you would have heard my disclaimer before the trip started. It usually went something like, “I’ve been having some intestinal issues the past couple of months, so you will probably see me run into the woods a few times during our trip. Please don’t follow me. I’ll be alright and meet you back on the trail.” It was usually received with a few laughs. How else should you receive news that your guide will be frantically running off into the woods during your trip to deal with his “intestinal issues”? What kind of riffraff does ADK hire anyway? For me though, it was a very serious matter last summer.
I had no idea why I all of a sudden was experiencing really bad diarrhea (5 to 6 times a day), really bad abdominal pain (felt like someone was punching me in my groin) and would occasionally vomit for no reason at all. At first, due to all the time I spend in the woods I really thought I had Giardia, a protozoa found in untreated water which can cause intense diarrhea. The tests for that came up negative though. And so began the litany of doctor’s appointments and tests that followed. I became an expert at getting a stool sample into a 4-inch diameter container (I should probably patent my technique), but never quite mastered how to suavely hand it to the attractive female behind the counter. Stool tests, blood tests, urine tests, and CAT scans didn’t uncover the root of my problem and the medley of medications we tried didn’t give it any relief. Every time I tried to inquire about diet related ailments I was met with strong resistance. My physician finally diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It was certainly irritable alright!
After that diagnosis, I really thought I was going to have to be the pioneer for a new hiking organization—“The Outhouse 46ers” or the “Cat Hole Warriors,” and proudly parade around with an orange trowel emblazoned patch. Maybe even start a non-profit called “Outhouse Rescue” dedicated to the restoration and cleaning of outhouses. I found myself flipping through women’s health magazines, reading their intestinal health articles (men don’t write about such things), trying to figure out what was wrong with me, while downing pints of yogurt and popping Pepto-Bismol®. Fortunately, I made an appointment with a great Gastroenterologist who asked, “Have you been tested for Celiac Disease?” I replied, “Celiac Disease? No I haven’t but I have a couple of family members with it.” “Well let’s get you tested,” she replied. After another stool test and a couple of blood tests she diagnosed me with Celiac Disease. To some this might sound like a dire diagnosis but for me I believe beams of light transcended from the heavens and Southern Virginia’s First Baptist choir started singing Halleluiah that day. I had a diagnosis!
According to The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, Celiac is an autoimmune disease that affects the digestive process of the small intestine. When a person who has Celiac Disease eats gluten, (a protein found in wheat, barley and rye) the tiny fingerlike protrusions in the small intestine called villi get destroyed. It’s these villi that absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. If undiagnosed and untreated it can lead to osteoporosis, infertility, neurological conditions and in rare cases cancer. Celiac Disease affects 3 million people in the United States yet many of them are undiagnosed because symptoms present themselves with seemingly unrelated symptoms, such as fatigue, joint pain, anemia and infertility. There is currently no cure for Celiac Disease and the only treatment is to follow a gluten-free diet—that is to avoid all foods that contain gluten.
It has certainly been a lifestyle change and a big learning curve switching to a gluten-free diet. I am now obsessed with reading labels and looking for tiny “G’s” or “GF’s” on packaging to reassure myself that what I am eating is gluten free. There are a lot of options out there now and in the spectrum of things it really isn’t that big of a deal. I’m now referred to as a “Celiac”, a “Gluten Free”, and a few other terms but I am still the same nature loving, outdoor adventurer that I was before, just with some specific food choices. It is a real thing, not some mainstream fad that is bound to go away. I actually had a family member die from it a few decades ago when they really didn’t know what it was. Are you having intestinal issues on the trail? Take care of them. Talk to your doctor about getting tested for Celiac Disease or other intestinal ailments and if you’ve got it, go gluten free! It’s really not all that bad.