WHEN eight-year-old Laura Mulraney of Cuminestown started school she simply could not learn anything.
“She was really struggling,” admitted her mother, Carol. “It was a real worry for us.”
Yet, incredibly, within a term she had caught up with her classmates.
What made all the difference was being diagnosed with coeliac disease. An intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye and many foodstuffs, had been affecting her brain.
“It was amazing,” said Carol. “When we cut gluten out of her diet, she started to learn.
“Now we know that a lot of coeliac sufferers find that if they are exposed to gluten that their brains become fuzzy and they can’t think properly.”
However, that is only one of the many severe symptoms that sufferers experience.
Gluten is included in most breads, pastas, flours, cereals, cakes and biscuits, and it is often used as an ingredient in many favourite foods such as fish fingers, sausages, gravies, sauces and soy sauce.
Yet, an intolerance to it can result in coeliac disease, an auto-immune disease which causes the body to attack itself.
Symptoms can include bloating, abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, diarrhoea, wind, tiredness, anaemia, headaches, mouth ulcers, recurrent miscarriages, weight loss, skin problems, depression, joint or bone pain and nerve problems.
There is no cure or medication for it, and the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet for life.
Laura’s mother usually cooks a separate meal for her, using part of the cooker kept just for her. And she has her own bread and biscuits which are kept separate from those enjoyed by her brother Anthony (11) and sister Rachael (6).
She even has her own toaster.
“Just one crumb of normal bread would have her sick and off school for a couple of days,” said her mum.
“We had to learn where to source gluten-free food, and what products it could appear in. For example, wheat powder can be used to stop raisins sticking together or to thicken soups.”
Alarm bells were ringing about Laura almost from birth. “Even as a baby she could not take dairy products without it sparking an asthma attack or eczema,” said Carol.
An internal biopsy under general anaesthetic at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary when Laura was five confirmed that her digestive system was badly damaged. Food was not being digested properly and she was simply not getting sufficient proteins.
Laura was luckier than most in being diagnosed sooner rather than later. Ceoliac UK, the charity for those with ceoliac disease, says that one in a 100 people in the UK have it, however only one in eight of these have been diagnosed. The average diagnosis is 13 years.
Left untreated, it can lead to infertility, osteoporosis and bowel cancer.
Coeliac UK, which is working closely with the food industry to help the Free From market improve, says the symptoms of the disease range from mild to severe. Not everyone with it experiences gut-related symptoms; any area of the body can be affected.
Coeliac UK is encouraging the nation to shop, cook or eat out completely gluten-free. People can sign up and pledge their support at www.coeliac.org.ukglutenfreepledge. Everyone who signs up will receive gluten-free recipes and information about the gluten-free diet.
Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK, said: “Many people may have struggled for years to get diagnosed with coeliac disease and are then faced with a complete change in diet and lifestyle.
“For them it is not a matter of choice or a faddy diet, it is essential. Many everyday foods in the shops, or dishes in restaurants, can be gluten-free with some simple recipe changes and so eating gluten-free could and should be easy. However, there is still a lack of provision in many catering establishments.
“Better choice for people with coeliac disease means making simple changes to recipes and letting consumers know that their products will help them maintain their gluten-free diet. This is a lucrative market and the catering industry needs to make more of it.
“People may be surprised by how good some gluten-free products are and how many naturally gluten-free dishes are on the menu. But you may also be frustrated by the unnecessary limitations on the gluten-free diet.
“By popping into your local café, restaurant or work canteen and asking what they have which is gluten-free is spreading awareness and will encourage caterers to offer more options for customers.”
• Around 1,200 newly diagnosed people are joining Coeliac UK every month. For further details on membership, call the Helpline on 0845 305 2060. Further information can be found at www.coeliac.org.uk.