HARRISONBURG, Va (WHSV) — May is Celiac disease awareness month. Celiac disease is an auto-immune disease that causes gluten to severely damage a person's digestive system.
A local woman living with the disease told us why it's so hard to diagnose and how it's impacted her life.
Micaela McMullan started having migraines, stomach and joint pain, and experiencing weight gain in middle school. She says the symptoms would come and go and can indicate many different problems, so she brushed them off. But once she was a senior in college and it became so severe she began missing class, she knew something wasn't right.
She says it took countless trips to the doctor before she was sent to a specialist who diagnosed her with Celiac in a matter of weeks, after she suffered from the symptoms for nearly 10 years.
"It was a total overhaul of my entire life. When I first got diagnosed, my mom and I thought super simple, just stop eating gluten. But it's actually incredibly more involved than that. I had to replace all my kitchen equipment, all my appliances, I can't share food with my family anymore."
She explained that gluten-free is not the same as Celiac safe. There can still be high enough amounts of gluten to make someone with Celiac disease sick in foods that are labeled gluten-free, or they can be made in a facility where it could have come in contact with gluten. Most products like that come with a warning reading something along the lines of "Made in a facility that processes gluten."
Micaela can't eat at most restaurants, because they're not Celiac safe — she says there are only two or three in the entire city of Harrisonburg that are friendly for those with Celiac disease. It only takes something as simple as touching her food after touching something containing gluten to lead to serious risk.
"You're really trusting this restaurant stuff with your health and your life. Because one simple slip-up like something as simple as them picking a crouton off of a salad and thinking it's not a big deal can make me sick for probably a month or two."
Many people with Celiac rely on support networks and apps like "Find Me Gluten Free" to find Celiac-friendly restaurants across the country.
While she's had to make huge life changes, Micaela's grateful for her diagnosis. A local dietitian says it's estimated 95 percent of Celiac cases go undiagnosed.
"I was having headache issues and joint pain, and you would think that's not a stomach-related sickness, but with it being auto-immune, it can really impact you anywhere. So if you have unexplained symptoms, it might be worth checking out."
Micaela explained that it took around four to five months of eating gluten-free, at the doctor's recommendation, for her to start feeling better. She encourages people with possible Celiac symptoms to get tested.
It's a simple blood test to determine if someone may have it. She says she could have saved herself years of sickness if she was tested when she was younger.