StyleBlueprint Intern Elizabeth Gerber shares her story about living gluten-free in college, after spending her freshman year feeling sick and not knowing what was wrong with her. This story may resonate with many of you who are struggling with your own health as gluten sensitivities are real and can strike at any age.
My college story is different than most. I walked into my freshman year facing the same apprehensions as everyone else. I chose to attend The University of Alabama, 425 miles away from home. I didn’t know anyone, I was scared I wouldn’t make friends, and I couldn’t drive home on the weekends when I wanted to. What I was so afraid of turned out to be the least of my problems.
I started school unknowingly sick and in need of answers. My typical college experience soon turned into a long, mysterious struggle, landing me in the hospital before finally getting a diagnosis that summer. Buckle up. I’m about to take you down the bumpy road leading to my diagnosis of non-celiac gluten sensitivity and how I live gluten-free in college today.
Christmas break was over and I was headed back to start the second half of freshman year. I had been staying in Atlanta the weekend before school started back up and found myself shaking for no reason one night. I wasn’t nervous or stressed about anything and I wasn’t cold. I had no idea why I would be shaking. I would learn why four months later, but at the time, a glass of water and a walk outside made it stop.
The next couple months was a battle with diarrhea. I know what you must be thinking, “Months?! That sounds terrible.” Trust me, it was. I thought it would run its course, but I was wrong. Multiple trips to the student health center later and I still had no explanation as to why this was happening. I was miserable, exhausted and embarrassed. I even began to miss classes because I felt so sick.
My health was keeping me from living my life. I wasn’t eating dinner at the sorority house. I wasn’t going to fraternity houses for band parties on the weekends. I was a modern day Boo Radley, never leaving my dorm. But when it was time to celebrate a friend’s birthday, I wasn’t going to say no. I’m sure you all want to hear how much fun it was, but I’m going to skip all the details (loud music, girls dancing and lots of beer) and move on with the story.
That night was fun, until I found myself in the back of an ambulance en route to the hospital. The doctors examined me and ran some tests but couldn’t pinpoint the problem. When I got back to my dorm, I spent the rest of the night in the bathroom, but this time things were different. There was blood, nausea, dizziness and I couldn’t stop shaking. One call to my mom at 3 a.m. and she was in the car heading to Tuscaloosa.
We saw a doctor soon after she arrived, and a few hours and a couple of tests later I was told, “You are dehydrated and have a case of acute diarrhea.” Well, no kidding.
The next day I saw a gastrointestinal specialist who threw around the words colon cancer. Given the history of cancer in my family, I was petrified. Fortunately, the results of the colonoscopy that followed told me there was nothing wrong. Excuse me? That’s a joke, right? I didn’t suffer through months of this because I am perfectly healthy. I was not convinced nothing was wrong — how could I be sick for months? There had to be reason.
I met an internal medicine doctor when I was back home for the summer. Seven vials worth of blood tests later and I had my diagnosis: non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Who knew a small protein could give me so much anxiety and change my life forever. Since I was diagnosed in the summer, I had time to learn all there is to know about gluten. I searched the Internet and flipped through books to navigate my way through this new diet. Now, after two years of being gluten-free, I am confident I can find a solution to any problem thrown my way.
It hasn’t been easy learning how to live with gluten sensitivity, mind you. And interestingly, I didn’t struggle giving up food. The struggle mainly came from being different than my peers. Sometimes it has been a hassle. But I’ve grown more comfortable in my lifestyle and believe my peers have too.
So, how to manage living gluten-free in college where basically everything college kids enjoy contains the pesky little protein? When I returned to Tuscaloosa the fall after my diagnosis, I took myself off the meal plan and cooked my own meals to ensure everything was gluten-free. The hard part was grocery shopping. A simple task which once took 30 minutes now took almost three hours. I had to read every nutrition label making sure no ingredients contained wheat. Shopping for food was exhausting, until celebrities made it popular to be gluten free. (Thanks, Miley!)
The gluten-free diet has become a national buzzword, and this has made my life easier, actually: Food companies now market their products as gluten-free,right on the packaging. I’m able to go out to dinner with friends or family and not take a million years analyzing the menu. Most restaurants offer gluten-free menus now. I no longer have to stick to ordering salads with the dressing on the side and no croutons. I can order a pizza or a burger and not have to worry about how it will effect my digestive system.
Now for the topic most many of my friends worried about the most: alcohol. There is no shortage of it on any college campus and a lot of students drink it, even those dealing with gluten sensitivities. That summer I spent researching gluten sensitivity, I found out being gluten-free won’t necessarily keep you from having drinks with your friends. Here’s my cheat sheet:
• Beer: Gluten-free beer is a real product, but the thought of trying it makes me cringe.
• Whiskey: Supposedly distillation removes harmful gluten proteins, but I’m still not convinced.
• Bourbon: It’s 51% corn, but the other 49% comes from rye, barley and wheat (the three main sources of gluten)
• Rum: For the most part gluten-free. The flavored ones are the trouble makers.
• Tequila: Make sure the bottle says ‘100% agave’ otherwise your hangover could be that much worse.
• Wine: Completely gluten-free since it’s made from grapes. That means it’s healthy, right?
Playing the guessing game as to what was wrong with me was exhausting. Being rushed to the hospital for dehydration was a little scary. I was in college, a time where I’m supposed to be a “grown up”, but at times likes these there is nothing better than the comfort of a close family member. So when my mom drove those seven hours to see me, I didn’t question it. I needed her with me and she needed to be with me to put her mind at ease and know I was ok. After getting my diagnosis, I had a lot of anxiety about almost everything. But I quickly realized, I can make this work. I wasn’t going to have to miss out on anything college had to offer. It would just take more time and careful planning on my part.
Attending college is a big change for anyone. Being diagnosed with any sort of illness during those four years is an even bigger one. It’s impossible to learn everything overnight, but what I’ve come to realize over the past two years is what you can control is your attitude. I’d be lying if I told you it was easy, but keeping a positive outlook has allowed me to continue making the best of my college years.