By Tegan Baker
Two years ago my life was blown apart when I became seriously ill. Excruciating stomach pains and extreme fatigue overwhelmed me. Imagine a really horrible stomach bug that lingers. After two weeks I called the doctor to be told that it was a virus and it would pass in a few days. It didn’t. After three weeks of agony, sleepless nights, and living off of cream crackers, the doctor started tests. In the next few months I was diagnosed with coeliac disease. After my initial diagnosis I was put onto a strict gluten free diet – the only treatment for a coeliac.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition. The body recognises gluten as a pathogen and attacks it, causing symptoms ranging from sickness to skin conditions, and if not treated can lead to even more serious long term problems such as anaemia, bowel cancer and osteoporosis. What’s even more shocking is that one in a hundred people in the UK have coeliac disease. It is often referred to as the ‘invisible illness’, due to the effects not being outwardly obvious as a broken leg would be. Coeliac disease is incurable, but unlike some other chronic illnesses, the symptoms can be controlled with a strict change of diet – so strict that a tiny amount of gluten can cause trigger the symptoms above.
Coeliac UK is a registered charity that helps sufferers and raises awareness. I spoke to one of Coeliac UK’s Dieticians, Nicola Crawford-Taylor about how students with coeliac disease can reduce the risk of ‘glutening’ in shared accommodation. She said, ‘if you are sharing a house or a cooking space within halls then it is important to be aware of the risk of contamination with gluten’. The best way to avoid cross contamination is to use toaster bags to toast gluten-free bread, use separate butter, spread, pickle and jam pots, and clearly label your food items to remind others not to use them. She added, ‘make sure that everyone you share your living space with understands the importance of you sticking to your diet’.
To show how Coeliac Disease effects Royal Holloway students I spoke to Georgia Hope, first year student of Criminology and Psychology BSc, and Emily Fox, second year student of Psychology, Clinical Psychology and Mental Health BSc, both of whom have coeliac disease. I asked them what dangers they have found for coeliac students living in shared accommodation. Georgia said, ‘at home we found that changing the diet of the whole household was the easiest way to keep my diet gluten free, but when moving away, this wasn’t possible. This presented extra problems with possible cross contamination. I was nervous as I’ve never had to deal with cross contamination at home, as we have a “gluten free household” but I found that planning meal times around others in your flat is helpful.’
So what can non-coeliac’s do to help? ‘The best thing flatmates can do is not to use a coeliac’s stuff without asking’, Emily said. ‘That cheeky bit of marmite you want to steal from the fridge, could actually gluten them’. Nicola also highlights the importance of non-coeliac housemates being aware. She said, ‘They [need to] consider the needs of the student with coeliac disease and be mindful of cross contamination’.
For many students, if they run out of bread, they can quickly pop to the Union shop, or grab a burger at Tommy’s. However, this can be tricky for a coeliac student. I asked Georgia and Emily how easy it is to find gluten free food on campus. Georgia’s experience is similar to my own, saying, ‘a lot of the time I’ve found it difficult, and sometimes had to resort to going back to my flat after my friends have been out, and then cooking my own food. I have found some cereal bars, but finding appropriate meals can be difficult’. Conversely, Emily said, ‘I’ve noticed so much more has become available in the past year, but it’s always more expensive’.
So whether you suffer from coeliac disease, live with someone who does or would like to raise awareness, please visit http://www.coeliac.org.uk for more information.
This article was published in our October 2016 issue.