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Health Matters: My Life with Celiac disease

I was born in a traditional Lebanese family where everything rotated around food; Christmas dinners, Sunday lunches, and everyday home cooking. My relationship with food was always a love/hate relationship. I love food but it always caused me discomfort and pain.

Sunday 15 February 2015, 09:00AM

A person suffering from Celiac cannot eat wheat, barley,or rye.

A person suffering from Celiac cannot eat wheat, barley,or rye.

Siham C. Semaan

In my childhood years, I was anaemic and the doctors would tell my mother to give me iron supplements, and to feed me spinach and red meat. My teenage years were years of migraines and joint pain. The doctors would attribute that to “part of growing up”. I got married in 1987, I was 22 years old and I had my son one year later. In 1992 when I was pregnant with my daughter, my doctor said that I would need a blood transfusion during delivery because of my severe anaemia. I was sick throughout my pregnancy and I was very weak. Luckily, I had a healthy baby girl, but I lost all my energy after giving birth.

Years passed and every year I would undergo endless medical and lab tests. The results were always the same: severe anaemia without knowing the reason, stomach lining inflammation, and horrible headaches. My nails were brittle and my hair was falling into clumps, but nobody could tell me what was wrong with me.

In 1999, my husband and I met a family doctor at a social event. I don’t want to say it was a coincidence, I would rather say it was “God’s mercy” to save me from my misery. The doctor was looking into my medical history with both concern and interest. It was a challenging case for him. He asked for one more endoscopy but this time to go deeper with the scope, down into my “duodenum”.

After a few weeks when we had all the results, the doctor welcomed us with a very serious face, and he said, “Well Siham, in all my years as a medical doctor, I haven’t met one single patient with your case. I only heard of the disease you have in textbooks while I was at medical school. What you have is Celiac disease or the Sprue”. I did not understand what he was saying, Celiac disease, what is that?

Who has an allergy on wheat? People have been eating wheat for thousands of years and nothing happened to them? Why am I different?

Slowly but surely, I learnt how to follow a gluten-free diet. With my husband’s support and my family’s care, I was able to regain my energy and started to feel better only a few weeks into my gluten-free diet. Everything was better, my mood, my stomach pain, my attitude – even my children could feel the change. They were getting to know a new mother, a mother who has energy, who can play with them, laugh with them, study with them, and spend quality time with them. Finally, we had peace at home! I have been on a gluten-free diet for more than 15 years now. And I see that my mission is to shed the light on the real meaning of Celiac disease and what it can do to your body.

QSI International School Phuket

What is gluten? How does the body react to gluten? The body reacts to gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, as if it were a poison. The immune system reacts to the protein by destroying the duodenum (a small part of the small intestine responsible for the absorption of vital nutrients from food). The malabsorption leads to serious illnesses.

What is the treatment for Celiac disease? The only treatment is a gluten-free diet. A person suffering from Celiac cannot eat wheat, barely, and rye. A Celiac patient should also avoid oats unless they are certified gluten-free. Moreover, he or she should avoid all processed and ready-made foods because they contain gluten in a hidden way. For example, soya sauce has gluten. Processed ham and turkey slices could contain gluten. Liquorice has gluten. Most ice creams have gluten. Some ketchups and HP sauces have gluten. Ready-made salad dressings have gluten. Some store-bought potato chips have gluten. Some candy brands have gluten.

How to live a healthy and happy life with Celiac disease? Be very strict with your gluten-free diet. Eat a healthy diet with a variety of fruit and vegetables. Exercise every day to keep your joints in good shape. Start preparing your own meals. Do your annual blood tests to check your iron levels, your calcium, and all the minerals in your body. Follow blogs and websites about Celiac disease and gluten-free cooking. Enjoy dining out, but do not forget to mention that you have Celiac disease. In restaurant language, it’s called a “gluten-allergy”.

Many restaurants in Phuket are very aware of this condition and cater to your needs. Just be patient and stick to your diet. It will become a way of life!

A couple of months ago, I started a blog called Bake Free. The purpose of this blog is to share Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean gluten-free and dairy-free recipes. Moreover, the blog shares articles and tips about Celiac disease. The blog is bilingual, English and Arabic.

Keep in mind that “Feeling healthy and feeling good about yourself is not a luxury. It’s an absolute necessity.”

Visit my blog on and like my Facebook page on or write me on if you have an inquiry about Celiac disease or gluten-free cooking.



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