Like many of the women in her support group, Gladys Voth suffered for years from stomach upset and fatigue before her doctor finally was able to put a name on her strange set of symptoms.


Like many of the women in her support group, Gladys Voth suffered for years from stomach upset and fatigue before her doctor finally was able to put a name on her strange set of symptoms.

She has Celiac disease, which affects the finger-like lining of the intestines. The consumption of gluten, which is food in wheat-based products and other foods and products, and, in Voth’s case, milk products, flatten the fingers and causes the patients to be unable to metabolize their food properly.

About one in 155 people have the disease.

There is no treatment or medication for the illness. Sufferers need only follow a gluten-free diet.

“I felt as if I was going to die. I was so sick” said Lois Zehr of her health prior to diagnosis during a recent meeting of the Food Intolerance Group, which Voth leads in Hesston.

Symptoms can vary for the disease, and some patients have no symptoms.

Jan Steider, group member, said she had been severely anemic before she started eating gluten free and had to get repeated iron shots.

Irene Nitzsche, group members, said she felt like she was constantly hungry but lost large amounts of weight.

“I was down to 95 pounds, and I was eating three large meals a day,” she said.

Voth said one of the hardest parts of her diagnosis was the feeling of being so alone, and the group has helped her overcome that.

Although the group is open to anyone with a food intolerance or has a loved one with a food intolerance, the group primarily is made up of women, who meet to discuss the challenges they have of living gluten-free.

They also trade recipes and share tips on cooking and eating out.

For Voth and the others every-day excursions to a restaurant or grocery store are filled with a gauntlet of obstacles.

Some of no no’s are obvious like bread, wheat pasta, rye, barley, oats and cereal.

However, gluten can be found in some unexpected places, such as toothpaste, shampoo, makeup, lunch meat, soy sauce, licorice and jelly beans.

“You have to read labels,” Lois Zehr, group member said.

The women in the group said the labeling has greatly improved in recent years, and companies are starting to market more gluten-free products.

Voth searches the Internet and is not afraid to call a company to ask questions about ingredients or say thanks for the gluten-free products.

Voth also keeps a food journal. It can take 24 to 48 hours, in some cases, before she has a reaction to a food. The journals help her identify what foods have been problematic.

The women say the group has helped them adapt.

They use gluten-free recipes and bread mixes.

Voth said she cooks many of her and her husband’s meals three-fourths of the way together. Then she separates her gluten-free food and finishes the meal.

The members also said there are many meals they can still share with their spouses, such as stews and soups.

But the women admitted Celiac disease can put a strain on relationship.

Steider said it’s tough eating out or at people’s houses.

“It’s work,” she said. “I always feel like a difficult guest, and I can’t have this or that and I have to ask what is in this or that.”

And potlucks can be a disaster.

Some of the women attend Hesston Mennonite Church, and they support each other by brining clearly marked gluten-free dishes to church carry-in dinners. They also convinced the church leadership to offer gluten-free communion bread.

And the group also has sponsored gluten-free picnics.

“I felt butterflies in my stomach,” Voth said with a slight quiver in her voice and glassy eyes, “as I looked at that table and I knew I could eat everything on that table and not have to superanalyze it.”

The group meets at 7 p.m. the second Tuesday of every other month at Hesston Mennonite Church. For more information, call Voth at (620) 327-2334.