Road to 2020 Olympics Leads to a Diagnosis of Celiac Disease

Brooke Stratton celiac olympian ABC NewsAussie long-jumper Brooke Stratton thought eating oats, sandwiches and the odd pasta dish was fuelling her body to perform at its best, but it was actually doing the opposite.

  • Emma Brancatisano, 1

The Australian record holder said it was her Coeliac disease diagnosis that kept her in the game and competing at an elite level for so long. Stratton started competing when she was five and naturally fell into long jump.

“I just love that feeling of being able to nail a jump and just fly through the air,” she told 10 daily. She also happens to be really good at it.

After three years, Stratton won her first state medal when she was eight years old. She went on to compete at a national level and jumped a personal best of 6.60 metres in 2011.

But things started to unravel the following year when Stratton started experiencing symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, low energy and fatigue. “During the 2012 athletics season, I was struggling big time. My performances were going backwards, I had no energy at training and had to cut my sessions short,” she said.

For Stratton, the sport had been a way to challenge herself mentally and push herself to the limit. But when the 2012 London Olympics were on the horizon, her symptoms were holding her back. “I was in a position where I could have got there (the Olympics), but knowing my body wasn’t able to do what it normally would do was so frustrating,” she said.

Stratton said she attended regular doctor visits, with blood tests only showing vitamin deficiencies such as low iron and vitamin D. She claimed none of the doctors mentioned the possibility of Coeliac disease. After a year and a half of debilitating symptoms, a specialist diagnosed her with the illness in 2013.

‘An Insidious Disease’

Coeliac disease is a medical illness caused by gluten, a food protein that is found in wheat, rye, barley and — to a lesser extent — oats. When people with the illness eat food that contains gluten, it triggers an abnormal immune response that causes inflammation and can lead to small intestine and bowel damage.

Gastroenterologist, Dr Jason Tye-Din said the impact of the disease can be far more widespread. “The disease affects not just the small bowel, but the skin, the liver, the bones, the brain, the nerves and the joints,” he told 10 daily.

Coeliac disease affects about one in 70 Australians, according to registered charity Coeliac Australia. But about 80 per cent of cases remain undiagnosed, meaning the majority of Aussies who have the condition don’t know it.

Tye-Din said this comes down to the broad spectrum of symptoms that occur in Coeliac disease. “Everyone is a bit different. Someone might present with tummy issues, but there are others who might be lethargic, or have infertility issues,” he said. “It’s such an insidious disease in many ways; it can sneak under the radar of many GPs.”

Coeliac disease can be treated by strictly removing gluten from a person’s diet. But if left undiagnosed and untreated, it can increase their risk of developing osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, nutrient deficiencies, fatty liver disease and certain cancers such as lymphoma, according to Tye-Din.

Stratton’s Road To Rio

About six months after her diagnosis, Stratton said she was back to her “energetic self” — just in time to train for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. For the first time in two years, she said she was back jumping at her best. Stratton set a personal record of 6.7m which qualified her for the Games. Unfortunately, she had to pull out due to a back injury.

In 2016, Stratton jumped 7.05m and broke the Australian women’s world record. That jump, and a win at the National Championships, helped her to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She said her diagnosis helped her to get there.

“If things had kept going the way they were, I don’t know how much longer I would have been able to do the sport for,” she said.

‘We Need To Take Gluten Seriously’

Stratton said she thinks many people do not understand the severity of the disease that is often considered a fad or a lifestyle choice, not a lifelong illness. This is a common misconception among Aussies.

A recent survey of 2,330 people in NSW, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found about 24 per cent of those who were non-coeliac were still eating wheat or gluten-free. About 14 per cent of those were doing so due to sensitivity or adverse symptoms, while the remaining 10 per cent thought it was a healthier lifestyle choice.

Tye-Din said there is little evidence showing this is the case. “There is certainly a large proportion of the population who do have the perception that the gluten-free diet is a healthy lifestyle choice,” he said. “The irony is there is emerging evidence that the opposite happens; that for people who are not Coeliac, a very restricted gluten-free diet may end up being unhealthier if they’re not careful about it.”

He urged the public to see a doctor if they have any symptoms. “A proper diagnosis can be absolutely life-changing,” he said.

Meanwhile, Stratton is training hard to qualify for her second Olympics — Tokyo 2020 — a dream she may never have achieved if it wasn’t for being told to change her diet for her health.