When Jennifer Esposito was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago, the actress was shocked and relieved. "It was hard, but it was also the day I realized the person I once knew as 'me' was gone," says Esposito, 39, who plays detective Jackie Curatola on the CBS hit police drama Blue Bloods.
Misleading advice and a delayed diagnosis cost Esposito precious "life" time as she searched for the reasons behind a litany of unexplained ailments, she says. Now she's determined to save others from the same pain and frustration by raising awareness of celiac disease -- also the goal during May, National Celiac Disease Awareness Month.
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Shortly after learning she had celiac disease, Esposito launched Jennifer's Way, a web site and blog to help others "learn to live again, gluten-free." She has nearly 6,500 followers on Twitter (@JennifersWayJE), and a cookbook, food product line, and bakery in New York City in the works. "This is so rewarding, the second chapter of my life," she says. "I'm grateful to be able to give something back."
What is Celiac Disease?
Two million people in the United States have celiac disease. The condition isn't a food allergy; eating gluten causes the body's immune system to damage the fingerlike villi lining the small intestine that allow nutrients from food to be absorbed into the bloodstream. As a result, the body is not able to take in nutrients effectively.
Growing up, Esposito recalls telltale signs as a youngster and a life regularly interrupted by illness, even as she tried to lead a healthy lifestyle. She says she learned to map out the closest bathroom; celiac can bring on symptoms like queasy stomach, gas, and diarrhea. Celiac disease also tends to run in families. Esposito's older sister, Suzanne, was eventually diagnosed.
Gluten shows up in products containing wheat, barley, and rye. And it can "hide" in soy and other sauces, processed foods, and medicines and vitamins.
"Now I'm a food detective -- food gives me life, but I know it could also harm me," Esposito says. "Listen, for your body will tell you what it wants and needs."