They threw me off Bondi Beach for being too sunburnt - no-one knew I had Coeliac disease

Debbie Sitton
Debbie Sitton
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Until she was 30, Deborah Sitton suffered with an illness which left her barely able to eat and weighing just six stone.

It affected every part of her life and led to a bizarre incident where she was thrown off Bondi Beach in Australia for being too sunburnt.

But a chance conversation with her father changed her health for the better – she discovered she was suffering from Coeliac disease.

Until she was diagnosed, Deborah, who is now 51 and lives in Fareham, had a fraught relationship with food.

She says: ‘I thought it was normal to feel bloated after you’d eaten and I didn’t really like food because of that feeling.

‘I didn’t want to go out for birthday meals because I found eating so unpleasant. My friends watched me like hawks because they thought I was bulimic or anorexic. I was painfully thin’.

Deborah recalls an incident on holiday in Spain as a teenager with a friend.

‘We ordered a huge paella. I was so hungry and, because she was ill, I ate all of my huge dinner and then hers.

‘She’d never seen me eat like that before. But, because there was no gluten in it, I didn’t get that horrible feeling. I just kept eating and eating and didn’t feel full.

‘And the next day I felt great. That was until I started eating a baguette. I could only manage half before I began to feel awful, because it had gluten in’.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition. The immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. This damages the surface of the small bowel (intestines), disrupting the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food.

Gluten is the sticky protein found in wheat, barley and rye which means it is in a wide range of every day foods – including pasta, cakes, breakfast cereals and most types of bread and sauces.

‘I didn’t understand because I didn’t know about food allergies’, says Deborah.

‘As a child I was very fussy. I used to say no to food all the time. I thought the feeling I had after eating was how you were supposed to feel. My parents were constantly nagging me to eat.

‘I felt a very uncomfortable fullness so sometimes I didn’t eat for days. And when I did eventually eat it felt as if an alien was trying to burst out of my belly’.

And there were other symptoms. ‘I would get quite depressed at times and not know why because my life was good’ says Deborah. ‘It was definitely related to gluten because you lose all your vitamins.’

Deborah’s illness was at its worst when she was travelling around the world aged 30. She says: ‘I had very unusual symptoms. In England I’d been suffering irritable bowel. While travelling I had diarrhoea, constipation, mouth ulcers and my skin was really dry. I couldn’t eat anything because it either went straight through me or I’d be constipated.

‘My skin was so sensitive I couldn’t put suntan lotion on. I had a terrible reaction.

‘In the sun, melanin gets your body prepared for protecting yourself against the sun, but mine didn’t. When I put suntan lotion on it acted like concrete on my body, sealing my skin so it couldn’t breathe.

‘I was in Australia and I got thrown off Bondi Beach because I was red raw. I had bad reactions to everything.

‘By the time I got home I was painfully thin, my skin was so bad and I had chronic hayfever. I was run down. I suffered from fatigue and had no energy.

‘I’d been to the doctors so many times with all my different symptoms that I felt like a hypochondriac. But I never went and discussed all my symptoms together. I thought ‘‘what’s wrong with me?’’

‘I never spoke to my family about it though because I thought that was just the way it was, that I was unlucky with my health’.

One evening following a delicious meal at her father’s house, the penny dropped. She says: ‘I wondered out loud why I never felt bloated after eating at my dad’s.

‘He asked what my other symptoms were and he explained that he was a coeliac and they only ever ate gluten-free – delicious shepherd’s pies, spaghetti Bolognese, roasts.

‘So I got tested and, sure enough, I was coeliac too.

‘I remember the first time I went shopping afterwards, I spent two hours walking around the supermarket in a daze, I only had a thin layer of food in the bottom of my basket. I cried because I didn’t know what I could eat.

‘Then I began really studying labels and realising what rubbish goes into our food. Now I eat clean – rice, potatoes. I never buy processed food or microwave meals. I make everything myself from scratch – even curries and Chinese.

‘Now I eat a lot more, I’m a lot healthier and two stone heavier, it’s great.

‘It’s been a massive revelation to find that small changes mean I can eat so much more. If I eat gluten now by mistake I notice it and get good quality vitamins down me and by the next day I start to feel better.

‘Before I would spiral into an illness. I now live a very holistic, healthy life.’

According to Coeliac UK, 500,000 people are living with undiagnosed Coeliac disease.

Deborah Sitton is a member of the South East Hampshire Coeliacs Group which supports and campaigns on behalf of people with the disease.

They meet monthly at venues across the area. For more details email sehants@coeliac.org.uk or go to the group’s Facebook page.

Miss Sitton, a yoga teacher and beauty and health product consultant, uses only natural products.

She recommends Neals Yard Remedies, which can be found at nealsyardremedies.com.

And there is no reason to stop eating your favourite treats.

Browns Coffee House, in West Street, Fareham is one of few eateries in the area, including Southsea Coffee Company, to offer gluten-free treats.

Diane King, from Browns, uses this recipe for gluten-free chocolate brownies:

100g butter, 150g cooking chocolate, 100g Doves Farm Gluten Free Self-Raising Flour, 200g sugar, three eggs.

Beat the eggs together, then mix in the sugar and flour.

Gently melt together the butter and chocolate, then stir this into the egg mixture.

Pour into a 150 x 200mm oiled and lined baking dish.

Bake in a pre-heated oven for 30 to 35 minutes.

Cut into squares or slices before serving hot or cold.