Mark '93 and Christine Dash Muir '94

 

Life Changers

%890%right%Just as Christine Dash Muir '94 started settling into motherhood, her symptoms began. Intense abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and weight loss weakened her until she could no longer climb the stairs or lift her month-old daughter. A battery of blood tests pinpointed the problem: Muir had celiac disease, or gluten intolerance.

Experts estimate that one in 133 people have celiac disease, yet 96 percent of them go undiagnosed. Children under 5 are most often diagnosed, but adults are discovering that eating gluten found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley can create a smorgasbord of uncomfortable and debilitating symptoms. An autoimmune disorder, celiac disease can cause fatigue, anemia, and weight loss and lead to problems like osteoporosis and infertility. Children with the disease often fail to thrive, falling short of developmental milestones.

Eliminating gluten from a diet isn't as easy as just avoiding bread and pasta. Gluten is hidden in many products including natural flavorings like soy sauce, starches and fillers used in packaged foods, and many low-fat goods. Since her doctor provided only minimal dietary guidance, Muir and her husband, Mark '93, had to learn themselves what she could and couldn't eat. But as soon as she stopped eating gluten, Muir's symptoms lessened significantly. She gained weight and her energy returned.

A year after going gluten-free, Muir marveled at how well she felt. "I didn't know that you didn't always have a stomach ache or always have a headache," she said. Now, five years after her diagnosis, she's healthy, though still at the low end of her weight range. "I went for twenty-eight years poisoning my body," Muir said, "so if it's going to recover completely it's going to take longer than it would with a child." The Muirs' gluten-free life includes homemade meals that appeal to their two children and even dinners out to selected restaurants.

%891%left%Muir, a librarian at New Hampshire's Daniel Webster College, manages her condition handily and believes others can manage as well. "This is not a horrible thing to live with," she said. Eager to share what she's learned, Muir joined the board of the Southern New Hampshire Gluten Intolerance Association, a local resource group formed in 2004 to educate celiac sufferers and their families.

When people first learn they have celiac disease, "it can be so overwhelming and scary," Muir said. "I think this group is on the right track for giving people a positive step forward in living gluten-free." Twice its original number, the group coordinates potluck meals, speakers, and information sessions to improve the lives of celiacs in the community and to raise awareness of the need for gluten-free products.

At one such meeting, the group's medical advisor noted an absence of gluten-free personal care products on the market. Mark Muir, who had recently left his technology job and was searching for a small business opportunity, got an idea. A cook and an entrepreneur, he saw a potential livelihood in making and selling gluten-free soap. He researched the idea, developed a business plan, and taught himself how to make soap. Six months later he opened Gluten-Free Savonnerie.

Today, at his 1,200-square foot facility in Tyngsboro, Mass., Muir manufactures gluten-free soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and lotions for celiacs who suffer itchy skin from an associated skin disease. Customers in 49 states buy his products, as do more than 20 stores. With sales growing about 20 percent a month, he has found a niche. Christine Muir works on advertising and together they support celiac research. Their company has made donations to more than a dozen celiac awareness walks around the country.

Though the Muirs have seen an increase in gluten-free products and literature, they'll continue their involvement. Christine Muir is committed to both the personal and the collective cause. Having gained a "huge base of self-esteem" after working her way through college and graduating, she believes she can tackle any challenge that comes her way. "I think my experience at Colby gave me the self-confidence to get through this," she said.

,Laura Meader