As Jennifer Esposito puts it, “I was sick since the time I was born.” Yet it wasn’t until three decades later, after years of baffling and frightening symptoms, that the actress, author, and health advocate finally got a diagnosis. She went to countless doctors, each of whom preferred aggressive treatments over trying to figure out the root cause of her issues, until she finally found one who listened and diagnosed her with an extreme case of celiac disease. Read on to learn how Esposito’s untreated celiac disease shaped her life, why the relationship between gut health and depression is so important, and how she ultimately came to understand the effects of gluten on her body and heal.
A Cascade of Health Issues Caused by Untreated Celiac Disease
Esposito’s health issues began the moment she was born and didn’t stop after that. In the hospital, she was covered in red welts, which the doctor attributed to an allergic reaction to the soap she’d been washed in. Nobody thought much of it at the time, but she says, “Looking back now, knowing as much as I know now, I can see that obviously my autoimmune system was compromised.”
The ensuing years were filled with health issues, all of which could eventually be chalked up to untreated celiac disease but none of which seemed to have anything to do with one another at the time. Her teeth didn’t grow in properly (a common early sign of celiac disease); she experienced stomach and digestive issues; she got terrible cases of mono and Epstein-Barr. From the time she was 13 onward, she experienced serious anxiety that would often result in panic attacks. She would get neuropathy over one side of her body, causing one half of her face to droop. At age 18, she had a wisdom tooth extracted, and the anesthesia she was given caused some sort of chemical reaction that resulted in extreme agoraphobia, leading her to move back in with her parents for several years.
She was trying everything she could think of to feel better — vitamins, cognitive behavioral therapy, the various OTC and prescription medications she had for her countless ailments — but it didn’t occur to her or anyone else to consider her diet.
“My eating at the time was a bagel for breakfast, with like a gallon of orange juice, completely all sugar,” Esposito remembers. “My lunch was leftover pasta from the night before.My dinner was probably pasta with something else, so everything I was doing was hurting me and I didn’t know it.” Her untreated celiac disease was spiraling out of control, wreaking havoc on her body because of the effects of gluten on her system.
In later years, she began to get recurring sinus infections, with her entire face and eye area swelling up constantly. This, as she says, should have been a huge red flag that she was dealing with an allergy. “As soon as you see a redness and swelling around the eyes, you can pretty much look inside and say, ‘there’s an allergy going on somewhere,’” she says.
Yet her doctors did not see that sign. She went to countless practitioners, none of whom even thought to test her for celiac disease. Eventually, one doctor declared he had the answer: the bridge of her nose was too small. He suggested drilling holes through her eyebrows to release pressure and help things drain properly. As Esposito says, if she’d done everything the doctors had recommended, “I would be like Frankenstein!”
The courses of treatment doctors suggested were all over the place, but there was one constant theme: none of them ever showed interest in wanting to explore WHY so much toxicity — in the form of mucus — was trying to escape her body (or why she was experiencing so many other symptoms, for that matter).
Esposito ended up on both steroids and antibiotics, with all of their attendant side effects. “I was a complete disaster,” she remembers. At the time, she didn’t know about all of the damaging side effects of these medications, and just listened to her doctors. She had her questions, sure, but they were the experts, so she trusted them.
Getting a Diagnosis and Understanding the Effects of Gluten
Throughout her decades of untreated celiac disease, Esposito was still a working actress. At one point when she was filming a show in Los Angeles, her symptoms became dramatically worse. “My skin started peeling off my face,” she says. “My fingernails started to chip really bad, my hair started to fall out in clumps. And the exhaustion was at an all-time insane high.”
She just kept working, as she always had, because she didn’t want her illness to stop her ambitions. But then one day, in the middle of a take, her tooth popped out of her mouth. There was no denying that she was very, very ill, but she still hadn’t found anyone who could help her.
Esposito had been seeing one of the top gastroenterologists in the country for years, but he’d never thought to test her for celiac disease. Instead, he referred her to a female internist who he thought might be able to help. At that point, Esposito was so sick that her assistant had to carry her into the office. Sobbing, she told the doctor, “You’re my last hope.”
The doctor assured Esposito that she would get to the bottom of the issue, and the two of them talked for the next two hours. Esposito told her everything she’d been dealing with for the past decades, and then the doctor took blood samples and ran some tests. Three days later, she called Esposito and said, “You have the highest case of celiac disease I have ever seen. I don’t know how you’re alive.”
The doctor was shocked that the ENT hadn’t thought to test her for celiac disease, given that it’s a gut disease and that all of Esposito’s symptoms could be attributed to her gut health (and given the fact that he was a gut doctor!). Esposito was sent to a specialist, who helped her further understand the effects of gluten on her body.
Esposito explains that in the case of untreated celiac disease, when people unknowingly continue to eat gluten, the body becomes starved for nutrients and must fight to stay alive. Every time someone with celiac eats, say, bread (or anything else containing gluten), the effects of gluten set in. The body’s immune system attacks the gluten, damaging the villi that line the small intestine. Because these villi are in charge of taking in nutrients from food, the person becomes increasingly unable to absorb any nutrients.
“For me, my villi were done, so I wasn’t absorbing anything,” says Esposito. “I was so deficient in everything. So what happens is that your body starts to steal from other places for energy to stay alive. It steals from bones, or it steals from the nervous system. Mine was stealing from the nervous system in a major way, which is why I had such nerve issues.”
Ending Up in the Psych Ward Because of the Link Between Gut Health and Depression
Another symptom caused by Esposito’s untreated celiac disease was severe anxiety and depression. She had dealt with depression all of her life, even experiencing suicidal thoughts from time to time. She saw various psychotherapists over the years, many of whom put her on medications (and one of whom suggested shock treatment! She declined.).
She wasn’t sure what was going on, but she always had a sense that it wasn’t just mental health struggles, that there was some underlying cause. She had nothing to say to the therapists who kept wanting to up her dosages or try more extreme interventions. “I didn’t have the energy to fight, but there was always some little voice saying, ‘There’s something going on,’” she remembers.
Today, she understands that it all came down to her gut, and specifically to the strong connection between gut health and depression. For instance, the gut produces about 95% of the body’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter that produces feelings of well-being and stabilizes the mood. Her poor gut health had caused her serotonin levels to plummet, throwing off other processes and levels in her body and leading to her depression, anxiety, and panic.
After her diagnosis, she went to a specialist who told her that she needed to be on an antidepressant. Esposito pushed back immediately, not wanting to be given yet another prescription. But the doctor explained that the prescription was not because she believed Esposito had mental health issues, but because of the strong connection between gut health and depression. “She said, ‘No, you’re not understanding me. This is not for your mind. This is for your gut. Your gut is completely off. We need to balance the serotonin,’” Esposito says.
This made sense to Esposito, and so she agreed to the antidepressant and began the long journey of healing her gut — but there were more unexpected bumps along the road.
Immediately after her celiac diagnosis, Esposito cut gluten out of her diet. After all, it was the effects of gluten that had been causing all her issues, so this should be a no-brainer, right? She had one month between her diagnosis and her appointment with a top gastroenterologist, and during that time, in addition to cutting out gluten, she read everything she could about celiac disease. She saw one short mention of a gluten detox, or withdrawal effects from gluten, but didn’t pay much attention — until it really hit her.
“I went through such a detox,” says Esposito. “It was like getting off heroin. It was almost worse than being on gluten. Constantly sweating, constantly shaking, constant inflammation up in the chest so that you feel like you can’t breathe, so it triggers panic attacks. Headaches, stomach, hives all over my body.”
On the day that she finally went to see the doctor, she felt like she was going to jump out of her skin because of the withdrawal symptoms, despite being on four Klonopin a day. When the doctor walked into the room, she told him, “I need to be admitted. I can’t do this. I feel like I want to jump out the window.” While she was describing the unbearable nature of her physical symptoms, the doctor interpreted it to mean that she was suicidal, that she was having a mental breakdown. He told her, okay, you can be admitted — and promptly sent her to the psych ward.
Esposito spent the next 8 hours being monitored by psychiatric nurses, none of whom believed that her issues were physiological, not mental. When she was finally sent home, she truly realized that she could not trust in the medical system to help her heal. She would have to take her health into her own hands. “I thought, you’re on your own. You’ve got to get up tomorrow, start researching and figure this out, and that’s what I did,” she says.
The withdrawal symptoms subsided, and by understanding the relationship between gut health and depression, she was able to stabilize her mood and get off all psychiatric medications. “All roads lead to the gut,” she says. “When I was at my worst, I was on four Klonopin a day — four. I take nothing now. Not one pill, not one anything. I don’t have a panic disorder anymore. I don’t have depression anymore. I don’t get highs and lows. None of it — but it took time for my gut to heal.”
Taking Initiative and Finding a Path to Health
Esposito’s healing journey started small, and began the very night that she returned home from the psych ward. She took things one symptom at a time, trying to find the most natural and least invasive ways to manage each one. That night, for instance, she understood that the panic she felt rising in her chest was not actually panic, but rather acid being pushed up by her inflamed gut that was causing her to feel like she was suffocating. So, she began to sleep propped up at night, and that helped.
Celiac disease was not as widely understood or talked about as it is today, and so she turned to chat rooms to find others who were afflicted and learn more how to counteract and undo the effects of gluten on her body. “It was like piecing a puzzle together that was enormous,” she says. She found other small, natural remedies, like drinking aloe vera or hot water with lemon to reduce inflammation. She drank bone broth and collagen, and other gut-supporting foods. She made sure to get enough sleep, to drink enough clean water. She went on an autoimmune protocol diet.
Another vital piece of her healing journey was working with a functional medicine doctor who was able to give her essential vitamins through IVs. “People don’t understand that when your gut is off and you take vitamins, you’re not absorbing them,” she explains. “So you need these nutrients and vitamins to go directly into your bloodstream. With the IV, it bypasses the gut.”
Today, she is on no medication and feels her absolute best, inside and out. Still, she knows that her celiac disease is something she always has to be aware of and keep in check. “What I say to people is, autoimmune is autoimmune. It’s like keeping a wildfire at bay,” she says. “Your environment, your stress, the way you’re sleeping, it all plays a part. All of it. So I’ll still get flare-ups, but now I know how to tame the fire and calm the fire.”
After finding her way to lasting health outside of the conventional medical system, Esposito dedicated much of her energy to helping other people do the same. She wrote a book, Jennifer’s Way, and ran a gluten-free bakery in Manhattan for a number of years. She also works one-on-one with clients, helping them to get to the root of their health issues and truly heal. She helps them figure out what’s going on with their bodies and how to fix it, but also works with them on the mental shift that she says is so essential to any healing journey.
“The first thing to feel well is to accept where you are, who you are, and what you’re dealing with,” Esposito says. “You cannot go anywhere until you do that. I needed to accept that I have celiac disease and my life was going to change, and I was still okay.”
Watch our full interview with Jennifer Esposito to learn how celiac gave her a newfound respect for and awe of food, why nuts aren’t necessarily a “healthy” food, what detoxing practices she incorporates into her life, how the healthcare and insurance industries in the U.S. set people up to go undiagnosed for years, why eating a rotation diet is so essential to her health, and much more.
The recovery story above is anecdotal and specific to this particular individual. Please note that this is not medical advice, and that not all treatments and approaches mentioned will work for everyone.