The symptoms began early. “I had an allergic reaction to something within hours of being born,” Jennifer Esposito said. The “Blue Bloods” and “Mistresses” actress had been sick her whole life—anxiety attacks, stomach issues, sinus infections. “I just learned to live with it and accept it, going through my life thinking that symptoms like these were normal.”

Doctor after doctor found nothing wrong with her. “It was either ‘have some medication for this’ or ‘maybe it’s your hormones’ or ‘maybe you need therapy’ and ‘maybe you’re a hypochondriac,’” Esposito said. “It was always something other than what it actually was.”

An answer at last

The 42-year-old only discovered the true cause in 2009, after a battery of tests ordered by a new doctor. “She called me three days later and said, ‘You have the worst case of celiac disease I’ve ever seen,’” Esposito recounted. “And I said, ‘What’s that?’ I had no idea.”

“The longer you go with this disease and don’t know, the worse it gets.”

But the diagnosis was thrilling. “For years I didn’t know what was wrong with me, so to have an answer was wonderful to hear. I was happy to know that I wasn’t wrong. I knew my body wasn’t right.”

Awareness of celiac disease is growing, but it remains undiagnosed in many people, despite the availability of reliable tests. “The number of people that write me and have a similar story to mine—or worse—is frightening,” she said. “The longer you go with this disease and don’t know, the worse it gets.”

Live and learn

With her new gluten-free lifestyle came new considerations, particularly when eating out. “For a celiac, to go out to dinner is just a very big risk, and it’s a really big weight to put on that restaurant.” So in 2012, Esposito opened Jennifer’s Way Bakery, a gluten-free kitchen in Manhattan.

Still, Esposito has learned to accept that her body can be fickle. “You can’t possibly think that you’re going to stay in control of it all the time,” she said, a conviction she recommends to her fellow celiac sufferers. “They really need to understand it’s an autoimmune disease, and they need to treat it as such and be kind to themselves.”