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Calgary, Alberta – Dr. Justine Dowd, a Mitacs researcher at the University of Calgary, has a strong gut feeling — and it’s a healthy one.
For more than a year, Dowd has been working alongside Registered Dietitian Desiree Nielsen and WholeLife HealthTech CEO Darlene Higbee Clarkin to launch ‘My Healthy Gut,’ a first-of-its-kind app for celiac disease sufferers and anyone dealing with gluten intolerance. Supported by Mitacs — a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to building research-based partnerships — the app is designed to be a “dietitian in your pocket,” said Dowd, postdoctoral fellow funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research who set out to help those with celiac disease after receiving her own diagnosis in 2010.
“There are apps out there that point people to gluten-free restaurants or gluten-free foods, but what sets My Healthy Gut apart is the ability of the app to support those with celiac disease in self-managing their health. With a focus on evidence-based research, the app includes user experience data and input from healthcare providers that can help to optimize anyone’s digestive health,” she said.
Launched this month in the iTunes store, the My Healthy Gut app targets 100,000 Canadians currently diagnosed with celiac disease, plus an estimated 220,000 others who are believed to have the disease but have yet to be diagnosed. Anyone who suffers from digestive issues will benefit from using it, Nielsen explained.
“Healthy eating is difficult for anyone, but to totally transform your diet takes support. For the cost of a fancy coffee, this app that provides more information than a dietitian could ever provide in a one-hour session,” Nielsen said, adding that a free version is available to provide general digestive health information, a one-day pro-digestive meal plan and top 25 pro-digestive foods. People diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance will be able to download and purchase more robust packages that include enhanced journaling capabilities, recipes and targeted information.
In addition to raising general awareness about gut health and clearing up confusion about gluten-free diets, the app is intended to be used as a support tool, making it easy for people to log their symptoms and food intake so the information can easily be shared with a healthcare provider. “In my practice I regularly see people with celiac disease who try on their own to eat gluten-free and are surprised when their blood tests come back showing they’re still not all of the way there,” she said, noting that the main culprit is misinformation from the Internet. “My Healthy Gut isn’t a trendy fitness app. It provides information that has been vetted by a team of healthcare practitioners and researchers who are committed to an excellent standard of care.”
Prior to launching the app, the My Healthy Gut team conducted in-depth focus groups and a clinical research study with more than 100 adults who suffer from celiac disease. User feedback is applied to ongoing research and product enhancements.
Calgary-area resident Charlene Owen was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2014 after 10 years of searching for an answer to her symptoms, which included respiratory issues and joint pain. “I wish I would have had this app back in 2014 when my joints started to go haywire,” said Owen, who relied on books to help get to the root of her illness. “It’s unbelievable how much information is out there and not all of it is correct.”
Dowd’s own mother, Pam Janzen of Calgary, received her celiac diagnosis six years ago. At 58, she says she doesn’t use many apps, but found My Healthy Gut to be remarkably easy. “Having an app like this would have saved me time, money and heartache,” Janzen said. “Instead, I had to figure things out on my own and it wasn’t always easy to sort out symptoms, log my food intake and find current information based on science.”
At this stage only those users diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance are asked to set up accounts in My Healthy Gut so that pertinent information can be incorporated into ongoing research into digestive health, conducted by Dowd and her team of researchers at the University of Calgary. The goal is to continue to evolve the app, maintaining access to up-to-date research vetted by Nielsen and adding new features based on user feedback.
Future versions of My Healthy Gut will be tailored to support other digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, colitis and crohn’s disease, and will be available on other mobile platforms such as Android. The first phase of the project was supported by Mitacs, the Calgary, Vancouver and Kamloops chapters of the Canadian Celiac Association, and The Calgary Foundation. To learn more, visit myhealthygut.com.
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