Yeah, I know. I thought it was just another fad diet, too. Like Atkins or South Beach or Paleo. I thought it was another one of those gimmicky ways to “lose weight fast!” and how could it possibly be real, right? To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what “gluten free” meant. No carbs? No wheat? Vegan? In fact, a friend and I were chatting about it recently and neither one of us was all that sure what it was about.
So when I saw an article called “This Gluten-Free Thing Is A Really Overblown Fad!” I eagerly clicked on it, searching for journalistic proof in my belief that it was just another stupid Hollywood-induced trend. I mean, The Huffington Post is pretty serious internet journalism, people, and I needed validation. Instead what I got was an explanation, with a somewhat sarcastic tone, of how there are actual medical issues associated with gluten. Not just celiacs disease, but also non-celiacs gluten sensitivity, or gluten intolerance.
Um ... what?
I had no idea what that was but I was intrigued. I clicked on the links provided in the article and read a little bit more. Then a little more. And maybe a little more after that. All these symptoms the articles kept mentioning --joint achiness, numbness/tingling in the extremities, bloating, abdominal cramping, migraines, brain fog, chronic exhaustion, even irritability, depression, and anxiety-- they were all symptoms I experience on a somewhat regular basis. Not all of them everyday but at least some of them most days. And not once did I ever think they were linked together, much less connected to the food I was eating.
Okay, maybe the bloating and abdominal cramping was connected to what I was eating. “I must have eaten too much,” I would think and that would be that.
The numbness in the extremities and joint aches were a result of sitting at my desk for too long or not being active enough. Or maybe my desk chair wasn't set properly for my height. Yeah, that must be it.
The chronic exhaustion? Well, that’s an obvious one. It’s because of the insomnia, which also causes the brain fog. And, let’s not forget, the insomnia stems from the anxiety, obviously. Oh, and the migraines. The migraines must be from lack of sleep/not enough water/too much sugar/too much caffeine/not enough caffeine/god only knows what else.
See, I had an answer for everything. And a big general overall answer that this was just a part of entering my 30s and getting older. Bring on the comfort food.
But could there really be an explanation for all these symptoms and, better yet, a way to eliminate or reduce them? Could it really be as simple as not eating gluten? What the heck was gluten anyway? To say I was intrigued was an understatement.
I began reading more about non-celiacs gluten sensitivity. What is it? How is it diagnosed? How is it treated? What are the long term affects? Is it genetic? Turns out, not a lot of information is known. The one way to see if you potentially have it, and to treat it, is to eliminate gluten from your diet.
So, I decided to do just that for 30 days as a trial. Just to see if maybe there’s something to this after all. I was optimistic but skeptical. And somewhat in denial. I freaking love pizza and pasta and soft, crusty-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside French bread and now I'm finding out those things might be harming my body. When I told the Husband about this decision, he was fully on board. He’s well aware of all the various symptoms I have and to know there might be a solution was exciting for both of us. So, I cut out the gluten and made things like hearty beef stew with yummy sweet, buttery cornbread, or creamy, cheesy mushroom risotto for dinner. We definitely were not doing it for any kind of weight loss benefits.
I kept a journal to see if I could detect any changes or patterns. The first two days didn’t really feel much different. In fact, I had a little bit of a headache on the second day. But on the third day, I woke up feeling refreshed and energized. I wasn’t groggy like usual and I’m sure part of that was because I only woke up once during the night. Prior to cutting out gluten, I’d wake up an average of 4 times a night. There was nothing refreshing about those mornings, let me tell ya.
On Day 4, I decided to make myself a glass of chocolate milk. I was feeling great -two nights in a row of solid sleep (didn’t wake up at all on the third night!) and no achiness or numbness in two days either. I read the label on the back of my Nestle chocolate milk mix and saw a little warning that said, “May contain wheat.” I’d been reading a lot about living gluten free and seen plenty of warnings about cross-contamination, but it was just chocolate milk mix and it only said it may contain wheat, it wasn’t an actual ingredient. How bad could it be?
Within an hour of drinking that glass of chocolate milk, my legs were numb and tingling from mid-calf down to my toes. My wrists and hands were numb and tingling. Every joint in my body ached. It was like I suddenly had the flu, but without the fever. Because of the total body aches and numbness in my legs and arms, I had trouble getting comfortable that night and falling asleep. I woke up 5 times that night. Slept for about an hour, woke up. Slept for about an hour, woke up. Slept for about an hour, woke up. All night like that. I woke up the next morning feeling groggy, grumpy, and with a throbbing headache. It didn’t wear off till later that afternoon, despite two Excedrin.
After that, I told the Husband I was about 75% convinced I was gluten intolerant. That could’ve been a coincidence, I thought. He said he was 100% convinced.
I continued eating gluten free and, after The Chocolate Milk Incident, I really made an effort to avoid cross contamination. If something even said “May contain wheat” I didn’t bother with it. With each day that went by, I felt better and better. I had more energy and no longer felt the need to take a nap (or two) everyday. I was sleeping through the night and remembering my dreams when I woke up. I hadn’t realized how long it’d been since I’d been able to remember my dreams, or even stay asleep long enough to have dreams. I could sit comfortably at my desk and stay focused on work because there were no more joint aches or leg and wrist numbness. I didn’t feel bloated or crampy after meals, regardless of how big or small they were. And I went a full 9 days without any headaches, minor or migraines. For someone who got a migraine at least once a week (sometimes lasting up to 4 days), along with other minor headaches here and there, I considered that a huge success.
I’ve read a few skeptical articles that say people notice these changes because they’re no longer eating processed foods or junk foods. I promise you, this is not the case for me. For one thing, we hardly ate processed foods before. I make a homemade dinner 5 or 6 nights a week and, as someone who works from home, I usually eat breakfast and lunch here at home, too. My lunch used to be leftover homemade pasta, now it’s leftover homemade risotto. Trust me, that’s not saving any calories. As for junk food and sugar? Nutella is gluten free, as is Trader Joe’s Mint Chip ice cream. Those are not leaving my kitchen any time soon.
I got further confirmation of my suspected gluten intolerance last Sunday. We were out of town for a wedding and, before catching our flight back to San Francisco, we decided to check out a little pizza place in Palm Desert. Yes, pizza has gluten. But the woman in charge told us she had a pretty tasty gluten free pizza crust, and she’s gluten free herself and eats it all the time. I didn’t even think to ask any other questions so we sat down and ordered up a gluten free mushroom pizza. And I can tell you this - it was actually pretty tasty. Even the Husband ate some after he finished off his own gluten-filled pizza goodness.
About an hour later, while we were sitting in the lobby of our hotel passing the time until our flight, I started to feel a bit nauseated. Then abdominal cramping set it in. Like, major cramping. Not too long after that my right leg went numb and tingling from the knee down. I thought maybe it’s because of how I was sitting, cutting off circulation or something, so I lounged back on the couch and tried to relax. It didn’t help at all. In fact, the left leg joined in the numbness party soon after. Then the yawning started. I was suddenly so overwhelming tired I just wanted to fall asleep right there in the hotel lobby. I could barely keep my eyes open and it was only 1:30 in the afternoon. By the time we got to the airport, I was feeling a little blue and irritable, like anything and everything could piss me off, and by the time we landed at SFO, I had a full on migraine. I barely slept that night and the symptoms didn’t go away until later the next afternoon.
I realized I’d made a huge mistake. One I definitely will not make again. I assumed that because the restaurant offered a gluten-free crust, that they understood the perils of cross contamination, too. I should’ve known when she said she eats gluten free just to watch what she eats, not because of any health issues. I should’ve asked if they took measures to avoid cross contamination in the kitchen. Was there a separate area dedicated to prepping the gluten free pizzas? Were they cooked on the same pans, using the same utensils, the same cutters, etc as the regular pizzas? Did they roll the dough out on the same surface as the other pizza doughs?
Now, looking back on it, I highly doubt any measures were taken to prevent cross contamination. And I was mad at myself for not asking the right questions beforehand. After seeing how my body reacted, how much stronger the symptoms felt after 9 days with no gluten whatsoever, it confirmed for me that my body cannot tolerate it. I’m still learning as much as I can about it and reading a little more here and there everyday. I’m experimenting with new recipes and discovering new foods to eat. It’s a process with a pretty steep learning curve but I have a love for cooking and a supportive husband who eats anything I put in front of him - what else do I need?
I also have a new-found love and respect for my body. I’ve tried to “cut out” foods before -carbs, sugar, whatever- in an attempt to lose weight because I didn’t like how my body looked. This is different. This is not about losing weight or reaching a certain size or looking a certain way. This is about giving my body what it needs to stay happy and healthy. I plan to live until I’m at least 90* and have many adventures during this lifetime and I need a healthy body to do that! I don’t care if I don’t lose a single ounce during this process (remember that Nutella and ice cream I mentioned ... ?). My goal is to find foods that love my body rather than harm it and to give my body the respect it deserves for all the hard work it puts into keeping me going day after day. My body decided it doesn’t want gluten. I decided it was time to listen.
*I realize you can’t “plan” to live to a particular age and life is what happens when you’re busy making plans and blah blah blah, but it’s good to have goals.
**Pursuing Happiness is a new series that will focus on the little things that help maintain balance and find the path to happiness.