Photograph of 4 gluten sources. Top: High-gluten wheat flour. Right: European spelt. Bottom: Barley. Left: Rolled rye flakes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Shortly after I stopped eating gluten a few years ago, a friend of mine confronted me about it: “Are you just suddenly celiac or did your homeopath tell you to stop eating gluten?”
“Neither. I just feel better without it”.
“Oh. Whatever”, he said, with a dismissive wave.
That dismissive “whatever” cut close to the bone. I stopped eating gluten just as the current gluten free craze was starting to gain traction. I recall feeling a bit embarrassed at first when I told people that I no longer ate gluten. I felt like a bit of a poseur, jumping on the latest health craze based on something I found on the internet.
Now, it feels like the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, fad diet trend or no.
About three years ago, I started having terrible stomach and gastrointestinal pain. After the usual battery of tests, I was diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and prescribed daily medication. Occasionally, I’d find myself in terrible pain, all of my joints feeling like they were on fire. My doctor could find no reason for this. Most significantly, I’d also been having migraines with aura, sometimes two or three a week, for years. My neurologist told me to be happy with a 50% reduction in headaches while on medication, as that was the best that anyone could hope to achieve. I was trying my best to take care of myself; eating regularly and trying to exercise, but by this point, a fifteen minute slow run triggered a migraine. I was terribly unhappy, worried about work, and conscious of the effect that my having to crawl into bed constantly was having on my family.
Running out of options (and patience), and on a hunch, I started keeping a food diary. After a couple of weeks, an interesting pattern emerged: my migraines, which often came in the morning, were usually preceded by a dinner of pasta the night before. The migraines that hit during my Sunday morning run looked like they were the result of carbo loading on Saturday night. I started researching the connection between migraine and gluten, and found this article, which suggested that the connection, pardon my pun, was not all in my head.
So, just to see what would happen, I cut gluten out of my diet. Just for a week, I though. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
A week later, I felt like a new person. I can count on both hands the number of migraines I’ve had since that week. I don’t recall the last time my joints hurt. My stomach no longer cramps and my throat no longer feels like it’s burning.
Most importantly, I feel healthy, and I don’t crawl into bed unless I want to.
I am the first person to acknowledge that my general level of health may have improved for reasons unrelated to the removal of gluten from my diet, correlation not being equal to causation, and all of that. It could be because of a shift in hormone levels (I’m not getting any younger, after all) or because of a reduction in my general level of stress since that time (ha!). I eat better, of course, and eating better is bound to make one feel better. Maybe there’s an element of the psychosomatic at play: I’ve felt so incredibly awful after the few times that I’ve eaten gluten (my last slip up was half a McDonald’s chicken nugget a year ago, and let me tell you how much I regret that for so many reasons) that I always swear to myself I’ll never ever eat gluten again.
Then again, when I have had days when my joints flare up or my head pounds, I can almost always pin-point the source of the gluten I inadvertently ingested, after the fact.
So now, I live gluten-free. As a caveat, my experience is mine alone, and not to be taken as an endorsement for a gluten-free lifestyle. I strongly suggest consulting with a health care practitioner before someone cuts gluten from their diet — or in other words, do as I say, not as I do. A genuine diagnosis of celiac disease can be missed if someone cuts gluten out of their diet prior to testing, with potentially life-threatening consequences, and any unexplained changes in your health should always be thoroughly investigated. I certainly wouldn’t endorse it as a weight loss regimen, despite those claims that cutting out wheat will lead to a flat stomach, although I can’t say I miss the fifteen pounds that I lost almost immediately. It takes work to ensure that everything I eat is gluten free, and more importantly, that I’m not just filing myself up with gluten-free bread substitutes with minimal nutritional value. Yes, I miss baguettes and and croissants and good pizza with a thin crust; ales, porters in the winter, wiessbiers with oranges slices in the summer; and more than anything, going out to a restaurant without fear. But for all of that, it’s been worth it, because the pain? I don’t miss that at all.