Conversations About Gluten Intolerance

I’ve tried a few times to write this. There is just so much information it’s been hard to get it all organized. Plus, since I personally have the problem and I’m still learning to cook gluten-free, it’s sort of emotional for me and that makes it difficult, too. (Life doesn’t stop and give a person time to figure all this out; it keeps going and one has to eat and I don’t have a personal chef.) The reason I’ve persisted in trying to write this is that I hope reading it will help someone. So, here is another attempt with a new format. I’ve had several conversations with friends and family members who have asked good questions. Here are some of the questions and answers:

You can’t eat gluten? What is gluten anyway? Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye. The produce section of the store is where I feel the safest. When I go to other parts of the store, I have to read labels. I really appreciate the companies that take the trouble to put the words “Gluten Free” on their products. Otherwise, I have to plod through ingredient lists looking for things like hydrolyzed and modified starches and proteins and such. Also, extracts from wheat and barley and brewer’s yeast. Oat extracts also have to be avoided since there is no way of knowing if the oats have been contaminated by wheat by being processed on the same machinery.

Does that mean you can’t eat oatmeal? I’ve been avoiding oatmeal for now since some folks who are sensitive to gluten also can’t eat oatmeal no matter how it’s processed. That’s pretty rare though, but still I’m giving my body a chance to settle down from the gluten. When I go back to oatmeal, I’ll get some that is gluten-free.

Is there a list of gluten-free food? HEB and Kroger both have lists on their websites of gluten-free foods that they carry in their stores. When I want to know about a specific food, like when I first started doing this and had things like, say, a can of chili in my cabinet, I just go to the company’s website and see if it’s gluten-free. Most of them have an 800 number, so you can call, but so far I’ve been able to find out what I need to know by looking them up online.

What about dairy?  Dr. Shari Lieberman said in “The Gluten Connection” that sometimes a person’s body is going to react to dairy for a while when it’s having a problem with wheat. It can either mistake the protein in dairy, which is casein, for gluten protein, or it can be a problem with lactose, because the intestines are damaged and can’t produce the lactase needed for digestion of lactose. Sometimes after a bit of time a person can add dairy back into their diet.

I thought all this gluten-free stuff was a fad. So did I. That’s what I told my doctor when he suggested I try eliminating gluten from my diet to see if it would help my stomach. One of my relatives thought it was a fad, too, when I told her what my doctor told me to do. Then a couple of months later, she saw me and told me what she thought, and how amazed she was at how much better I looked.

What was the problem with your stomach? Acid reflux was so bad that sleeping propped up didn’t help at all. I was on a wedge with two pillows, with the head of the bed also raised on bricks. This started a few years ago and had been getting worse and worse. By late summer of last year, it was just getting ridiculous. Even if I ate five or six hours before bedtime, I still had reflux. That’s just some of the problem I had, but you can see it was causing some misery.

Some people, though, don’t have any digestive symptoms at all. About 1/3 of those who are diagnosed with Celiac disease have a digestive system that seems to be their friend. Their problem is discovered when they have other symptoms or diseases.

So, do you have Celiac? I don’t know. I haven’t been tested, but from the changes I’ve made to my diet, it’s obvious that I have a problem with gluten. Besides Celiac disease, there is also gluten sensitivity, and it could be either one. It’s intolerance in either case. And the remedy is the same, too. Don’t eat the stuff.

So, you figured out that your problem was caused from gluten just by not eating gluten? Pretty much. I was already keeping a food diary when I went to the doctor. I was doing that so maybe I could figure out what was going on. My doctor suggested I try digestive enzymes before eliminating any foods. I took them with meals. But one day I ate the most beautiful Bavarian Cream donut I’ve ever seen in my life. It could have been in a food ad, it was so big and gorgeous. An hour later, that donut was sitting in my stomach like a rock. I took enzymes and within 15 minutes I could tell the difference. Antacids didn’t have the same effect. In fact, they didn’t help at all.

So how do you know it wasn’t just the dairy in the donut and not the wheat? Because gluten sits in my stomach like a rock. I’ve also eaten dairy and not wheat and had reflux, so I’m better off leaving both things alone for a while.

So, why not just eat a donut if you want one and take some digestive enzymes? Oh, boy. There have been times I’ve wanted to run down to the donut place and do just that! Or, to the Mexican bakery, or the pizza restaurant or some other place that is a mine field for me. But that wouldn’t be wise. I keep enzymes on hand for accidents, but not for every day. If a person is sensitive to gluten, their body sees it as an invader, and it will react to it in any amount. Gluten is toxic and causes inflammation and affects body organs, too, if a person has Celiac.

How does gluten affect body organs? Well, Celiac is mostly what has been studied, so I don’t know about simple (it’s not simple if you’ve got it) sensitivity, but a person who has Celiac is more likely to have bone density problems, pancreas/blood sugar problems, thyroid disease, autoimmune diseases, neurological disorders, IBS, anemia…lots of problems. There are such high rates of Celiac among folks who have some of these conditions, that some researchers recommend they be tested for Celiac. And sometimes if they do have it, and there was a problem with low bone density or diabetes, for example, it will clear up when the person comes off gluten. I know that sounds surprising, but also, one out of 133 people in the US have Celiac, and then there are more who are sensitive to gluten.

What sets this off? Have you always had it, or does it just pop up out of the blue? It can be over-exposure from so much of it in our food supply. It can also be from stress, surgery, childbirth, certain medications. Lots of things seem to be a cause for different folks. I don’t know how long I’ve had a problem with gluten, but my bone density has been low since I was at least in my early 40’s. Gluten intolerance could possibly be the reason for that.

Can’t you just go “low gluten”? Nope. The body reacts to any amount from any source if it’s intolerant of gluten.

Wow, how come so many people have this problem? Is this new? It’s not exactly new, but it is more prevalent than it used to be. There are writings that go way back, like a Greek doctor who wrote about it in A.D. 100. The rate of Celiac disease has been increasing over the past 50 years. I kept reading that this was discovered by testing blood samples. I wondered, who keeps blood for 50 years? Then I read some place that it was from the military. When people join and the military takes blood to test their health, they keep the blood and it’s used in research. So, that’s how they learned it’s increasing; they tested blood that was collected over time and saw the increase.

So, that answers the part about it being new, but why is it increasing? Partly because we are consuming more grains that have gluten in them than we used to. In 1967, the average was 115 pounds of gluten-containing grains per person; in 2003, it was up to 139 pounds per person. The other part is the engineering and harvesting methods. Engineering, being how grains like wheat have been bred to have more gluten. Gluten is the thing that makes our bread hold together. Bread with a small amount of gluten is pretty dense. Wheat is also harvested and milled before it has a chance to sprout. When it sprouts some of the gluten is eliminated. In the Olden Days it sprouted before it was milled. And bread was more dense, too.

Isn’t it hard to not eat gluten? Well, in some ways yes, and in some ways, no. At first it was simple. I felt so much better there was no way I even wanted to think about eating food that made me feel so bad. But lately, psychologically it has not been easy. I told my doctor that seeing the commercials for things I’ll never eat again, like a certain awesome hot dog from a certain fast food place, is like being in high school and seeing an ex-boyfriend walking down the hall with someone new. There are certain aisles in the grocery store that I’d rather not even see. The other night, I dreamed someone was cooking black-eyed peas and they looked so good. Then they mixed them with macaroni noodles and I couldn’t eat them. I also dreamed about eating a chocolate pie with that very flaky crust that I’ll never eat again. I sometimes avoid magazine articles with recipes that I would have to redo to fit my diet, although Asian recipes are pretty good and are usually gluten-free. I try to remember that  there really are a lot of foods that don’t have gluten in them. I suspect that eventually, I won’t feel this way any more. My doctor said it will pass.

So, do you feel better physically? Yep. (Well, that is, until last month when I had to take an antibiotic; that caused some problems that I’m working on.) Otherwise, I no longer feel like I’m dragging a protesting body through life. I have more energy and my brain works better. My clothes fit better, too. Several people have told me that I look like I feel good now.

How long did it take to feel better? A few weeks. It can take a few months though, so if you are new to this don’t give up too soon. Because of the antibiotic causing some bloating that doesn’t seem to want to go away, I’m doing a detox diet. For me that means anything that my body could confuse for gluten is OUT. That would be dairy, soy, oats, nightshades, peanuts. Just to let my system get a bit of a rest, I’m also not eating eggs, animal protein at all, or caffeine. And I’m taking a supplement to help my liver do it’s detox job. Remember, gluten is a toxin for the person who is intolerant.

Where have you learned all this? Most of this info is from “The Gluten Connection,” by Dr. Shari Lieberman. Some came from websites on Celiac and gluten sensitivity. Here is a short list of websites that I hope will be helpful if you need more info:

http://www.gluten.net/

http://glutenfreemommy.com/

http://glutenfreeworks.com/

Be sure and see this page on Gluten Free Works if you need more convincing about the seriousness of gluten intolerance: http://glutenfreeworks.com/blog/2009/11/04/celiac-disease-alert-six-ways-gluten-can-kill-you/

http://www.celiac.com/

http://www.celiac.org/

http://www.theglutensyndrome.net/

I hope this is helpful; it can be overwhelming, especially if you know you need to eat differently, and you need to do it ‘right now’ and don’t feel like you have time to figure it out first. There are three meals a day that have to be fixed, after all. Hang out mostly in the produce section of the store. Get produce from different areas – green leafy, cruciferous, root veggies, etc. and fruit. Then go check out gluten-free grains such as rice and quinoa and, also, beans. There are gluten-free pastas that are good, as well as rice noodles in the Oriental section. Sometimes the pasta packages have recipes on them if you need ideas. Then add a few nuts and dried fruits, nut butters and rice cakes and you’ll be fine.