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My Relationship with Gluten

Blog

My Relationship with Gluten

Susan Park

This past weekend I had a dramatic fight with my ex-beau, gluten. We had been on precarious terms for many years; only within the past two or so years we became “legally separated.” It was this last fight, however, that we divorced completely, with no prospects of peaceful reconciliation or nostalgic rendezvous. It continues to amaze and baffle me that for over twenty years we were able to get along seemingly fine. Over those years gluten was with me everywhere, all of the time… and yet beneath that loyal presence it had been quietly wreaking havoc on my body and mind all the while. Our relationship is not one of unusual circumstances; on the contrary it’s quite common for many people. Read on to discover whether you may need to re-evaluate your own relationship.

Simply put, gluten is a specific protein found in wheat, rye, and barley; crucial ingredients found in a slew of everyday items. It’s a very peculiar thing. Although I can’t provide you with an articulate statistic, I’m willing to bet that majority of folks in the US do not even know what gluten is, let alone where it’s found, or what it’s capable of doing! That’s no fault of theirs though. It’s really something that doesn’t come up in conversation unless you belong to particular circles, concerned with this particular realm of things. According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, however, 1 out of 133 people have celiac disease and 1 in 56 suffer related symptoms -- 83 perecent of them are not diagnosed.1

These numbers are significant, especially when we consider the fact that the average length of time it takes for a symptomatic person to be diagnosed with celiac disease in the US is 4 years.2 The Celiac Disease Center asserts, this type of delay dramatically increases an individual’s risk of developing autoimmune disorders, neurological problems, osteoporosis, and cancer.3

So why aren’t more of us knowledgeable and talking about it?

It may be because gluten is also incredibly sneaky. Its manifestations vary from person to person and may even evolve within a person over time, which is why early detection is so important. Due to the newness of the disease’s prevalence, there is also a lot of uncertainty in medical and scientific realms. It used to be widely accepted that a person had to suffer chronic diarrhea to even be considered celiac. New research shows that only 35 percent of newly diagnosed patients actually suffer this particular symptom, effectively debunking that previously held notion.4  

To put it lightly, there are over 200 signs and symptoms of celiac disease5 and its related partners, including gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy, and so on. Here is an abbreviated list of the most common symptoms :

  • Recurring abdominal bloating and pain
  • Chronic diarrhea/constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Liver and biliary tract disorders (transaminitis, fatty liver, primary sclerosing cholangitis, etc.)
  • Extreme weight fluctuation
  • Iron-deficiency anemia that does not respond to iron therapy
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in the joints
  • Tingling numbness in the legs
  • Pale sores inside the mouth
  • A skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis (DH)
  • Tooth discoloration or loss of enamel
  • Unexplained infertility, recurrent miscarriage
  • Osteopenia (mild) or osteoporosis (more serious bone density problem)
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression6

I’ll spare you the details, but throughout my life I have chronically suffered almost every single one of these symptoms. To uncover the truths of your own relationship with gluten, you have to do the work, just as you would in any other long-term relationship that needs mending. My initial discoveries came to me during my yoga teacher training. A teacher whom I look up to said, “Just try cutting it out and see what happens.” So I did, and it was all the convincing I needed to maintain the change! However, over the years there have been slip-ups, some intentional and some unexpected. What I have noticed is that the reactions have become increasingly violent as time lapses. I’ve also begun to connect a lot of dots from things in my past. In 2011 I had a terrifying allergic reaction that put my in the ICU for a week—the panel of doctors assessing my mysteriously disastrous condition was never able to conclude the culprit. My condition was becoming only worse as I stayed in the hospital, which is why they proceeded to cut off all food and replace it with morphine. During a holiday dinner last year I developed a gnarly rash and had difficulty breathing. Again, I was in the ER this summer for extreme abdominal pain and swelling, with bleeding gums and difficulty breathing.

Reflecting on all of this in light of my most recent experience, my conclusion is this: I’ve had a lot of health oddities that flare up quite spectacularly and instantaneously, but they are not mutually exclusive. I undeniably feel better, normal, and functional when I do not consume gluten. I didn’t even know what normal was until eliminating gluten! My headaches, mood swings, and anxiety have been jettisoned completely. I digest meals, not perfectly, but entirely more efficiently and predictably than I ever knew was possible. My skin has become more radiant and less pocked with acne. My joints no longer swell to the point that I can’t do physical activity or wear jewelry for prolonged lengths of time.

The mystery and variability under which celiac and gluten sensitivity remains veiled, is the very reason that many of us continue living in discomfort; there is simply minimal awareness around this topic. If you’re interested in learning more feel free to stop me in the studio! I’m always happy to discuss the good, bad, ugly, and inspiring facts about gluten. I also encourage you to peruse the sources listed below; there is a wealth of information to be discovered. For the local DC Metro resident, check out DC Metro Celiac Organization-- they’re an excellent resource for general information and where to dine out and shop in the area! If you’re the bookish type, like me, then you may also find the book, Wheat Belly8, to be extremely informative. Stay active on the blog for recurring visits to this topic—I’m feeling inspired to share my story so that you may feel inspired to seek change if it’s warranted!

Notes

1-3 “Celiac Disease Facts and Figures.” University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. http://www.cureceliacdisease.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/CeliacDiseaseFactsAndFigures0614.pdf

4-7 “Symptoms of Celiac Disease.” University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. http://www.cureceliacdisease.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/SymptomsOfCeliacDisease0614.pdf

8 William Davis, M.D. Wheat Belly. New York: Rodale, 2011.

 

Resources:

- DC Metro Celiac Organization: http://www.dcceliacs.org

- Celiac Disease Foundation: http://celiac.org

- Celiac Central: http://www.celiaccentral.org

- Gluten Free Living: http://www.glutenfreeliving.com/getting-started/what-is-gluten-intolerance/