Are you thinking about trying a gluten-free diet?

Salmon on greens

A couple of months ago, I listened to the first ever Gluten Summit – A Grain of Truth – organized by Dr. Tom O’Bryan. If I had not already been following a gluten-free diet, I would have thought seriously about it. By the end of the conference I realized I probably will have to give up gluten for good. 

My journey to gluten-free was perhaps typical or not. I was obese, my cholesterol was high, and my liver enzyme numbers were out of whack. My mother died in 1999 of congestive heart failure, brought on by a cardiac condition which was a complication of diabetes and years of out-of-control blood sugars. In 2004, my doctor told me I was becoming pre-diabetic. In my mind I saw my mother and how the last years of her life were spent in and out of hospitals, severely limited in her ability to do anything, anxious and depressed until the end of her life. I was determined not to walk the same path, and I joined Weight Watchers again. This time I decided I was going to take my time, and as I did, I learned how to eat differently.  Only I continued to eat gluten, since Weight Watchers does not restrict any food.

As I became more connected to my body, I discovered when I ate dairy, I got a weird rough patch on the sole of my foot, and a small bump on my cheek would feel bigger. I switched to soy milk, and those problems dissipated. I started to think about whether there was a connection between foods I ate and symptoms I had, but my weight remained pivotal in my decision to eat something or not. I cut wheat out of my diet for a couple of weeks, and I lost a few pounds, but not enough to keep the wheat out of my diet. So I went back to eating it. On wheat – off wheat – on dairy – off dairy.

Finally in 2012 I consulted with an integrative doctor at Canyon Ranch who suggested I get tested for food sensitivities. It turned out I was sensitive to both wheat and dairy, and gluten and eggs and 40 other foods I ate regularly. I knew I would have to cut things from my diet. With food sensitivities, there is no immediate allergic reaction, and I don’t get gastrointestinal symptoms. In my body, the offending proteins slip through my permeable gut into my body and travel around, and my immune system cells go off to chase them, indiscriminately chasing down some of my own body’s tissues they mistake for foreign invaders.

This past Friday, the NY Times Opinion Pages published a debate titled Life After GlutenBased on the articles written and the hundreds of comments, this topic evokes passion on both sides. Many see gluten-free as the new fad-de-jour, destined to go the way of other fad diets. Others point to the health improvements they have experienced and are passionate advocates for cutting gluten out of our diets. A small, but growing number of medical and health professionals are speaking out about the myriad of health problems caused by non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

You may have heard the hype about gluten-free diets, particularly from athletes whose games have improved or from people who have been able to drop weight on gluten-free diets. You may be thinking – should I? The gold standard for trying to figure out whether you react to gluten is to eliminate it and see how you feel. If you have diffuse symptoms that have been plaguing you, going gluten-free may help clear them up. In the last few months, several of my family members have gone off gluten and have seen GI symptoms improve dramatically. Others feel fine eating gluten.

Eliminating gluten is not easy but it is not impossible. It requires a mind shift and some preparation, but the potential rewards may be worth the trial. According to many experts interviewed in the Gluten Summit, conditions tied to gluten sensitivity (besides celiac disease) are: mental illnesses, atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, MS, Alzheimer’s, autism, ADD, depression, anxiety, migraines, psoriasis, and others. This may sound like gluten is the root cause for whatever ails you, and for some people, it may be. There are support groups if you decide to follow specific protocols. It Starts With Food and the Whole30 community is a good place to start. The overriding idea is that if you give up gluten, you may get your life back.

There is one caveat. If you eliminate gluten and are sensitive to it, a much smaller dose will activate your immune system and send it into overdrive when you reintroduce it. The explanation goes something like this: Once your initial immune reaction can relax with the elimination of gluten, the gut will heal, the immune system will quiet down, but the memory of the substance will be stored in your immune system. If that substance wanders again into your body, your immune system will issue a call to arms and attack. Which is why a tiny amount of gluten made my daughter very ill. Which is why you have to be vigilant, and the likelihood is that if gluten is a problem, it will be a problem for life. Sorry to be the bearer of grim news. But getting your life back may be worth it.