Lorette C. Luzajic

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Separating The Wheat From The Chaff

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By Lorette C. Luzajic

Not yet a year into the gluten-free life, I’m experimenting more with different foods, and so I’m quite rigorous about reading every label. Many have suggested that simply avoiding bread and pasta should be enough- do I have to be obsessive-compulsive about a crumb here and there?


Well, ideally, yes. Otherwise you may be missing out on the French stick or Haagen Dazs cookie dough ice cream for nothing. While less is certainly more, any gluten at all can keep you sick.


Gluten intolerance doesn’t work the same way some other allergies do. You may be lactose intolerant because you don’t have much lactase, an enzyme for digesting milk. So you might get diarrhea or an upset stomach. You may be okay with a small amount but drinking a carton of milk will make you ill. Or maybe you’re allergic to shrimp, and you will die if  you eat some.


Gluten sensitivity doesn’t work like either of those. You probably won’t feel sick following the offending foodstuff. Reactions vary from immediately to several weeks after the fact! This is because there is a domino effect in place. First, the gluten hits your gut and you might feel comforted and full- one reason we love bread is because it releases morphine-like peptides in our tummy. Mmmm, morphiiiiinnnne.


But the gluten then damages the intestinal villi, flattening them against the wall. These villi look like tentacles or perhaps blades of grass. Nutrients are absorbed through them. But when they are flattened, they can’t do much with incoming nutrients, so in addition to the intestinal damage, other food you eat is now pretty much useless, as your body isn’t picking up many of the vitamins and minerals. It can take days, weeks, or years for the villi to heal properly. This is what they call malabsorption, and it’s not a minor side effect. Why? Because malabsorption causes a whole host of problems. Nutritional deficits can cause symptoms or diseases anywhere in the body- psychiatric, vision, pancreas, skin, metabolic, teeth, bones, and on it goes. This is why the symptoms of celiac disease of gluten intolerance are all over the map. This explains why your teeth are falling out, for example, even though you gave up soda years ago and brush three times a day. Your bones could be like that, too, if your villi aren’t picking up calcium and magnesium signals! (I suggest that anyone who has inexplicable major dental problems be tested for gluten allergy or try the diet on your own. Bad teeth show serious health problems that have been underlying for years, and your bones and organs may have similar damage you don’t know about.)


It gets worse. In addition to the ineffective absorption system, the damaged intestine walls develop perforations and weak spots. Food particles slip through here to wander around the rest of you! You’ve heard this referred to as leaky gut syndrome. (Heavy drinking also causes this, which is why you’ve heard that alcoholics are malnourished even if they are heavy or eat well.)


Now the vitamins, minerals and chunks of lunch are foreign invaders to the body, and the body launches attacks to get rid of them. This screws up the immune system, which should be busy attacking germs and defending you against prowlers. But the immune system is busy, so you’re getting colds and flues all the time, or you’re just plain worn out. You always have a runny nose. Or worse, you have other immune system disorders that are very serious- thyroid disease, for example. Or even worse than that, ones that are still medical mysteries and are difficult or impossible to treat- multiple sclerosis, lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome. Then there is cancer. We still know nothing about cancer. But we do know it’s best to have a strong immune system and sound nutrition if we hope to avoid it.


Understanding all this makes me feel grateful to have finally found the mystery culprit behind everything that was wrong with me. Instead of feeling ripped off about having to eat my sandwiches out of a bowl, I feel so thankful. Sure, I would love to have a beer. Could it really be so bad to support the local brewery from time to time? Yes! Now I enjoy you enjoying your brew, and I enjoy something equally wonderful from the Niagara wineries. If you are off gluten and miserable, it’s time to reread this piece, and change your mindset. Instead of feeling deprived, feel free. Be grateful that you discovered the key to letting your body heal. Knowing how it works means you’ll feel less freaky about reading every label or combing through menus for possible intruders. Maybe your friends or family don’t understand why you are  so compulsive about the odd crumb in the dip. So educate them.


There’s a reason why suddenly you’re noticing the gluten-free world popping up everywhere- including the horrible gluten free pizza crust at Pizza Pizza. (If anyone has had a great pizza let me know! I miss pizza…but I also miss my teeth!)


The reason? There’s suddenly a market. We were here all along but didn’t know. Maybe you suspect you are one of us. And you may well be. Celiac or gluten sensitivity was considered extremely rare. Now many researchers and experts are discovering it is way more common than we ever believed. Some go so far as believing that most medical conditions could benefit from a gluten-free diet- cancer patients and AIDS patients, for example, can do quite well by giving up grains and sugars entirely. New research is coming together all the time.


Celiac was long considered a sort of rare genetic defect making it impossible to digest wheat. Some new researchers don’t feel the allergy is an abnormality- upon examining the human diet for millions of years, we have only been eating grains for less than half a percent of all time! There’s evidence that most of us have not evolved to properly process grains- not just wheat! This line of research is turning up frightening things about disease in anthropology- it seems to follow wherever the ‘paleo diet’ ended and we began farming grains. This stuff is still controversial but is gaining more and more of a medical following as research into our evolutionary diet grows.


Is it hard for me to feel Canadian if I’m a traitor to those billowing seas of wheat, our golden export, our bounty for the world? How the hell are poor people supposed to eat without pasta and bread? Isn’t the very essence of civilization built on farming grains, taking us from wandering nomads into great cultures with reading, writing, language? What becomes of my identity when all of history dissipates under this new way of life?


I have to acknowledge the emotional impact this change has. It’s difficult to suddenly view everything I knew as true to be harmful for me, and maybe for much of the world. It’s not just about choosing another food group. There are ramifications and repercussions for the way I see the world, and the way it sees me. I don’t have the answers. I only know that for me and many, many others, wheat was making me very sick. And now I’m beginning to thrive for the first time in my life.


I guess that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.


Nice essay. I am transitioning myself to a gluten-free life. It's so helpful to be supported, as by pieces like yours.

I had some low-carb pasta a few evenings ago. Yesterday, I woke up with a foul migraine. I hadn't thought to connect the two. I didn't realize that the effects of eating gluten could be delayed.
Post Reply By joan in COLUMBUS on 12/11/2008 8:55:07 AM

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