It was the rice-based diet I experienced while traveling in Asia that was my first clue. The second was a bread-heavy diet during some time in Europe. A return to Asia nearly cinched the deal. I was curious.
What I wound up learning has changed my life. Since going gluten-free, I'm much less tired, need less sleep, don't itch as much, have a less stuffy nose, have lost 3 lbs. of water, am less gassy, have more regular and more solid stools, and seem to recover from colds more quickly. And that's just after a couple of months.
With as much as 40% of the population having one of the two genetic markers that trigger celiac (coeliac) disease and gluten-sensitivity now recognized as a 'spectrum of disorders', what is the chance that gluten is causing you problems - problems you don't know you even have because you've always had them?
Let me start by explaining how I got here and why I think you might want to know all this.
Clues To Gluten Sensitivity
I've been eating gluten-based foods my whole life and never thought I had a problem. That was before I tried going gluten-free. What happened? Well, let me tell you...
I had been eating pretty much the same sorts of things that all Americans grow up eating, bread, pasta, hamburgers, sandwiches, cookies, cakes, and lots of other tasty stuff made with wheat. I thought I felt fine. The things that were wrong with me were the same things that had always been, mostly that was a tendency to mild allergies and persistent cough following colds. I always assumed that I was just a bit allergic and that colds exacerbated the stuffy nose that came with allergies.
Then came the travels to Asia and the diet changes from time to time from wheat-based to rice-based diet. I started to notice that when I was eating rice, my stool was more solid. At first, I thought nothing more about this than rice = solid stool. Okay. Noted.
From Asia, I traveled and stayed in Europe for about six months. Almost immediately I noticed that my stool wasn't solid. Not only that, but it was less solid than it had been typically. Naturally, I assumed my diet was the reason and certainly it was. I had replaced a diet with large amount of rice, vegetables, and limited meat with a diet heavy in bread, meat, dairy, and potatoes. During this time, I didn't figure out much other than I thought more vegetables would help - they didn't - but soon I was off to the USA and my traditional diet.
Things improved somewhat as my diet shifted slightly. Now I felt 'normal' though I had no idea that my 'normal' wasn't what it should be.
Returning to Asia a few months later sealed the deal. I returned to a predominantly rice-based diet, still with meat and dairy in abundance. Wheat was in the mix from time to time so signals weren't clear but the periods of wheat-free, and consequently, gluten-free or low-gluten eating were frequent and long enough to notice. I knew that when I returned to 'normal' living, I'd want to try and figure out what was going on.
Testing For Gluten Sensitivity
I returned to the USA the following year and decided to try going gluten-free. I thought I might experience more solid stool but little other changes. With these small expectations, a skeptical mindset, and limited bias, I began.
At first, I just stopped eating bread for breakfast. I replaced bread, butter, and jam with certified gluten-free oats, butter, and jam. A simple change. I switched from breakfast cereals with wheat, rye, and barley (the three sources of gluten) to ones without these high-gluten grains in them. For lunches and dinners, I opted for meals without bread or pasta. Otherwise, I tried to keep my diet the same with roughly the same amount of dairy, grains, and meats, though the grains probably lost out a bit in favor of more dairy.
After a few days off of gluten, I noticed that I was having some improvement in bowel function. Not only had my stool started to become more balanced, I noticed less frequent grumbling in my tummy after meals. I also had less of the gentle cramping several hours after meals that I had taken for granted before this test.
Back On Gluten - Test Phase 2
After a few days off of gluten-based foods, and having noticed some results, it was time to see if it was all in my head. While my testing certainly doesn't rise to the standard of a double-blind study, I'm not foolish enough to believe I'm not creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of gluten sensitivity and a placebo effect in response. I'm also not foolish enough to give up bread, pasta, cookies, and cakes for no good reason. Ah, what I wouldn't give for a nice toasted English muffin or a pizza or...
Breakfast: organic multi-grain museli mix, milk, sugar. Simple and to the point.
What was I expecting? Not much for a while. I figured I'd continue to eat a normal mix of foods including gluten-containing ones as I had always done before. If there were going to be changes, I'd notice them later in the day and over the next couple of days as they passed through (normally a bit over 2 days end-to-end for me).
What did I experience? That was the real shock. An hour after breakfast I was sleepy. Waves of tiredness washed over me. Where until that point, I felt rested, ready to go, I was back to a familiar feeling of exhaustion that I had just chocked up to stress and insufficient sleep in my past life. It wasn't that. I was rested, I had just traveled the world at my own pace, relaxed and enjoyed, slept and de-stressed. Of course, I could push through the sleepiness but never before had I associated it with a specific type of food. I'd always assumed this sleepiness came with a heavy meal. I'd feel it in the afternoons, a while after lunch, or I'd feel it after Thanksgiving dinner, or some other large, heavy meal. In the evenings, I'd just assume it was late and I was tired - no surprise, I'd been working all day.
I was so surprised by the tiredness aspect of eating gluten that I had to try it again and see if I was fooling myself so I went off of gluten again, this time waiting ten days before re-testing gluten, with the same results.
Not only was I not tired in the mornings, something I'd often experienced before, but I wasn't wanting a nap at 2:30pm every day as I had for my whole life. In fact, one of the things on my personal 'Wish List' for years was: Be able to take a nap most afternoons.
The clock just rolled over to 3:00pm as I write this. Did I want a nap today? Not a chance. Rarely do I want a nap in the afternoons anymore. I just don't have that tiredness that came with gluten.
Hardships And Half-Attempts At Gluten-Free Eating
Not only was I experiencing more solid stools but I wasn't tired. What a difference that made to my life! If I had learned this sooner, I could have earned years of higher quality, healthier living. If only someone had suggested this as the cause.
Going gluten-free isn't easy. I still forget to think about ingredients when ordering out and there are lots of things that might surprise you. Like Asian cuisine? Have you noted the ingredients of most soy sauces lately? Soybeans, wheat,... How about things thickened with wheat, like cream soups and gravy? The list is long and I'm sure I'm not avoiding all gluten in my diet despite reasonable effort.
Fortunately, I don't have a severe gluten sensitivity like celiac disease so a little soy sauce isn't a big deal (though Kikkoman makes a gluten-free version now). Still, trying to go fully gluten free is quite difficult. Even eating oats, themselves gluten-free, can be problematic as many oats sold are contaminated with rye and barley. Eating regular oats, which I do often, hasn't been an major problem for me so far but it shows how many challenges going gluten free can entail.
I've been gluten-free, or at least low gluten, for a couple of months now and here's what I can tell you were the effects of gluten on me. These are things I had been living with but never considered to be abnormal and I doubt my doctor would either:
- Tiredness. I would get tired within 20-45 minutes after ingestion of gluten-containing foods. I had always assumed this was just being full. It's not. If I eat a high gluten breakfast an hour later I'm ready to go back to bed. Eating gluten-free grains or a protein breakfast I have no such reaction.
- Upset stomach and upper intestinal tract. I get mild pain some time after eating as the food is digested. Usually I notice it a few hours later. I never really gave it any thought before chalking it up to gas or something. Gluten free, I don't have this feeling normally.
- Soft stool or mild diarrhea. My digestive tract takes about 2-2.5 days to move start to finish. I can clearly tell if I've eaten gluten as it dramatically affects my stool. This isn't the only thing that affects my stool but the differences are notable now that I'm off of gluten.
- Bloating. I've noticed I add a pound or more of excess water over a couple of days when I ingest gluten. It takes several days to a couple of weeks to dissipate afterward. After being off of gluten with no accidental ingestion for about two weeks, I notice I've dropped three pounds of mainly water.
- Runny nose. I've always been prone to allergies. I've noticed that what I assumed were dust, pollen, or other allergies, seem more connected to gluten than nasal irritants.
- Colds and Flu. Colds always seemed to linger for me. Weeks of cough after the virus had run its course. It's too soon to know if going gluten-free truly affected this but I had one rapidly resolving cold while traveling in Asia (lower gluten diet) this past winter, another two-week-limited cold this spring in the US while testing gluten-free, and some early flu-like symptoms that resolved in less than a week a month ago, so I'm hoping this becomes typical.
- Itchiness. I used to find myself scratching here and there all the time. No longer. Now I can sit and read a book with both hands, if I want to.
- Solidness. This one is hard to describe. I just feel more 'solid' in my person. It's a physical sensation, not just feeling good about myself. It's a bit like how I feel if I work out regularly, which I'm not doing right now. It's different, though. I don't exactly feel strong, just grounded and more in touch with my body, especially the core.
- Sleep. I find that I needs less sleep since going gluten-free. Now, for the first time in my life, I feel rested after 7 1/2 hours of sleep and I wake daily without an alarm. Sometimes, I find I need even less sleep. I also notice that I tend to fall asleep easier and sleep more solidly through the night, perhaps because body isn't dealing with gluten and the resulting systemic responses.
While it is far too early in my experience to predict how this might affect my future or to determine personal trends, I am hoping that the limited improved experiences I've had with cold and flu like viruses will continue. Furthermore, I'm hoping that by eliminating the steady levels of stress hormones in my body that some of the longer-term side effects of stress will be eliminated or reduced. I'd really enjoy having better joint, bone, heart, insulin, and neurological health as I continue to age. I'm also hoping that the reductions in weight I'm starting to notice will be more than just water and include some fat. I'm fairly thin now but another few pounds would be perfect. Reportedly, gluten intolerance can even lead to short stature. I'm not sure, but I think it's too late for a turn-around on this front, at least in my case.
I retested myself the other day and had all the symptoms. The tiredness, this being a dinner test, was pronounced and longer lasting that I had expected. It left me wiped out the rest of the evening. Laying down to sleep I noticed the belly ache. I had less stable sleep with some bad dreams. Two days later, was the loose stool. You could say it's all psychogenic but I'd really like to have a nice piece of bread and butter. I really would. I'm living in Europe and they've got such nice bread here. Oh well.
That's A Wrap - Oh, Wraps Are Not Gluten-Free
Awareness of gluten sensitivity is becoming more commonplace but medical testing for it still is oriented towards those with serious problems. The issue is that gluten sensitivity is not fully understood. There are tests now for celiac disease but gluten-sensitivity has been shown to be related but different, part of a spectrum of disorders. When gluten-sensitivity tests show results, those with extreme sensitivity are flagged and diagnosed. Those who fall above the threshold for extreme sensitivity might still be somewhat sensitive but within the range of what is currently considered normal. What if the standards for normal are skewed by all those people like myself, doctors included, who have assumed that normal includes feeling tired and experiencing systemic responses all the time?
Until we fully understand the causes and effects of gluten sensitivity, it will remain hard to diagnose those who are only mildly afflicted. I have great sympathy for those with celiac (as much as 1% of the population) and other severe gluten-intolerance diseases but how many of us are affected, as I was, with an out-of-balance but supposedly healthy body counting as 'normal' on all the tests?
Worse still, most people don't even know they have a problem. If you are like I was, you just assumed all this was normal. It's not until you find out otherwise that you can see clearly. Another case of 20/20 hindsight.
My suggestion, as is the suggestion of many doctors, is to try going gluten-free for a while. A month is recommended but I'd start with a week (that's hard enough). If you feel even a tiny bit better, extend it to two weeks, then test it out by having a nice breakfast of breads or cereals with gluten, followed by a sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner. If you don't notice anything, then I'm delighted for you. If you do, then here's to your improved health. We'll just have to skip toasting with beer - it's not gluten-free .
Here are a few additional resources I recommend checking out:
There are many more resources online. A quick search for "gluten free" will get you started.
P.S. I'm updating this article to report that I've finally been able to bake a tasty gluten-free loaf of bread that has a great consistency and is easy to make without exotic ingredients. I've posted a detailed recipe that also explains why certain ingredients were chosen - recommended for anyone pursuing a gluten-free diet: Kenneth Benjamin's Perfect Gluten-free White Bread Recipe