Hives, random skin eruptions, fatigue, indigestion, anemia, painful cystic acne and extreme stomach pain. These are just a few of the inexplicably increasing symptoms I had grown accustomed to over the years. My skin was extremely dry and itchy, to the point where lotion and oils were useless. I suffered from depression and had extreme nausea and occasional vomiting after eating. I was in so much pain toward the end of last year that I stopped eating for days, convinced I had stomach cancer. Even when I did eat, salad was the only thing I could consume without experiencing severe discomfort. Finally, I went to a gastroenterologist.
The first gastroenterologist I saw wasn’t convinced it was cancer. I was sent to an allergist about my skin and given a prescription for steroidal pills for my alleged eczema since I had a history of allergies, sent to a therapist, told to take prescription iron supplements, given probiotics and tested for celiac. My dry skin didn’t respond to the steroidal pills, and the probiotics helped with a lot of my stomach pain, so I was able to eat more but still noticed that I’d vomit or experience extreme nausea shortly after eating pizza, sandwiches and even crackers or toast, and my indigestion wouldn’t quit, even with prescription antacids.
After I relocated to Chicago from new York, I began seeing another gastroenterologist who mentioned that my symptoms didn’t make sense for someone with an otherwise stable medical history. I had already taken a celiac blood test, which tests your immune system’s response to gluten, and received negative results from it, but she was not convinced that I didn’t have a gluten allergy. The doctor said false negative results for celiac tests were common, and she saw a lot of patients like me whose symptoms, most of the time, were resolved with a simple-gluten free diet. She humored me with an endoscopy, just to make sure that I didn’t have gastritis, and once those results came back a normal, she predicted I was gluten-intolerant and suggested that I lay off gluten for at least three weeks.
The first time I went gluten-free last month, I only lasted a week. I felt relief, but I wasn’t convinced (or, more likely, I was in denial), so I indulged in a giant serving of macaroni and cheese and a sandwich. I vomited about 10 minutes later, then went gluten-free once again. I’m hard-headed, so there was another bout of skepticism where I resorted to old eating habits, but after finally committing to the new lifestyle for about a month, which resulted in no more nausea, pain, significantly reduced acne, no hives, no more indigestion, normal iron levels, better moods and less-dry skin. I finally realized that my doctor was right.
Now, phase two of my understanding of gluten-free living has begun. I’m educating myself, starting with a book called Wheat Belly, which explains that there are different types of aversions to gluten that are still causing debate in the medical world. Some doctors don’t believe that any kind of gluten allergy is an actual condition unless someone tests positive for celiac, so the general public isn’t very educated on the matter, either.
The biggest question I get from people who seem to pity me is, “What can you eat?” Really, going gluten-free is not that bad. Because going out to restaurants can be frustrating (with even some salad dressings and soy sauce containing gluten), I cook at home much more, get creative with recipes, rethink how I’ve approached food my entire life and plan ahead when I go out, even if it means carrying my own snacks. I’ve always been athletic and like to work out, but my efforts were always negated by my diet because I have a sugar addiction, I love fried doughy things and I yo-yo eat. One minute my diet is clean; the next, I’m overdosing on a package of cookies, but now I really have to think about what those cookies are doing to my insides, not for vanity reasons but because my body literally depends on it. Thanks to the marked-up prices on gluten-free replacements for things I used to always snack on— cookies, cakes and other sugary things–I’ve realized it’s best to just reach for an apple or almonds instead for the sake of my health and to be proactive about overriding the aforementioned bad eating habits I acquired as a child.
My husband has also finally stopped offering me food that will essentially cause me to keel over because he’s starting to get it. He can eat what he wants, but grocery shopping has changed for us because I now have to read every label, and I’ve been leaning more toward paleo options, which he can benefit from, too.
Most important, I realize that I’m not crazy. I’ve been to several dermatologists over the years about what I thought was cystic acne, only to be brushed off with a prescription that didn’t work, including contraceptives, or told that it would mellow out as I got older. I’ve seen therapists who suggested medication for depression because I didn’t seem to show improvement and felt that the problem was that I was inherently ridiculous and possibly even making up these ill-bodily functions. Yet in reality, my symptoms were real, and they mattered.
I started seeing improvement as early as two days into my gluten-free lifestyle and, overall, I feel 95 percent better. I’m about one month in at press time. I have no more indigestion and haven’t felt suffocated by depression lately. I’m consistently happier than I have been in about two years. I actually want to get out of bed and don’t feel held back by mood spirals. I experience less brain fog, have more energy for my workouts, my acne has gotten less painful and cleared up by 80 percent, my skin is still dry but responsive to lotion and no longer itchy. I have no more skin eruptions, there’s no more pain and nausea after meals, and I’m forced to exercise real discipline about what I eat, which hopefully means I’ll also start to see the physical results I have been lacking when it comes to my weightlifting and interval training (goodbye, pooch).
It’s not an easy transition, but I’m motivated to keep my body in check because I feel like the poster child for Jimmy Cliff’s classic song “I Can See Clearly Now.” And people around me have been helpful. I was surprised once to learn, once I “came out,” that a few people I know are living the lifestyle because of similar conditions, and the rest are interested in learning. There have also been moments when friends were vigilant about keeping gluten products away for me because they, too, look forward to my becoming a spry 90-year-old woman who really looks 60, isn’t on medication and is keeping up with the youngsters in the gym. I can’t promise that going gluten-free is everyone’s solution, but it’s certainly working for me.
Visit Wheat Belly Blog and CeliacCentral.org for more information or email [email protected] for support.
Starrene Rhett Rocque is a pop culture junky who often fantasizes about becoming a shotgun-toting B-movie heroine, and aspires to save the world from the impending #ZombieApocolypse… In reality she’s a freelance journalist who muses about pop culture at GangStarrGirl.com, and fitness, at GruntsandGlam.com. Follow her on Twitter @GangStarrGirl.