For almost two years, I have eaten a gluten-free diet…mostly. I say mostly because I do have moments, although they are rare, that I “cheat” and eat something that contains gluten. But I don’t have celiac disease; at least my blood test for celiac disease came back negative. So why do I eat a gluten-free diet? Am I just one of those people jumping on the bandwagon of the latest diet trend? After all, gluten-free items are all over the supermarket shelves and restaurant menus. Celebrities swear by them to “detox” or lose weight. But that’s not my reasoning. Let me explain.
As I mentioned in my introductory posts about “My Health Journey,” I suffer from several autoimmune diseases. Changing to a whole-food, plant-based diet relieved me of over one hundred pounds, a multitude of medical problems and about a dozen medications. My autoimmune disorders, however, are with me for the long haul. Having one autoimmune disease makes one more likely to develop others. It was soon after I was diagnosed with one autoimmune disorder many years ago that I was then diagnosed with a few more. Usually, they cause symptoms that are inconvenient but manageable: my thyroid levels fluctuate, I get fatigued, etc., but others greatly improved when I became a vegan. For example, even with my immune deficiency, I hardly ever catch a cold anymore. I can, however, still suffer major relapses of some of my worst symptoms; in fact, I’m currently dealing with one of those relapses. When that happens, I can become quite ill and debilitated.
Living by the words of Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food,” I try to eat as healthfully as possible to keep myself as healthy as possible. I’m a vegan because of the animals but I reap the health benefits of my ethical choice. I eat no animal products at all: no meat, fish, eggs, dairy or honey. For health reasons, I also avoid refined flours or sugars, white foods (other than occasional potatoes), MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial preservatives or additives.
I have read a lot about autoimmune diseases, what causes them, what makes them better or worse and what I can do to keep them as quiet as possible. I have read books by the experts like Kris Carr and Dr. Joel Fuhrman, I have read articles, studies and web sites. Here is what I learned:
More people are being diagnosed with autoimmune diseases than ever before. Is it that more people are developing them or that we are more aware of them now? The answer might lie somewhere in the middle. Certainly, research has led to a higher awareness but it’s also clear that as the American Standard Diet becomes more and more processed, the number of people diagnosed with autoimmune diseases increases.
The usual treatments for these types of illnesses are not pleasant. The medications such as steroids, Methotrexate, Cyclosporine, Azathioprine and anti-inflammatories can be toxic and have many side effects including increasing one’s risk of developing cancer. Studies show that the longer people take these medications, the more complications they might end up with. One medication I was given to help with the pain and inflammation was like the drug from Hell. Yes, it did help the pain and some of my symptoms a bit but the side effects were horrible: excessive weight gain, sweet cravings, brain fog, insomnia, mood swings, bloating, blurred vision, leg cramps and more. The side effects were actually worse than the symptoms I was taking the medicine for, so I stopped it! It just wasn’t worth it to me to trade some symptoms for others that felt even worse. The next medication my doctors discussed was one that would “knock out” my immune system completely in an effort to “reboot it” like a computer that’s not running correctly. Needless to say, with my already having an immune deficiency, that prospect scares me to death.
There is a long list and wide range of autoimmune disorders but they all have one thing in common: inflammation. And so it makes sense that if we can understand the causes of inflammation, we can also understand how to bolster our bodies to decrease or prevent inflammation and thereby improve autoimmune diseases.
What makes even more sense to me is to try other methods to not only prevent inflammation but to prevent needing these medications (or as many of them); nutrition is an easy place to start. It’s well known that there are some foods that increase inflammation and others that can reduce it. Sugars, refined grains and trans fats are known inflammatory foods; vegetables, fruits, omega-3-fatty acids, and spices such as turmeric, ginger, garlic and red peppers are known to be anti-inflammatory. Cooking foods at really high temperatures tends to be pro-inflammatory while foods cooked at lower temperatures or eaten raw are not.
So where does gluten come into this? More and more research is showing a link between inflammation, autoimmune diseases and gluten sensitivity. Gluten-related conditions run on a wide spectrum. Obviously, celiac disease is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. More than 2 million people in the U.S. have a diagnosis of celiac disease and it’s believed that there are many more people who have it but remain undiagnosed. But it’s no longer just whether you have celiac disease or not; there is also gluten intolerance, gluten allergies and gluten sensitivity which are often overlooked.
Experts now think of gluten intolerance as a spectrum of conditions with celiac disease on one end and a wide array of gluten-related problems on the other end. Sensitivity to gluten can be as mild as just causing bloating, fatigue, aches, cramps or skin rashes. A surprisingly large number of people are gluten-sensitive but usually blame their symptoms on other causes like irritable bowel syndrome or even depression. And if a person is gluten-sensitive, even at the mildest end of the spectrum, eating foods that contain gluten can increase inflammation and aggravate autoimmune disorders. Thus, it makes sense that people with autoimmune disorders should avoid gluten.
When I first learned about all this, I got tested for celiac disease and my blood test was negative. Still I was curious whether a gluten-free diet could still help my autoimmune disorders. So I attempted a gluten-free diet but being new to it, I didn’t follow it very well and not surprisingly, I felt no difference. Then I got serious and followed a gluten-free diet religiously. I removed all the foods that contained gluten from my home. I practically cleared out my kitchen. It’s amazing how many foods contain gluten. Usually we think about bread, pasta and grains – no wheat, barley or rye. But there is gluten in condiments like soy sauce, in drinks like beer, in foods we consider “superfoods” like wheatgrass and when you read the labels, you find that there is gluten in most convenient, processed foods, even the vegan ones.
Going gluten-free not only meant buying specialty pasta or going on the endless search for a loaf of bread that was gluten-free, vegan and edible all at the same time; it meant giving up frozen veggie burgers, prepared meat substitutions and even frozen French fries. It meant my diet got even healthier as I gave up my last processed, convenient foods and ate even more label-free, whole foods. And when I took it seriously, I felt a serious difference in my health. I had more energy, less bloating and tummy troubles and just felt better overall.
There is a lot of testimony from people with autoimmune disorders who follow a whole-food, plant-based and gluten-free diet who have had such dramatic improvements. They go into complete remission and don’t need to take their medications any longer. Others have found their symptoms improved to the point of needing less medication, less often. I’ll take a membership in either of these clubs.
Like I said at the beginning, sometimes I cheat but it’s rare (probably once every few months) and it has to be worth it (like if I’m at a restaurant and I just HAVE to try their seitan wings). Sometimes when I cheat, I don’t feel any bad effects but sometimes, I do which is why I cheat so rarely. My bet is that I do have some type of gluten sensitivity and that gluten does cause me more inflammation. Since I don’t have celiac disease and I can choose to eat gluten if I want to, some people don’t take my being gluten-free seriously but I do. At home, it’s the only way I cook which means my husband, who has no issues with gluten at all, eats a mostly gluten-free diet too. And that’s good because if there is a way to cook healthy, delicious food and avoid excess inflammation, why wouldn’t you want to choose that?
Just cutting down on the amount of wheat and/or gluten consumed can benefit everyone, so why not give brown rice pasta or quinoa a try? Why not skip the prepared, cured, processed vegan meats and make your own fresh, gluten-free burgers and sausages? If changing a few ingredients can help me avoid having to take as many toxic medications, why wouldn’t I? That makes perfect sense to me.