I’ve had stomachaches nearly my entire life. And not just a little stomach crampiness, but awful, crushing pains that could last hours and for which nothing provided relief. At least two doctors I spoke to about it told me it was a psychosomatic issue that was caused by either stress or my own neurosis. And while I don’t deny being terribly neurotic, it’s sort of insulting to be told your health problems are in your head – to put it mildly. Not to be all feminazi here, but I find it unlikely that men are told their physical symptoms are in their head anywhere near as often as women are told just that. It’s insulting. But that’s a rant for another time and place. At one point I was given little blue pills to take that in retrospect I’m quite certain were a placebo aimed at getting me to stop complaining.
ANYWAYS, it got really bad my junior year of college. Every time I’d eat, I’d get horribly sick afterward. I was bloated and crampy all the time. I suffered a host of other fun gastrointestinal symptoms I’d rather not explicitly lay out for you. Just trust me that it was gross and unpleasant. I was fatigued beyond belief – by my standards. I’m the kind of woman who likes to do about 80 things at once all at the same time, so when my energy levels are low, it’s particularly disconcerting for me. I gained weight for no discernible reason and I just plain didn’t feel good. Seriously, having to lay down for an hour after you eat anything is no fun. I got really sick on a plane ride home from San Francisco, and not to get all TMI, but let’s just say I felt really bad for the Japanese man sitting next to me.
My boyfriend at the time had an aunt with celiac and a family well versed in food allergies and dietary restrictions. My grandmother had also recently been placed on a gluten-free diet. The boy suggested I give it a shot, and lo and behold, I did start feeling a little better. A little. At this point, I was naive enough to not realize that cornbread was primarily wheat flour or that sauces could be filled with gluten or that soy sauce contains wheat.
I went to the doctor for allergy testing up the wazoo. I went to a GI who originally told me my test for gluten intolerance was negative. I found out later that’s because in order to register a positive, you have to be regularly eating gluten. At that point, I’d already cutback. Fortunately, I was referred to a specialist who looked at the results again and decided that I did indeed have celiac disease.
And so that’s that, basically. Most of the time I feel okay so long as I keep a strict diet. I’m not always as cautious as I should be though when it comes to cross-contamination issues. I need to get better about that. In the past year or so, my main symptom of getting “glutened” is a gross rash/hives-like thing that shows up on my back, my stomach, my chest and a few other areas. The only thing that seems to help it go away is antifungal cream, which is a little embarrassing to purchase. I avoid shampoos, lotions, etc with gluten products too, just to be cautious. Sometimes I forget and lick an envelope, which is also apparently a no-no. So much hidden gluten!
Actually, I have to agree with a lot of what Michael Pollan says in his latest book, “In defense of food: An eater’s manifesto.” If I stick to “real food,” whole foods, as nature intended, then I’m typically okay. It’s the processed stuff you have to really watch and most of that stuff isn’t really anything I want to be eating anyways. Yeah, I miss bread like whoa, but at least there’s polenta, rice, potatoes, quinoa and corn for me to be happy about. Besides, fruit, most cheese and fish are all naturally gluten-free too.
That said, I feel very fortunate that in the decade since I was diagnosed with celiac disease, the availability of products and the increased awareness have completely expanded. No longer must I purchase heavy-as-a-brick bread that comes in a hermetically sealed bag with a silica gel packet!