My body was trying to tell me something, but I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe if I had listened, my body wouldn’t have needed to get out the megaphone and shout so loudly.
One morning I woke, not to sunshine and birdsong, but to a burning back pain that shot down my arms and up my neck. No physical injury, it just appeared out of the blue.
I was diagnosed with arthritis and muscle tension the year before, but this was by far the worst I’d experienced. Ever. Not a single pain killer could touch it. Natural childbirth was nothing in comparison. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was not the random event it seemed to be, rather it was the culmination of years of increasing symptoms that I had simply ignored.
Goodbye Gluten! Goodbye Pain!
I turned to a pain clinic for relief. Unfortunately there was a 5-week wait until the next available appointment. In retrospect, if I had my mind about me I would have gone directly to the emergency room and begged for an epidural.
I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit and suffer for 5 weeks, so I stopped eating wheat because I heard somewhere that wheat was inflammatory. I had never even heard of the word “celiac”.
The most immediate and noticeable effect of removing wheat from my diet was an end to my migraines. I went from 10-20 headache days a month, many of them excruciating, down to 1 or 2 very mild headaches a month. This observation was confirmed a month later when I indulged in a bread basket and was rewarded with a killer migraine, plus bloating and fatigue. It took at least a week to recover from that episode. Thank you very much, garlic naan. I’m done with gluten. Forever.
By the time I had my appointment the pain had eased up enough so that standing was fairly comfortable. Both sitting and lying down were still torturous.
The pain doctor recommended giving up coffee in addition to gluten to lessen the inflammation some more, and sent me to a physical therapist. The back pain was so bad that by comparison the caffeine withdrawal headaches didn’t bother me at all.
The physical therapist said pain like that usually resolves on its own within 72 hours. He hadn’t ever seen a case that dragged on for over a month like mine. Even so, with exercises and massage we were able to bring the back and neck pain under control in a few weeks.
Encouraged, I asked my physical therapist to help me with the tingling and numbness in my fingers and we took care of that problem as well. The tingling and numbness, blamed on repetitive stress injury, had been chronic with occasional bad flare-ups for probably 5 years, and I had just learned to live with it as a normal, everyday part of life.
With the exercises, massage, and diet changes, life started to improve. Random joint pains stopped. Occasional pain in my feet when I walked, reminiscent of my previous case of pregnancy-induced osteoporosis, also disappeared.
Migraines gone. Back and other pain gone. Numbness gone. All through natural, drug-free means. Fantastic improvement and relief in just a few short months. But little did I realize the roller coaster ride that was still ahead of me.
Ups and Downs
I was floored by the fatigue and depression that my triple latte habit had masked for at least 3 years. I often spent at least half the day, or more when I could, lying on the couch. I watched a lot of Food Network. Couldn’t muster up the energy to cook much of anything or even the appetite to eat, but I watched a lot of other people cook a lot of food I couldn’t eat even if I had the energy or desire to cook. I lost interest in everything I loved to do. I neglected my family and friends.
Eventually I fell into a pattern of a week or two of improvement followed by a week or two of decline. I never knew from day to day what symptoms I would have, how severe they would be, or whether I would be good for anything at all. So next I visited a holistic DO to find out if there were other food sensitivities that were causing these problems.
We discovered more symptoms I had gotten used to. Me: “You mean bloating, near-constant nausea, and chronic diarrhea isn’t normal? Or being light-headed and dizzy half the time? And perpetual sleep deprivation? Brain fog so thick that it’s hard to string 10 words together to form a sentence without stopping to search my brain for the word I want, just like when you first start to study a foreign language? Only I’m speaking English, my own native language.”
A Natural Prescription for Health
We added supplements to my diet to address a host of deficiencies and imbalances, and started an elimination diet, removing common allergens such as dairy, eggs, peanuts, even refined sugar and vegetable oils. Some improvement, followed by the usual decline.
Other problematic foods appeared and we dutifully removed them. First corn, followed by soy and oats. Even certified gluten-free oats were almost as bad as gluten itself. Then millet, quinoa, and teff. There may have been some other grains, I eventually lost track.
We also worked on reducing and managing my ever-increasing stress. I saw a neuropsychiatrist to learn bio-feedback, stress management, and meditation. I have to admit, I was initially skeptical of this approach, but it really did help. First by dealing with the stress of yo-yo symptoms and second by my learning to listen to my body and notice issues while they are still small, before they have a chance to morph into major problems.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
A pattern started to emerge: when I got sick, a grain or grain-like substance was the usual culprit. I would remove the offending food, start to feel better and replace it with a different grain, which I then ate a lot of, due to a new obsession of recipe development and testing, as well as carb-induced cravings. That replacement grain soon became the new offending food, and the cycle started all over again.
A serving or two of a non-gluten grain brought back most of my symptoms, making it easy to identify troublesome foods. Luckily not the migraines though.
Most worrisome was the sudden fatigue that would come on after eating something I was sensitive to. Kind of like eating till you pass out, except without the gluttony. I was afraid to eat anything if I had to get in a car and drive afterwards, because it was impossible to keep my eyes open. I took a lot of naps. In retrospect, it was probably way too early to be eating grains of any kind. I should have waited until my digestive system was completely healed.
More Unexpected Benefits
My seasonal allergies disappeared. All the grasses and weeds were still outside in full force, they just didn’t bother me anymore.
My dentist had worried over my tooth enamel for the past 2 years, so much so that I was certain all my teeth were ready to fall out of my mouth at any moment. I even had a special prescription toothpaste. Happily, at my last dental appointment, my dentist said my enamel was perfectly fine.
Challenging Prescriptions to Follow
In spite of great improvement, adrenal fatigue and other random problems were still persisting. My DO suggested eating meat and adding back other animal products such as eggs and dairy. I made a half-hearted attempt, preferring my mostly-vegan lifestyle. I added an extra serving of fish a week and reintroduced butter and eggs to my baking. (By the way, butter makes a world of difference in gluten-free scones.) Naturally, I got only half-hearted health improvement for these efforts.
Digestive issues, pain, and problems with carbs increased. If I wanted to eat breakfast, I had to plan extra time to let the nausea pass before I could proceed with the day’s activities. It got to the point that a couple bites of rice would leave me instantly curled up in a ball on the floor with severe cramps and nausea. Rice was the shocker. It’s supposed to be so gentle and allergy-free, baby’s first food.
At some earlier point in this adventure, I predicted (or maybe wished for) a complete recovery by March 2012, roughly one year after the back pain incident. I started training for the LA Marathon, which was to be an anniversary celebration of sorts. My DO warned me against such a plan, said I should wait until my gut was healed, but that was advice I didn’t want to hear. I promised to take it easy, but didn’t and things got out of control within a couple months. Increasing difficulty with post-exercise recovery forced me to quit running.
Back to a Traditional Medical Model
About the time I was having increasing difficulties with rice and exercise, I switched health insurance, and lost all coverage for holistic medicine. I was back to the world of waiting.
Waiting to see an allergy doctor, who was very sympathetic, but couldn’t do anything for me since I was dealing with food sensitivities, not true allergies.
Waiting to see my primary care doctor, who gave me a prescription for Prilosec. I took Prilosec for about a week or so before I decided it was pointless and quit.
Waiting to see a GI doctor, who gave me a colonoscopy and a lifelong prescription for IBS drugs. That helped reduce the nausea and cramping, but I was concerned about taking 8 pills a day for the rest of my life. If you do the math, that comes out to 2,920 pills a year!
Fitting the Final Pieces of the Puzzle
Left to my own devices, all I had was a dwindling food supply and the unheeded advice about meat from my DO. So I adopted a paleo-style diet: grass-fed organic meat, wild fish, non-starchy veggies, fruit, nuts, eggs, healthy oils, and occasionally a bit of dairy. No grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, refined sugar, or processed foods.
Improvements were rapid. WIthin three weeks I was back to normal. A real normal. Healthy like I hadn’t felt in years. Full of energy. The way I am supposed to feel. I was so giddy with excitement that I was bouncing off the walls, unable to settle down and focus on serious business for weeks.
Even the digestive problems resolved. Nausea, cramps, bloating, diarrhea, and bleeding gone.
My immune system relaxed enough to finally let a virus in. My immune system had been so pumped up for so long, I hadn’t had a cold or flu for at least 4 years. And all that time I was so proud of whatever it was I was doing that kept me so “healthy” I never got a cold. I never suspected my immune system was out of whack, attacking not only germs, but the food I ate, and my body itself.
Then and Now
At the end of April 2012 I stopped taking my IBS drugs, and the digestive problems have not returned. I am still hyper vigilant about my diet, preferring to eat only supportive foods that make me feel great. I still avoid carbs like the plague. I can’t think of a single forbidden food that tempts me even a little bit. The cravings are completely gone. Healthy is far more appetizing.
Doing a gluten challenge is definitely unappealing. I think I’ll pass. It took me over a year of concerted effort to regain my health. I just want to enjoy it. There’s a definite difference between my previous “improvements” and the way I feel now. I can’t put it into words, but I know it’s for real this time.
Other people notice the difference too. I must have looked like hell, because the first thing out of their mouth when they saw me before was: “Are you OK?” Now they say they can tell I’m doing much better.
Before this all began, I used to think that I ate a healthy diet. And it was a healthy diet: lots of fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, low in refined sugar and processed foods, mostly vegan. It’s just not healthy for me.
When I wake up in the morning, full of energy and free from aches and pains, I am still wide-eyed with amazement. I love every single day. I’ve taken up running again. Gradual and careful this time. No problems with recovery. Maybe a marathon is in my future, maybe a half, but if not, I’ll still be happy to just run a few miles in the sunshine.
My stress is gone. I’m able to laugh and smile again. I can make plans for the future, and not worry that I’ll be too sick to carry them out.
Helping Each Other
I never realized how widespread food intolerance really is. At first I felt so alone. So many people, when they hear what I’ve been through, confide to me that they or some of their loved ones are struggling with food sensitivities too.
Now I know it’s all too common and I’m not alone. I share my problems and tips that have helped me with others, and they share with me. I hope my experiences and the recipes I create will benefit others who are facing food intolerance problems.
If you have a food intolerance story of your own, please share. This is a confusing issue to deal with, especially in the beginning. You never know who your experiences may be able to help.
Thanks so much to Laura who blogs over at Grain Free Fabulous! What an amazing testimony!