How pathetically ironic is it that someone born under the astrological sign whose logo is the depiction of a fair golden-haired maiden in tender guardianship of a basket brimming with freshly harvested wheat, has, after an entire life of peanut butter sandwiches, been relegated to the ranks of a population known as the “gluten-sensitive”? Somebody upstairs has a sick sense of humor. I had only heard the word “gluten” thrown around for the past couple of years (always at places like health food stores), and the term had always conjured images of an understandably worried mother and a physiologically hypersensitive child always on the verge of an asthma attack or skin rash who felt like a fringe society outcast because they couldn’t have pizza like everyone else. As I scarfed down sandwich after sandwich of my own. Not realizing that every time I did so, I created a systemic inflammatory reaction, including inflammation in my brain. And, not understanding why no matter how much sleep I’d gotten the night before, no matter which types of tea or ginseng I took that morning, or how large a breakfast I had, I would still inexplicably “go away” in class.
I had no other way to describe it. I could feel it coming on at about the same time every morning and after self-experiment after self-experiment, nothing I did seemed change the fact that at certain times of the morning, I’d be mentally out of it, barely functional, a state that was completely involuntary. Professors had pointed me out a few times for falling asleep in class, because on the surface I appeared no different than the next slacker who was just bored, didn’t care, or stayed up too late. Quite the contrary, underneath the apparent apathy was in fact an intense passion for learning the information that was being presented, and a matching frustration because I knew I was missing it. The information itself slipped through my fingers as fast as it had come in without being processed or committed to long-term memory, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. Unbeknown to me, there was a battle raging on in my brain that left my brain cells so ravaged and traumatized it’s a wonder they functioned at all. Despite getting decent grades, I absorbed very little, and committed even less to long-term memory.
Too late in the game to save my academic career but better late than never, I sought the help of a genius faculty doctor in our student clinic who ordered me a test kit that would run an entire panel of useful clinical indicators, including cortisol (adrenal stress hormone), insulin, IgA (an important immunoglobulin in the immune system for defending against foreign invaders), and gliadin (one of the measurable markers for gluten sensitivity). The best part was, I could complete the kit at home, drop it in the mail to the lab, and have the results back within a week.
The results were fairly predictable. My cortisol was too high (especially at certain times of the day), my insulin too low, my IgA fairly non-existent (no wonder I managed to pick up every bug from Austin to Oklahoma, despite my best efforts to take good care of myself and my recent new love affair with scented hand sanitizers and pre-foaming liquid soaps), and not surprisingly, my gliadin was high. My faculty doctor prescribed several basic medical-grade antioxidants and nutraceuticals (read: high-quality supplements and formulae, only available through certain licensed healthcare practitioners) to bring down the inflammatory load on my body and support crucial metabolic processes and help enhance the long road of systemic repair ahead of me. And, he outlined some dietary recommendations.
They were strict. No gluten or yeast. No alcohol, but I think I have that one licked. No soy, eggs, or dairy, either, but I’m still working on that. So far, I don’t suspect a physiological reaction to those just yet, although this may change as I ferret out–and learn to recognize–various other responses I have to different foods. So, what this means is, no bread, rolls, pasta, pizza, cookies, cake, noodles, tortillas, sandwiches, hamburger buns, crackers, breakfast bars, etc. I even have to be careful with foods like soup or ice cream because they use wheat or gluten as a thickener. I have to be very careful with oats, considering my hit-and-miss history with even the Certified Organic variety. So, no more hamburgers, burritos, sandwiches, or even cereal.
Apparently, there is life after diagnosis. I’m new at this game, so I’ll be discovering it and acclimating to it for a while. The changes have to be made overnight, but the adjustment takes time. I did my first gluten-free grocery shopping yesterday. This is infinitely easier to accomplish at health food stores. It’s still kind of a bitch, because I still walk past all these foods that I’d still like to have. They sit there, on the shelves, taunting me. Shopping has become slightly more efficient, however, in that there are entire aisles that I can (read: have to) avoid altogether. This might actually be a blessing in (a very good) disguise, as I am now forced to branch out beyond my typical dietary staples and explore other options.
See, I’m not your typical Celiac Disease case. I don’t get Baboon Ass if I encounter a molecule of gluten. For the record, my gastrointestinal tract never gave me any noticeable grief. I simply get sleepy (if I’m sitting), ditzy, and forgetful. My short-term memory gets pooched and I can’t absorb or recall information. But I don’t get nauseated or bloated or break out in any immediate rash or anything. That’s why it took so long to start suspecting that it even posed a problem at all. But I’m convinced now that it’s the missing link, because I cut it out completely and started noticing changes on that same day. Suddenly I could stay awake for an entire class hour. Not a week later, a friend commented on how much brighter my eyes looked, and she didn’t even know about the gluten discovery. And by the way, I had (another) cold at the time (what else is new?) so by all rights, my eyes should’ve been anything but bright. But, the change speaks for itself. It’s so simple really: remove the root cause of the problem and the problem will go away. By our very nature, we want to complicate the situation beyond that, but it really is that simple.
So now I’m part of this “gluten-free” population. Apparently, there are a lot of us. Thankfully, there is strength in numbers and the numbers of us are high enough to spark a market for gluten-free alternatives. We now warrant our own entire aisles of grocery stores, lined with foods pre-screened for gluten, which takes all the guesswork out of shopping. There are entire baking companies, cooking schools, and recipe-rich blog-based websites that can fill every void with cookies, cakes, breads, and waffle mixes that look and taste so good, you’d think it was the real (gluten) thing.
Note to the gluten-insensitive: we still hate you. You have it so much easier because it doesn’t faze you. Your system will simply tear through it and process it like it was vegetables. You see, just because I can’t have this stuff anymore doesn’t mean I don’t want it. Flour tortillas still smell really good, and I’d kill to ingest some freshly baked bread unscathed. But, the misdirected hostility dissipates, giving way to mere strong envy as time goes on, because it’s getting easier and easier to survive and thrive, despite the hand genetic injustice we’ve been dealt. So many of us are this way, 30% and growing, that society itself is shifting. And maybe, just maybe (silver lining time), as my cells return to normal and their electrolyte ratios stabilize, they’ll shed all the excess water weight they’ve been carrying. And that is something I won’t miss.