Gluten, Glutton & Intolerance

It’s a birthday party of my neighbor’s son and I was dreading the moment I need to tell the host that I can’t eat the birthday cake.  

Every time in a situation like this I need to explain why I can’t eat foods containing wheat and soy sauce. The process of explanation is more tiring than it was while I was eliminating all those foods from my diet. And explaining it to a relative is just a nightmare! While my friends are somewhat aware of “Gluten Intolerance” these days due to the exposures of their lives, my old relatives are still not familiar with the entire thing. Some even, including my friends still try to convince me that it’s “all in my head”, “I am imagining things because I want to!”

Five years back I didn’t even know there is a word “Gluten”. I have been eating daily breads, chapatis, biscuits, noodles, pastas all my life without having any problem. Never thought there could be any problem at all. People, including doctors, suggested eating wheat is important for bowel movements. Common belief is that having wheat-based foods are better than having rice-based foods during meals.

Since I started staying alone in this city after leaving my paying guest accommodation, I was having a lot of instant noodles for breakfast and sandwiches at lunch due to my work pressure and my laziness (plain and simple). I didn’t have enough time to prepare any food in the morning and then carry it to work. Soon I started having gas, abdominal bloating, constipation on daily basis. I thought it was happening because I didn’t take meals at proper time and stayed hungry for hours due to work pressure. For many years my weight was somewhere around 45-49 kg which is normal weight for a person of my height and age. I slowly gained 10 kg without even noticing. If I have to explain my life on 2011 it would sound something like this : exhausting, tired, depressed, fat, stressed, sick, hair loss, constipation, diarrhea  etc.. Horrible, right?

By 2012 I was diagnosed with hypothyroid disorder. I thought that was it. This was the reason of all my problems. I started taking medicine and exercising as per doctor’s consultation. I walked for about 2-3 km everyday. But for me waking up in the morning used to be so troublesome those days. Having hypo/hyper-thyroidism is very common these days. Luckily within few months my thyroid tests came normal. Doctor said I could stop taking the medicine, but I’ll have to keep testing every six months just to be sure and I must stay out of “stress”. I was happy that I won’t have to remember to take medicine anymore. But I didn’t feel better health-wise. I still had those gastric problems. I thought my work causing all the trouble!

I left job by mid 2012 and started working as a freelancer thinking this will help me regain my health. I am a Web/Graphic Designer, so I could afford to have such choice in my career, luckily. Having homemade food for all the meals made me feel much better. I was now even more convinced about the reason of all my problems. Work related stress and outside food/water was the culprit!

But soon I got bored enough by the lazy life I was leading. Being a freelancer is a different kind of struggle. I became insomniac. The exciting project I was working on soon got over and I was in middle of finalizing new projects. My health was still not much better. Even though my thyroid count was normal I was still having same issues, but this time not so frequently[will come to that later]. By mid 2013 I started working again as a full timer.

My new office was amazing. They provided free healthy breakfast, lunch and evening snacks. Though I could hardly reach by breakfast time I relished the lunch everyday. I decided to have ‘chapati’ for lunch and rice for dinner at home as I and my husband are too lazy to make chapatis at home. So we preferred chapatis whenever we ate outside.

Then hell broke loose, again! Gradually all the symptoms were back within few months. This time I started having abdominal pain everyday. My stomach made horrible noise everyday after lunch. It was so embarrassing. I thought my liver was not functioning properly and expressed my concern to my teammate. His reply was “do you drink a lot?” I was speechless! I told him that even children get liver diseases, does he think they drink a lot? Judging people is so easy. And we wonder why we are stressed at work.

Then one of those days it occurred to me for the first time! The chapatis! I noticed every time I had chapatis or parathas anywhere I felt sick. It was not outside food, it was not the polluted water. It was WHEAT! I realized then that during my days as freelancer I never made chapatis at home and hardly ate sandwiches as I used to and that is the reason I was feeling better at home after leaving job. Those days the intake of my gluten was limited to few biscuits per day. I frantically started searching in google with all the symptoms I have been having for last few years. There was it. “Gluten Intolerance”.

I immediately stopped eating chapatis at lunch. But I still ate biscuits, cakes, noodles because it was so tough to avoid all the foods containing wheat. I asked people around to know more about gluten intolerance, but hardly anyone knew about it. Whoever knew told me it was some american fancy disease which only americans get. I was appalled by the response.

I started researching about it online. Gluten is a mixture of proteins found in wheat and related grains, including barley, rye, oat, and all their species and hybrids (such as spelt, kamut, and triticale). When someone has gluten allergy or sensitivity the body’s immune system mistakes these otherwise harmless proteins found in foods for invaders and creates antibodies against them. If I am experiencing an intolerance to gluten or wheat, there are three different medical conditions that could explain what’s going on: wheat allergy, celiac disease, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. I didn’t have gluten allergy for sure, otherwise I couldn’t have eaten wheat products all my life without having serious health issue. So one of the last two options were a possibility.

I understood from the information I read that if I have Celiac Disease eating gluten will cause my immune system to destroy the villi in my small intestine that are responsible for absorbing nutrients. Without healthy villi, we can’t get the nutrition that we need. This can lead to malnutrition. So Celiac disease can have serious health consequences, including permanent intestinal damage. That got me scared.

The symptoms of Celiac disease are

  • abdominal bloating and gas
  • chronic diarrhea
  • constipation
  • pale, foul-smelling stool
  • stomach pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fatigue
  • anemia
  • depression and anxiety
  • osteoporosis
  • joint pain
  • headaches
  • canker sores inside the mouth
  • infertility or frequent miscarriages
  • missed menstrual periods
  • tingling in the hands and feet

I had at least 5 of the above symptoms.

Then there is Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). It is gluten-related condition that causes symptoms in people who do not have celiac disease and are not allergic to wheat. Unfortunately researchers are still trying to discover the exact biological cause of this condition and there is still no laboratory test for NCGS. If the patient is already tested negative for wheat allergy and celiac disease the doctors want to establish a clear connection between the symptoms and the consumption of gluten to diagnose with NCGS. So they ask the patient to keep a food and symptom journal to determine the cause. The most common symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity are:

  • mental fatigue (known as “brain fog”)
  • fatigue
  • gas, bloating, and abdominal pain
  • headache

I was experiencing 3 of them.
[ http://www.healthline.com/health/allergies/gluten-allergy-symptoms#Overview1 ]

I went to see a gastroenterologist at last. I was given antacids and syrup for my constipation and was advised that I’ll have to find out on my own by eliminating and reintroducing food to find out which food is causing me troubles. And going completely gluten-free diet is the only remedy I can have. I was a bit dishearten to eliminate all the foods I loved to eat so much. It was a depressing phase.

Initially I started discarding daily wheat based foods like breads, noodles, biscuits. But then I noticed most of the foods contained gluten. Soy sauce, breakfast cereals, frozen foods, health drinks, and most of the popular junk foods are made of wheat. All were gone. I freaked out thinking what I am going to eat then? But I had to. So I started introducing other foods which I never fancied before. Corn, bengal gram, peas, lentils, kidney beans, beans to name a few. I started eating more vegetables. Slowly I came to terms with the situation. And I noticed without much hassle I reduced 5 kg within few months. The symptoms were slowly gone. I felt healthier.

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