One Calgary Journal reporter learns to live with gluten intolerance

I like beer.

I mean, I really like beer – in a genuine, take the first sip and sigh with happiness kind of way. In my mind, there is nothing as satisfying as celebrating the summer months with a cold beer on a warm patio.

So, you can imagine my devastation when I was diagnosed as being gluten intolerant.

My gluten intolerance seemed to come about quite randomly. After all, I’ve managed to live to the fresh-faced age of 28, all the while chowing down on pasta, breads and beer. But, as of one sad day this past June, my body decided pain was a more appropriate reaction to gluten-filled food products.

Frustrated, I decided to set out on a quest to understand this ailment that has all of a sudden latched on to me. The first question on my list: just what exactly is gluten?

Googling gluten

As it turns out, gluten is a protein that’s found in wheat, rye and barley.

In addition to giving up breads, pastas and pastries, Valerie Cornelius – co-ordinator of the Calgary Chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association – advised me to watch out for gluten in other foods, particularly sauces like soy sauce.

“Wheat is often used as a filler and people don’t usually think about that,” she said. “It’s not just breads and baked goods – it’s all over the place.”

Dr. Jean Layton, a naturopathic physician from Washington State who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of celiac disease and gluten intolerance, said gluten triggers an autoimmune response in those with an intolerance.  Layton also runs the Gluten-Free Doctor blog

“Our bodies recognize the gluten proteins as an ‘other’ and attack it,” explained Layton.

“The problem is, the attack also breaks down our own cells.

“Someone who is gluten intolerant is really nutritionally deficient. If you don’t have an intact digestive tract, you don’t digest your dairy, absorb your minerals, absorb your fats and absorb your proteins properly… Your cells become starved and the rest of your body becomes unable to have enough nutrients.”

It became apparent that this lack of nutrients has been the trigger for my specific symptoms, which included abdominal pain, body temperature fluctuations and lightheadedness.

Why me? Why now?

I’m not alone in my suffering. According to a Health Canada study, about one per cent of North Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease – that’s one out of every hundred people. And that’s not including those like myself, who have gluten intolerance. 

Gluten intolerance is a broad term which includes all kinds of sensitivity to gluten. A small proportion of gluten intolerant people will test positive to the celiac disease test. 

To be formally declared celiac, a person must test positive through an intestinal biopsy, said Layton. Otherwise, blood tests and other screening methods can only diagnose a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten. Regardless, she said the treatments are the same – a gluten-free diet.

While I found it odd to randomly become gluten intolerant in my late-20s, Layton assured me this diagnosis is not uncommon.

Often, she said, the illness is triggered by a high-stress situations like: childbirth, divorce, major dental work, car accidents or other major traumas.

When faced with these changes, the body goes into a stress reaction, said Layton. She said this can become a tipping point for a “cascade of reactivity.”

While none of the aforementioned events applied to me at the time of my first reaction, I was beginning a different, high-stress lifestyle after starting a new job. This was perhaps the catalyst of the sad chain of body-changing events.

Either way, I’m saddened by my intolerance – a typical response to the diagnosis, according to Layton.

“It’s absolutely the seven stages of mourning,” she laughed.

“But it’s life-changing,” Layton added.

“As long as people can go absolutely gluten-free for a minimum of a month, they’ll see the physical changes in their body.”

Layton said these changes including clearer thinking, regulated body temperature, and less pain and gastrointestinal distress.

Making the change

While there is no cure for celiac disease or gluten intolerance, Cornelius said that adhering to a life-long diet of gluten-free foods is the easiest way to manage symptoms.

“Awareness is huge,” said Cornelius. “You have to understand that a gluten-free diet is for life – there’s no cheating. You can’t just put up with the symptoms.”

Damn. To be honest, my whole plan was to indulge in my favourite, gluten-filled foods on special occasions.

Cornelius’ advice to me was to learn to effectively read labels – and keep reading them.

“Products change constantly,” she said. “So, that can of soup you bought yesterday may not be gluten-free tomorrow.”

Label reading is not just for the grocery store, said Layton, who suggested I completely overhaul my apartment kitchen to create a safe-zone. This involved getting rid of all the inappropriate foods and cleaning my cupboards.

The next step, she said, is to put gluten-free ingredients – like quinoa, brown rice and a variety of flours – to use. While breads and pastas are out, there are some foods that are naturally gluten-free, like quinoa, which is a highly nutritious plant seed and can be prepared in a variety of ways. 

Photo illustration by: Silvia Pikal. 

“You have to cook. You have to learn to feed yourself without the use of conventional ingredients,” she said. “Once you do learn to cook, you have a world of options.”

The results

I’ve been on a gluten-free diet for almost four months now. While I still miss the ease associated with a more conventional diet, I do have to admit I feel better. I have more energy, I think more clearly and my butt seems to be shrinking – all good things.

I’m more surprised by the little changes that I had never previously noticed as irregular. I sleep better, which I never thought was a problem. My joints are less achy. And I’m no longer the weirdo shivering in the parka during the month of July.

But man, do I miss beer.