Warning: frank discussion of bodily functions of a medical nature (digestion, etc.) follows below. Those of you who are too proper to discuss or read such things, you have been duly warned.
Many resources on the internet can explain better than I can what gluten is and what it means to be gluten intolerant or to have celiac disease. If you are reading this website, I am assuming it is because you already know or suspect a gluten problem. If not, and you are suffering from chronic health issues -- particularly digestive issues such as chronic diarrhea, constipation, IBS, nausea, or stomach pain [though digestive problems are by no means the limit of possible symptoms] -- I would encourage you to research the symptoms of gluten intolerance and celiac disease. Here is a good starting place for information: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/
For those who have trouble with gluten, the only solution is to eliminate it from one's diet. This is why I and several members of my family eat gluten-free.
I grew up eating everything from boxed mac'n'cheese to Pop Tarts to Raisin Bran to sourdough bread. I LOVED gluten. As a teenager, I once went on a sugar-free, grain-free diet, and after the first couple of weeks, I never missed the sugar, but I still longed for bread and pasta. When my sister was diagnosed with celiac disease, her diet sounded like my worst nightmare. I hoped against hope that I would never have to eat like she did.
I have always had a fairly slow digestive system, with a tendency toward constipation. It was never terribly troubling, however, until after I had my first child. Any mother out there can tell you that the first several weeks of dealing with your firstborn are probably the most tiring, stressful days of a woman's life. Added to the normal stresses was the fact that our daughter had a complicated birth and spent her first few days in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). Thereafter, though a healthy baby, she had a horrible time learning to nurse properly. So one can imagine that I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to my own body or health within the first several weeks after her birth.
About 10 days after DD#1 was born, I realized that my bowel movements were becoming extremely painful. Every movement felt like a knife slicing through my rear end. I began experiencing blood with my stool and stools coated in white mucus, and nearly every trip to the bathroom was excruciating. At first I thought I must have hemorrhoids, which are common after pregnancy and childbirth, but the medical descriptions I read did not sound anywhere as painful as what I was experiencing. I finally decided that I was suffering from an anal fissure, which was most likely caused by constipation. Determined to conquer the constipation but unwilling to try a total gluten-free diet, I quit eating white flour and switched to whole wheat, as well as upping my fiber intake with my diet and supplements.
This seemed to work... sort of. I learned to live with the pain and dealt with it for a few months, until I was put on an antibiotic (for unrelated reasons) that had diarrhea as a side effect. Most would consider this a curse, but to me it was a blessing, because everything was so loose that my fissure actually had a chance to heal. I continued to have intermittent bouts of constipation and pain, but figured I had dodged the gluten-free bullet after all. (Whew!)
Before long, I became pregnant again, and gave birth to our second daughter when the first was just under 18 months old. I was terrified of having the same problems after the birth that I did the first time, so I unabashedly downed the fiber and stool softeners. Things were not as bad as they had been with DD#1, but soon enough I started noticing the constipation again. I began experiencing aching pains in my lower back / rear area, that I finally came to associate with the constipation. I also began having random bouts of mild nausea and stomach pain -- nothing enough to induce vomiting, but enough to be rather irritating and disconcerting.
Finally, I'd had enough. I went on a test-run for about a month of eating as little gluten as I knew how to avoid (which was pretty substantial from what I knew from my sister). The only thing I ate knowing that it might contain gluten was oats (which, if you are new to the gluten-conscious world, you will find is controversial as to whether they contain gluten or not). The nausea and the back pain went away, and the constipation improved somewhat.
At the end of that month was DD#1's second birthday. I made her an oatmeal cake using whole wheat flour and decided to eat some of it myself. I believe it was the next day when I noticed my stomach acting up again. Nothing excruciating, but I knew it would only get worse if I kept it up. And I was not going back to the land of fissures. That was the end of gluten for me.
This was nearly two years ago. Unlike many who eat gluten-free, I have never been officially diagnosed with celiac or gluten intolerance. Problems with gluten are known to be hereditary, however. And since my mother and one brother were diagnosed with gluten intolerance, and a sister and one of my nieces have been diagnosed with full-fledged celiac, it is quite clear that the sensitivity runs in the family. Those with a genetic predisposition to gluten intolerance can live without symptoms for many years, but the sensitivity can be triggered by a lifestyle change or a stressful situation, such as having a baby. I believe this is how it happened for me.
I know that my symptoms are not anywhere near as severe as a true celiac. That is why I have self-diagnosed myself with gluten intolerance. I will not suffer the effects if I consume a tiny smidgen of gluten as some do, but if I continually eat foods with small amounts of gluten, I will notice the effects. I have stopped eating oats unless they are specifically labeled as gluten-free (though the most sensitive of celiacs will tell you that even some of these trigger their symptoms), and I no longer allow myself to "cheat" on various things (like the barley malt in Rice Krispies) nearly as much as I once did. As a result, I have been virtually constipation-free, and I no longer experience any of the pains or stomach aches that I once did.
If you are suffering from chronic health issues and are contemplating a gluten-free lifestyle, I can't promise you that it will be the magic pill that will solve all your problems. But if gluten is your underlying problem -- boy howdy! -- even a mildly gluten-intolerant sufferer like me can tell you that the difference is SO worth the effort.
Read about why I am starting this blog in my next post...