how to eat gluten again.

In my early 20s I began suffering from almost daily migraines.  I visited medical doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists.  Anyone who might be able to help.  The only problem is, it never got any better.  I got some temporary relief, but it never lasted or truly improved.  When I visited a naturopath who tested for food sensitivities, I found out why.  I was continually aggravating the situation by eating gluten.  Headaches were my body’s way of telling me it couldn’t handle gluten.  No matter what I did to make the headaches go away, the source remained.  I quit eating gluten and never looked back.  It really wasn’t a difficult sacrifice.  Eat gluten or live pain free.  Take your pick.  For about five years I avoided gluten like the plague – checking everything I ate to be sure I wasn’t going to “poison” myself.  One little accidental bite would do me in.  I’d be stuck on the couch for at least a full day, and suffer the “aftershock” of the migraine for several more.  No cookie was that good.

I asked my naturopath if there was any hope of eating gluten again, but his only response was that it was unlikely.  He offered no advice for ways to heal my body of what seemed to me an unnatural response to a normally harmless substance.  When I started studying for myself what gluten really was and the way our bodies work, I began to wonder if it would be possible to make at least small concessions in gluten consumption.

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.  Most of the time, when we consume a protein, our bodies break the protein down into its individual amino acids and then assimilate them into the proteins needed.  Gluten is a difficult protein to break down, so most often, whether it causes a negative reaction for you or not, it is not fully digested.  This undigested protein accumulates in the gut and begins to cause damage.  Because the normal pathway for nutrient absorption begins to be blocked, nutrients fail to absorb properly and toxins begin to accumulate.  This in turn overtaxes the liver as it tries to purify the blood of excessive toxins.  Symptoms are manifested differently for different people – from digestive problems to headaches – but the result is the same: misery.

Gluten intolerance seems to be a relatively new, almost trendy, disorder.  What’s changed?  I believe the answer is two-fold: the way we prepare it and the extent to which our digestive systems are out of order.  Wheat and other grains have been a staple of many cultures for as long as we know.  What they didn’t have was grocery store shelves lined with convenience foods.  If they wanted bread, they had to work for it.  Grains (which, incidentally, were not bio-engineered or doused with pesticides and fertilizers) were freshly ground, soaked, and allowed to ferment.  Airborne bacteria and yeasts made the bread rise for several days before baking and eating.  Researchers have discovered that these long fermentation times and reliance on natural yeast and bacteria for rising actually break down the gluten protein to the point that gluten appears to be non-existent in the final product.  There are other benefits as well, but when I learned that, that was all I cared about.  I was going to bake REAL sourdough everything and forget worrying about gluten.

Problem: neither I nor my family really cared for it…and it was a lot of work for a modern girl.  Ancient women must have been much more diligent in their domestic affairs.  Besides, all my efforts were meaningless the second I walked out my door, I still couldn’t eat the wheat-laden foods found anywhere outside my door.  I wanted to be able to eat wheat like everyone else, at least occasionally.  I didn’t miss it really, you can make everything without gluten in one way or another.  It was just frustrating to have to be so careful and still suffer when despite your efforts to make sure what you ate was gluten free, someone “poisoned” you.

The light bulb clicked on for me when I began to study the body’s major systems, in particular, the immune and digestive systems.  I noticed three major problems.

  • Problem #1 – the immune system is confused.  It seems that a negative reaction to gluten is often caused by the misguided response of a bored immune system.  When foreign substances are introduced in the body, the immune system is responsible for kicking them out.  In its efforts to do so and to alert you that something is wrong, various symptoms are manifested.  Gluten is not a foreign substance, but because of its propensity to accumulate in the gut and stagnate, the immune system may come to recognize it as something that requires a negative response.
  • Problem #2 – the immune system is weak.  In our efforts to eradicate “bad” germs with sanitizers and overuse of antibiotics, we have offered our immune systems little practice in learning to protect us from pathogenic bacteria and have killed beneficial bacteria that assist with immune system responses.
  • Problem #3 – the digestive system is out of balance.  The measures we take to rid our world of “bad” germs affects healthy bacteria too.  Digestive processes of absorption, excretion, and blood purification are compromised when healthy bacteria are not plentiful and active.

Considering those three problems as the source of my body’s negative reactions to gluten (as opposed to a genetic or otherwise incurable defect), my recovery plan included nourishing my immune system, healing my digestive system from past damage, improving digestive flora and function, and detoxifying and supporting the liver (the part of the digestive system responsible for ridding the body of toxins).

Nourishing the Immune System

The body was designed to protect and heal itself through the immune system.  To strengthen the immune system, an unprocessed, whole foods, plant-based diet is the best option for nutrient-dense food.  Supplementing with astragalus is a great way to nourish the immune system as it increases white blood cell count.  Astragalus is safe to use on a regular basis, but because of the effect on white blood cells, be sure to let your doctor know if doing any blood work as it will skew the results.  I like to use Kyolic Immune Formula. The added vitamin C and mushroom extract are also great for increasing immune function. If you happen to get sick, try natural options to boost the immune system’s response instead of pharmaceutical options to do the work for you (here is a previous post on boosting the immune system).  Each time you allow your body to fight its own battles, you are allowing it to learn to fight harder.  You will be pleasantly surprise by how little you even notice your body working once it is doing its job well (typically when I feel “under the weather” it consists of a little fatigue, but rarely do other symptoms develop).  Please be wise about visiting your care provider for serious illnesses.

Healing From Gluten Damage

The body needs time to heal from damage caused by any substance that compromises digestive function.  The amount of time will vary from person to person, but I would recommend at least 6 months to a year.  During that time, focus on an unprocessed, whole foods, plant-based diet rich in healthy fats (e.g., seeds, nuts, avocados, olives) and antioxidants (i.e., a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables).

Improving Digestive Flora & Function

The most natural option for improving digestive flora is to include fermented foods and avoid the use of antibiotics.  If fermented foods are not for you, probiotics combined with an unprocessed, whole foods, plant-based diet are a great option.  Look for a large quantity (over one billion) and variety of both lactobacillus and bifidobacterium as well as survivability of the cultures.  Billions of organisms or not, if they are not prepared in such a way that they can get past your stomach acid and into your intestines they won’t do you much good.  My husband and I use Udo’s Choice Adult Blend Probiotics.  My children take Udo’s Choice Children’s Blend Probiotics.  If your kids cannot swallow a pill, Renew Life Ultimate Flora Kids Probiotics is a good option.  Warning: if your gut flora is severely out of balance and/or you are extremely unhealthy, supplementing with too much too quickly can cause very undesirable side effects (e.g., diarrhea, gas, bloating), so start slow for the sake of an easy transition.

In addition to repopulating healthy bacteria, supplementing with digestive enzymes can be beneficial in supporting the digestive process.  This can be as simple as beginning the day with hot lemon water (squeeze ¼ – ½ of a lemon in a cup of hot water and drink 20-30 minutes before eating).  This serves to stimulate the body’s production of digestive juices before food is consumed, sort of a jump start.  Consuming pineapple or citrus fruits with or after a meal also adds beneficial enzymes to digestion.  Alternatively or in addition, supplements such as bromelain or papain can be used.  These are the enzymes that have been isolated from pineapple and papaya, respectively, and have been shown to aid with the digestion of proteins.  I like Udo’s Choice Enzyme Blend.

Detoxifying and Supporting the Liver

The best way to detoxify and support the liver is by treating it well every day.  At the risk of repeating myself…yes, an unprocessed, whole foods, plant-based diet is your best bet.  Eating this way will ensure you’re not giving your liver any extra unnecessary work and the large amount of antioxidants and fiber you will naturally consume ensures that the toxins you will inevitably come across are safely carried out of the body.  Adding milk thistle and/or dandelion as daily supplements or teas offers the liver additional support and nourishment.  Either herb can be blended with your favorite tea to mask the flavor, but they are both fairly mild and certainly drinkable by themselves.  You can also purchase Traditional Medicinals Organic Roasted Dandelion Root Tea for somewhat of a coffee-like experience (with a hint of caramel flavor).  Flor-Essence Liquid Tea Blend is also a great product that can be used on a daily basis, but I prefer to use it quarterly as it is a bit expensive and it doesn’t taste as good as a simple milk thistle/dandelion tea.

In addition to internal detoxification, you can give yourself the upper hand on toxins by eliminating them as much as possible from your environment.  Common personal care products, even the so-called natural ones are loaded with known toxins.  If you’re going to buy your personal care products, read the label.  If you don’t recognize what’s in it, don’t use it.  Making your own personal care products can be fun and is the best option for being certain of what you’re using.  Using {truly} natural non-toxic cleaners (don’t trust the labels…if it’s not something you would cook with, it’s unlikely it’s really all that safe for your air), letting plenty of fresh air in the home, and including lots of houseplants in your decor are all great ways to improve your air quality.

Results and Final Thoughts

Before approaching gluten intolerance as a problem that could be remedied through healthy, intentional choices, if I got even one bite of something with gluten in it I was doomed to a few days of misery.  After several months of focusing on healing and supporting as described above, I went out with my husband and ate a gluten-filled bagel.  The whole thing.  Yum.  It still makes my mouth water just thinking about it!  I had absolutely zero noticeable symptoms.  I’ve had a few other things here and there, but knowing that gluten is difficult for anyone to digest and knowing that my body has had trouble with it in the past, I still eat gluten free at home and try to make sure that exceptions don’t occur more than once every couple of weeks or so.  When I do eat it, I follow it with extra digestive enzymes and make sure to include milk thistle/dandelion in my tea.  The beauty of knowing I can get away with it though is that if I’m at a restaurant or a friend’s house I don’t have to stress about what I’m eating.  If my little boy really wants to share a bite of his cookie, I don’t have to tell him no anymore.  {Yeah!}

I should point out that I had not eaten gluten for 5 years before I even tried this…so my body had a lot of time to heal.  However, before taking these intentional measures to improve my body’s response, I was not able to get away with even a little bit of gluten consumption, so for me time alone was not the cure.  Only by being purposeful was my body able to learn how to eat gluten again in limited amounts. Also, while I have no doubt that I was/am gluten intolerant, I have never been tested for celiac disease.  There are differences between gluten intolerance and celiac disease. I cannot recommend that someone with celiac disease try to eat gluten again.

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5 thoughts on “how to eat gluten again.

  1. Darci

    Thank you so much for sharing this wealth of information! This will be life changing for my daughter and I! Excited to follow your healing regimen (thanks for making it sound so do-able!) and see how we do after over 6 years with no gluten! I’m with you, I don’t really miss “it” but I would LOVE the freedom of not being so high maintenance in social settings!

    Reply
  2. Jessi Post author

    Funny. I’m actually quite certain you got your own though :). What is Chris researching? Dairy allergies? Or something else? Do share.

    Reply
    1. Angie

      Haha when I got the response via email I didn’t know what you were talking about my “having one of my own” which just further proves the point that you got it! Yes chris was researching healing his immune system via healing his gut. He is feeling much better now with contact with dairy products, but we are drinking raw goats milk ( by we I mean him and the kids) and eating the raw sheep’s milk cheese so limited actual exposure, non the less a big step for him!

      Reply
  3. Angie

    Very similar thoughts to what chris has been researching as well! Glad to hear you have some more freedom! This is fun seeing what’s in your brain – after all, since we “shared” one and you evidently got it permanently – I have to get my info somewhere 🙂

    Reply

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