If you’re living with chronic pain, somebody at some point in time has probably suggested you go on a gluten-free diet. (Heck, that someone might have even been me.)
But, seriously? What IS gluten? How could it possibly affect your chronic pain levels, and why should you listen to anything I have to say?
Well, because I’m an expert. I’ve been on a gluten-free diet for 15 years, and it literally saved my life. However, you don’t have to take my word for it. I have plenty of proof to show you along the way.
In this comprehensive but easy-to-follow series, I will answer all the burning questions you have about going on a gluten-free diet for chronic pain (and maybe even some you never knew you had).
I will cover:
1) What gluten is, and why you should avoid it.
2) The most common food sources of gluten.
3) Why you don’t need a doctor’s permission to go gluten-free.
4) How the gluten-free diet is far from a fad and just how far back its history goes.
5) How to get started on a gluten-free diet.
6) Why a gluten-free diet isn’t nearly as expensive as you think.
7) How giving up gluten will not make you sick (despite what you’ve heard).
8) What apps you can use to dine out safely alongside your friends and family.
9) What to do if you live in a food desert.
10) Scientific proof that a gluten-free diet has put chronic pain (including fibromyalgia) into remission!
Ready? Let’s get started!
Common Question 1: What the heck is gluten, and what does it have to do with my chronic illness?
Gluten is an elastic protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It’s the substance that makes dough sticky and stretchy.
Here is a list of the most common sources of gluten, as originally compiled by Celiac.org:
Malt (malted barley flour, malted milk and milkshakes, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavoring, malt vinegar)
Rye bread, such as pumpernickel
What does it have to do with my chronic illness?
Those who are sensitive or intolerant to gluten experience an abnormal immune response when breaking down gluten during digestion.
- You do not have to have celiac disease to be intolerant to gluten.
- The gluten we eat today is not the same gluten our grandparents ate.
From autoimmune disease expert Dr. Amy Myers:
“I want to point out that our modern-day gluten is not the same gluten that your grandparents ate. In order to create ever fluffier pastries and hardier wheat, scientists developed new hybrid strains of wheat that contain entirely new forms of gluten not found in any of the original plants, and this is what makes our muffins and bagels bigger and fluffier.
Your immune system thinks this stuff is a foreign invader, goes on the attack, and eventually attacks your healthy tissues, which is how an autoimmune disease is developed.
The bottom line is that if you have an autoimmune disease, or any inflammatory condition, you shouldn’t be eating gluten, period.”
Common Question 2: If my doctor doesn’t prescribe a gluten-free diet, is it safe for me to try on my own?
Yes. A gluten-free diet is 100 percent safe to try on your own without a doctor’s approval. This is because your body does not need gluten to get the nutrition it needs. In others words, there’s no such thing as a “gluten deficiency”.
However, and this is important, some people have become ill because they limited their diets far too much and beyond gluten-free.
For example, if you go on a “gluten-free diet” that consists of nothing but, let’s say, lettuce and water, yes, you’re going to have severe nutritional deficiencies and may even end up on a feeding tube!
That’s not a gluten-free diet. That is an extreme and unhealthy approach to eating, no matter who you are, what food allergies you have, or what kind of health conditions you live with.
If you are unsure of how to begin a safe, nutritious gluten-free diet, and/or you have the urge to cut too much out of your diet since you don’t know what’s making you sick, consult a dietician or integrative medicine doctor to help guide you on your journey.
Common Question 3: Isn’t this whole “gluten-free” thing some new fad?
Because a gluten-free diet has become more mainstream in the past five years, a lot of people mistakenly, but understandably, believe that it’s some new diet fad that will come and go like all the rest.
The difference between a gluten-free diet and, say, a weight-loss plan, is that a gluten-free diet is a lifelong prescription for chronic disease, whereas, most here-today-and-gone-tomorrow diets are focused primarily on weight loss.
Personally, I’ve been following a gluten-free diet for 15 years (way before it was cool). A few years ago, I even joked about it in an article where I claimed I had started the “gluten-free cult”!
No, a gluten-free diet is not new, and it’s not a fad.
As a matter of fact, the earliest record of a gluten-free diet dates back to 250 A.D., when physician Aretaeus Cappadocia included detailed descriptions of patients who seemed to be struggling with chronic abdominal discomfort.
He referred to these patients as “koiliakos”, which was derived from “koelia”,” Greek for “abdomen.”
According to Celiact.com, the rest of the gluten-free diet history looks a bit like this:
- The 1940s
Although World War II caused devastation and havoc all over Europe, and many children became malnourished due to limited access to fruits, vegetables, and wheat, those with celiac disease seemed to improve on this diet.
It was Dutch pediatrician Dr. Willem-Karel Dicke who noticed that fewer children with celiac disease were experiencing symptoms during wartime than before the war.
- The 1970s
Up until the early 1970s, celiac disease had been viewed and treated as an allergic condition. While it was generally understood that those with celiac disease had negative reactions to gluten, the idea that non-celiac gluten sensitivity could impact health began to slowly emerge. It was during this time that celiac disease was first uncovered as a possible autoimmune disorder.
- The 1980s
In 1980, the first description of non-celiac gluten sensitivity was published in the medical journal Gastroenterology.
- The 1990s
After having worked with celiac patients in Europe, Alessio Fasano moved to the United States and became the director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1993.
Although he was told by health care professionals that he would see little celiac disease in America, his research discovered the exact opposite. It was Fasano’s discoveries that would lead to a landmark paper that would permanently alter the scientific community’s view of gluten in America.
- The 2000s
In the early 2000s, more evidence was emerging that a gluten-free diet could benefit those living with chronic inflammatory conditions such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis. This is around the time when mass populations of people began to believe that the diet could cure nearly all ailments, while others became incredibly skeptical.
This is likely where the large split between the two ways of thinking occurred. Whenever a person or group of persons begins touting anything as the “cure-all” for anything and everything, our hackles go up, and we immediately think “snake oil”.
After all, extreme thinking of any type has caused hatred, conflict, mistrust, and war, so any idea or person who rises to any cause or belief system too quickly and too passionately gets met with the equal and opposite reaction of individuals wanting to quash that belief as quickly as possible.
It’s just human nature, and, in many ways, it’s the part of human nature that keeps us balanced, that keeps most of us from taking our ideas so far that the consequences of following them far outweigh the benefits.
- The 2010s
We’re now in the 2010s, and the camps are still divided on both sides. However, that didn’t stop the gluten-free food and beverage industry from growing to $10.5 billion.
This is because so many people healed their chronic stomach pain, IBS, IBD, muscle pain, brain fog, and even mental health disorders simply by adopting this diet into their lives.
For many, including myself, the gluten-free diet was nothing short of a miracle.
Unlike when I found out I needed to go gluten-free 15 years ago, this is the decade that has brought us clear labeling, gluten-free websites, gluten-free cookbooks, gluten-free apps, and even gluten-free meal delivery!
As research continues, more evidence is being uncovered that shows that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a real and scientifically measurable condition and that those who do not have celiac disease would benefit from a gluten-free diet!
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