Two weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a nasty headache. Getting up in the middle of the night has become something of a routine in the last year or so–not because of headaches, but because of my middle-age hormones–all exacerbated in recent weeks by the jet lag from an overseas trip. The headache added a new twist to the whole business, but I have developed a routine for such occasions. Instead of flopping around in bed, becoming evermore agitated at my inability to fall back asleep, I’ve learned to just get up and do other things–read, surf the net, attempt to watch TV (although TV at that time of night is worse than awful), or noodle around in the kitchen. Seriously, several nights ago I was so wide awake, I made cookies. Anyway, after taking a couple of Excedrin that particular night, I carefully tip-toed out of the bedroom, being careful to avoid the squeaky spots in the floor so I didn’t wake Tom, and headed out to the living room and the pile of books and magazines stacked next to my chair.

While thumbing through one of the cooking magazines, I came across an interview with Elisabeth Hasselbeck in which she talked about being gluten intolerant. Gluten intolerant. Hmmmm. Interesting. Just a few weeks before when I was visiting my aunt, I learned that one of her sons (my cousin) is gluten intolerant. I’ve only known one other person my entire life (that I’m aware of anyway) who is gluten intolerant and that was when I was in grade school. I must admit, it’s not a topic I’ve given much thought to. The extent of my knowledge about gluten intolerance was that anyone who has it must avoid wheat products. That’s it. I knew nothing more. Having plenty of time on my hands and no inclination to go back to sleep, I headed into the office to do a little research on the subject.

I started at MayoClinic.com. Let’s see…not a food allergy, hmmm…abdominal pain and diarrhea, interesting…genetic, really?…linked to auto-immune disorders, what!?…to say I was shocked by what I read would be a gross understatement. The list of symptoms of gluten intolerance reads like a checklist of my medical records and my maternal family’s health history. Not that any one of us has all the symptoms, but among the entire group of us, we’ve covered a scary percentage of them. If you–like me–are unfamiliar with gluten intolerance, here’s a quick overview from the site: “If you have Celiac disease and eat foods containing gluten [found in products containing wheat, barley, and rye], an immune reaction occurs in your small intestine, causing damage to the surface of your small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients.” Besides disrupting a person’s digestive system, gluten intolerance is linked to a number of conditions–particularly auto-immune conditions (my family’s specialty)–including, but not limited to, thyroid disease, lupus, Crohn’s disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, alopecia (hair loss), rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain, skin rash (particularly on the elbows, knees, and buttocks), mouth sores, dental disorders, neuropathy, general weakness and fatigue, infertility, and liver disease. Holy cow! Until learning recently about my cousin’s diagnosis, I’ve never heard anyone in my family mention the possibility of gluten intolerance.

About then, Tom woke up and wandered into the office in a sleepy fog, blinking and scratching, “What are you doing?”

When I explained about my research and what I’d learned, the first words out of his mouth were, “Maybe that explains why you felt so good when you did Atkins.” Out of the mouths of the comatose.

For most of my adult life, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with food. I love to eat it, but hate how it makes me feel and look. And for most of my adult life, my digestive system has been wacky, something I chalked it up to my latest diet du jour and/or stress. And there were plenty of diet du jours–and stress (but then, who isn’t stressed?). Over the years, I’ve tried just about every diet out there. Some worked, some didn’t, and with the exception of Atkins, they’d all made me feel lousy–or at minimum–no better than my normal diet (of mostly processed foods) made me feel. Atkins was different. I felt great on Atkins. My energy level soared. My digestive troubles went away as did my rashes and indigestion. I remember telling people I felt like I was twenty again. But Atkins was also a diet that made others nervous. “You shouldn’t eat like that!’ my friends would say, and truthfully, based on my knowledge of nutrition at the time, it made me nervous, too. So after six or seven months, I gave it up and went back watching the numbers on my bathroom scales yo-yo up and down.

Then a couple of years ago, my attitude about food and cooking changed–dramatically. Up to that point, cooking was something I did to feed my family. Providing sustenance. Just one more chore. One that I tried to do as quickly and easily as possible. Although my family didn’t eat a lot of take-out, fast food, I did prepare a lot of meals using pre-packaged, highly processed ingredients. Food itself fell into two basic categories: healthy and time-consuming-to-prepare or yummy, quick, easy, and fattening. What a choice, and what an incredible amount of time I wasted wringing my hands over the whole mess. But then, as I said, things changed.

Over the last two years–because of events I won’t go into now–I have fallen in love with cooking. Along the way have learned a great deal about food and nutrition. Not the misguided, pyramid-shaped gospel of nutrition preached by the government, but the common sense version practiced by our ancestors until the middle of the last century when food became industrialized. No more fake, manufactured foods, no more packaged foods with lists of ingredients I don’t recognize or can’t spell or pronounce, just whole real food. Again, this is a topic I can write hundreds of posts on, so I’ll move on and get to my point. Finally.

I no longer eat the things that I had previously blamed my digestive problems on, and for the last several months have had virtually no stress in my life. In many ways, I feel much better, but my digestive system is still buggered up. Which brings me back to gluten intolerance. If improving my diet and reducing stress hasn’t clear up the problem, could I possibly be gluten intolerant? And if I am, could changing my diet now save me from some of the nastier auto-immune issues others in my family have faced? Under the circumstances, it seemed perfectly reasonable to find out, so I made an appointment with my doctor and had the blood test a few days later. I learned earlier this week that the test came back negative, meaning I’m not gluten intolerant. However, the very next day, I shared the story with a friend who just laughed and told me her sister had the same experience. Eventually, the sister was diagnosed with Celiac disease and felt better within a week or two of starting a gluten-free diet. Last night, I met another woman who relayed a similar story, so I’ve decided to go gluten free just to see what happens. I know for sure I felt better when I wasn’t eating bread, cookies, pizza, etc. on Atkins, and my gut instinct tells me it’s a good plan.

So, why am I telling you all this? Because the more people I talk to and the more I learn about Celiac disease and its symptoms, the more I’m convinced that there are others out there like me who are totally unaware of the problems gluten may be causing. If not with you, maybe someone you love. Not that I want anyone to be gluten intolerant, but if someone is, it seems much easier to make a few changes in diet now rather than to have to deal with the damage later. Moreover, I’m learning there are lots of people in the world who eat gluten free just because it makes them feel good. I’m also discovering yummy, healthy ingredients like arrowroot, quinoa, and millet that I’ve never considered using before. At this point, I feel overwhelmed by it all, but grateful to finally feel like I might be on to something that will change my health for the better. I’ll keep you posted.

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