During my American cross-country hiking trip, down in Utah outside of Zion National Park, I happened to meet an interesting older man named Elmo. Elmo and I grew up down the street from one another, were friends within minutes, and swapped stories for three days.
Elmo regaled me with an interesting tale; I wasn’t so sure about this one, as stories tend to ripen with age–but Elmo had heard it just that morning.
“I met a guy this morning, walking around the camp site. He told me that one day three years ago, he started to get a pain in his arm. The pain was more like a stiffness, and it spread through his other arm. Within hours, it was through his chest. By the next day, it was in his legs. He was paralysed. Spontaneously. For three years. The doctors did every test on him they could think of. Tried all kinds of medications. Nothing worked. Finally, a few months ago, this guy’s friend comes along as says, ‘Maybe it has something to do with gluten.’ So the guy stops eating gluten all-together. And… presto. He starts moving again. When I met him, it was the first day he’d ever gone on a trip since the paralysis.”
I stood there, mouth agape, in utter disbelief.
I’d known that gluten was a tough substance, that a lot of people had allergies to it, that the symptoms could be imperceptible, to mild, to debilitating–but I never thought it could lead to paralysis. Maybe the story isn’t true… maybe it was a coincidence… maybe complete BS. Who knows. But I want to talk about gluten.
- What is gluten? Gluten is a very sticky protein found in wheat, and to some (much smaller extent) in barley, rye, and oats, and (in trace amounts) in other grains.
- Sticky? Yeah. Sticky. “Cohesive.” Ever make papier mache? Flour and water make paste, and paste is sticky. If you cook whole wheat berries, they are very chewy–unlike rice, which is quite soft.
- What is gluten intolerance? Also known as celiac disease, it is a food intolerance and auto-immune disorder which can occur very suddenly (even after a long history of eating gluten). The protein damages the lining of the small intestine and hence hinders your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. If you can’t absorb nutrients, you’re in a lot of trouble, and all manner of illnesses can affect you.
- “Am I at risk?” Depends. It seems that food allergies are becoming more and more common, and more and more spontaneous. Many people (a lot of people!) have mild to moderate gluten intolerance and don’t even know it. Worse yet, the list of symptoms of gluten intolerance is quite long–from abdominal pain to depression–and what you might be diagnosing as something else could quite easily be gluten-related.
- Why so much gluten intolerance? This is just my theory… Wheat (which has the highest concentration of gluten) is one of the most pervasive ingredients in our food culture. It’s in bread, cakes, cookies, pasta, breakfast cereal, pop tarts, crackers… Duh. But what else? Beer! Instant chocolate drinks, coffee substitutes, soy sauce, commercial frosting, ice cream, ice cream cones, packages of pudding, graham crackers, doughnuts, soup packages, dressings and gravies–pretty much all thickened packaged/processed food. Whoa! And if this sticky gluten stuff is so hard to digest, then a lifetime of constant (and mostly undetected) exposure to it is going to catch up with you, as a high-fat/high-sugar diet can lead to type 2 diabetes.
- What should you do? If you feel okay, but not great, there’s the possibility that a trial gluten-free period would be a worthwhile experiment. First, it will steer you towards the whole foods diet (of which I am a strong proponent). Second, it will dramatically alter (probably for the better) your diet, which can be metabolically stimulating. Third, it will make you more aware of when and how you eat.
- Is going gluten-free easy? At first, probably not, as gluten is so pervasive in the standard American diet. Even if you avoid it, you may discover correlations between your food cravings and eating habits (it is extremely common for an individual to crave the very foods that are making him ill, the way a drug-addict craves a fix). Furthermore, gluten (the protein in wheat), breaks down into peptides, which interact with opiate-receptors in your brain, and mimic the effect of heroine and morphine! If you are “addicted” to wheat, it’s no surprise. These peptides are also found in casein (which is a protein found in dairy!).
Go ahead, give wheat-free a try. If you find that you have more energy, better digestive health, less gas, etc., then a low-gluten/gluten-free may be right for you.
For more information on food intolerance, see: “Food Intolerance: can it be making you fat?”