I (mostly) Gave Up Wheat & My Joints Have Never Felt Better
Earlier this year, my doctor tested me for celiac. I didn't think I had the autoimmune disorder. But I did have a lot of symptoms that fit: bone and joint pain, fatigue, migraines, trouble absorbing certain vitamins. My recent weight loss also set off a red flag. I was already underweight, which isn't a predictor of good health.1
Spoiler alert: while it's possible to develop celiac as an adult, I don't have it. But something terrible happens when I eat wheat. And here's how I found out just how bad it can make me feel.
Your stomach is lined with villi. Those are finger-like structures that help you digest food and absorb nutrients. In order to see if your celiac, you actually have to damage your villi. That meant I had to eat a decent amount of gluten before my endoscopy. That's when a surgeon puts a camera down your throat to look at your stomach and part of your small intestines. They cut out a little bit of lining while they're in there and pop it under a microscope to see if there's anything wrong.
I already knew I was sensitive to fructans, the carbohydrates found in wheat. They're one of my worst high-FODMAP triggers. That means I get really bloated when I eat anything with fructans. But I still went out for pizza or cake every now and then. And I ate my fair share of seitan. (That's a vegan meat substitute made out of straight wheat gluten.) I also ate regular oats every day. Those can get cross-contaminated with wheat.
I figured I might feel a little gassy if I added extra wheat. But how bad could it be? Pretty bad, I found out quickly.
I was excited to make whole wheat burritos and homemade pizza crust. I used to make food like that all the time, but I'd phased those meals out in recent years. And after day 1 of wheat-a-palooza, I remembered why.
One burrito later, and I felt like I had both allergies and the flu. And I only felt worse when I ate pizza topped with seitan the next night. I experienced the following symptoms either immediately after eating wheat or the next day:
- Sneezing and running nose
- Itchy eyes
- Joint and bone pain
- Brain fog
I actually called my doctor after the first week. I had trouble concentrating and it hurt to move my fingers. They told me I didn't have to go overboard since I'd never gone fully gluten-free; the sourdough bread I ate every day should be enough to show damage in someone who was truly celiac.
Let's call it non-celiac wheat sensitivity
My endoscopy showed signs of inflammation, but I wasn't celiac. However, my gastroenterologist told me I probably have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. That just means I don't have an autoimmune disorder, but my body sort of acts like I do. Some experts think it should be called non-celiac wheat sensitivity. That's because there are a handful of ingredients in wheat that make trouble for some people's immune system. That includes amylase-trypsin inhibitors, wheat germ, and yes, gluten.2
He told me to stick to a mostly wheat-free diet. I assured him I was planning on it. I already knew that research shows women with endometriosis feel a lot better when they follow a gluten-free diet.2,3 Which makes sense. Both celiac and endometriosis show immune-mediated dysfunction.4 And if you have endometriosis, you're more likely to have another autoimmune disease.5
Why I can still eat sourdough bread
I feel fine when I eat a slice or two of my long-fermented sourdough bread. That's because bacteria can get break down most of the fructans and some of the gluten. Just to be safe, I let my bread sit for 24-72 hours. (But if you're truly celiac, you should skip all gluten-based breads.)
While I'm keeping sourdough, I quit eating seitan. And I switched to certified gluten-free oats. I've noticed the most relief in my joint pain. My fingers used to hurt off and on for seemingly no reason. With my wheat changes, they hardly ever hurt.
So if you feel like you have the flu all the time — or you think your getting arthritis — try a gluten and wheat-free diet for a week. It only took me a few days to notice a difference. And if you're concerned, ask your doctor if they should test you for celiac.
People with endometriosis may also have bladder issues. Have you experienced overactive bladder (urinary frequency or urgency)?
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