HI, I’M A RECOVERING GLUTEN CONSUMER

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– the 30 year road to restorative sleep and boundless energy 

By Rob Burgess

I’ve been through a HUGE health transformation in the past month.

The short version is that through a fortunate accident I discovered I was being severely affected by gluten in my diet – something I had discounted as a possibility for 30+ years. That discovery made me skip the GP and go straight to a well-regarded dietician who said “yes, you have a severe gluten sensitivity” and who then ordered the blood and genetic tests to work out exactly what kind.

I am ‘non-celiac gluten sensitive’. I know that doesn’t sound too bad, but if you hear the symptoms I think you’ll understand.

Symptoms (in order of seriousness):

  • Lethargy and an irrepressible need to take naps through the day (so bad it’s almost narcolepsy). I coped with this over the years by stealing away from office, uni, whatever, and sitting on the closed lid of a toilet, propping myself against the wall, and falling asleep. A nap of only a minute or two seemed to get me going again, but I still felt pretty lethargic between naps. In the space of a 150km drive, I could be forced to pull over and nap three or four times. Ridiculous.
  • Aching muscles and joints. I’m not 100% clear on the science of this, but with an inflamed intestinal tract my dietician says ‘malabsorption’ of nutrients will make all kinds of bodily functions play up. This nearly always hampered my attempts to exercise – even when I cycled 16km a day to and from the city, my legs ached and it was like pedalling against strong winds all the time.
  • Diarrhoea. Not a major problem in itself, but a bit awkward when doing things like bush walks or sailing on the bay. The main problem was always wondering “why don’t my guts work like other peoples’?”
  • Constricted nasal passages. Again, not a major problem, but it would have affected the way I sleep – a doctor had identified years before that I was a ‘mouth breather’ at night which he said explained my always-chapped lips.

I had taken these symptoms to doctors many times over the years, and none had ever mentioned the word gluten nor referred me to a dietician. That could have been partly my fault, as I’d probably have said things like “it can’t be gluten, because I get the same problem when I eat rice and veggies etc”.

What I know now, is that when I ate rice and veggies, there was probably wheat flour in the stir fry sauce, there is gluten in soy sauce, there is gluten in beer I might have had to wash it down. Unless you’re careful there is gluten everywhere.

Then one day I was watching a cooking show with my son and a chef referred to cannellini beans as ‘the pasta of southern Italy’, and I thought “I wonder if I can beat this sleeping thing by getting rid of carbs and using beans and lentils in their place?”

Within a day or so I was jumping out of my skin with energy, and all those other symptoms quickly disappeared too.

The only trouble is, it’s REALLY hard to not eat carbs at all and I didn’t want to become a ketone-dieter. So I thought, “I’m eating a lot of chilli beans, so maybe corn tortillas will be okay to eat with them.” They were.

From there I thought, “although I’ve never thought I had a gluten problem, maybe I should try gluten free bread?” I did, and again there was no problem – just continuing surges of energy and well-being. So I started reading chat forums for gluten-suffers and couldn’t believe how their stories matched my own.

I also discovered that many people feel withdrawal symptoms when they quit gluten – bad enough to make them give up and go back to the sources of gluten (wheat, barley, rye, oats). So this time I stuck it out – I felt really bad on a couple of days and even vomited one morning.

Since then I have felt SO good, so energised. Just amazing. There was a settling-down period (your gut biome has to make some big adjustments, and previously deficient vitamins have to come into balance etc). That lasted a week or so  and during that time I seriously had too much energy and could hardly sleep, but that seems to be over.

So here are a few caveats to the above:
  • There are probably quite a few people who think they are gluten intolerant when they are not, but if you suspect you might be, the best place to start is generally NOT a GP (I took my symptoms to ten or so GPs over 25 years, underwent some nasty tests and was misdiagnosed twice). Just go to a dietician, who can work with your GP to find out what’s going on. If it’s not dietary, your GP can take over.
  • The best way to see if you’re gluten intolerant is to see the dietician BEFORE you cut out gluten foods. That way they can do a simple blood test to see if you are ‘celiac’ or ‘non-celiac’ – and the difference is very important, as celiac sufferers have to get regular checks to see if their intestines are deteriorating.
  • To be ‘celiac’ you must have certain genes (which I don’t have), but even celiacs are usually not born with the intolerance – its on-set will happen at some random time of life. The same can be true (and was for me) of non-celiac sensitivity – I remember noticing symptoms from around 18 years of age.
  • When you go gluten free, it’s easy to make mistakes. I have discovered, for example, that a MacDonald’s chai latte has gluten in it. Argh!
  • The good news is that major supermarkets now have heaps of gluten free foods (bread, snacks, pies, crumbed fish, GF soy sauce, you name it) and of course all natural veggies and meats etc are already gluten-free.

I guess all of the above is irrelevant to most people, but if you or somebody you know has a bad reaction to their meals the way I used to, get to a dietician. I’m pretty remorseful it took me three decades to do it myself, but I do feel very emotional and grateful that this curse is finally lifted. I hope what I’ve jotted down here can help at least a few people do the same.

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