Under different circumstances, that would be excellent news. But when you still don’t feel right, it’s not much consolation to know that “there’s nothing wrong.” Clearly, something’s off, but for whatever reason, the doctor has no interest in solving the problem. I’ve had many patients come to me after seeing multiple doctors, and being told time and time again, “Nothing’s wrong.” That’s when I start thinking outside the diagnostic box.
Food allergies or sensitivities are among the most common sources of health problems. But there’s one food in particular that is turning out to be the source of multiple ailments: wheat. Until recently, whole grains had been considered some of the healthiest foods around. However, decades of tinkering with wheat to make it more productive and profitable have turned the grain into something of a Frankenstein’s monster with questionable health benefits.
In fact, today’s wheat even looks different than the classic grain, and it no longer contains the same beneficial nutrients. Even worse, wheat — like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup — is used in some form or other in products where you would least expect it. Wheat turns up in everything from frozen french fries to pet foods to skin lotions — and it uses a variety of names, including hydrolyzed wheat protein or wheat starch.
Unfortunately, there’s one additional concern with wheat: contamination by GMO (genetically modified organism) wheat that “escaped” from experimental fields. This fact, acknowledged by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), has already led Japan to cancel its contract for wheat with American farmers. Many other countries have also banned GMO foods, so they could follow Japan’s lead. I’ll be writing more about why it’s so important to avoid GMO foods, but for now, I’ll just say that this is one more reason to avoid wheat.
For individuals with celiac disease, eating wheat can have very serious consequences, including digestive problems, joint pain, malnutrition, skin conditions, fatigue, and developmental issues in children. In an earlier newsletter, I wrote about celiac disease, an under-diagnosed condition believed to affect as many as 1 in every 133 Americans. Unfortunately, millions of Americans are unaware they even have celiac disease, so they continue to suffer with misdiagnosis and treatments that do nothing to improve their health.
Celiac disease is not the end of the story when it comes to wheat. Certain individuals who do not have celiac disease still have a hard time processing wheat. As a result, I’m seeing an increasing number of patients with ailments that disappear when they stop eating wheat. These aren’t just brief bouts of indigestion. I’m talking about arthritis, asthma, and a long list of skin problems. These people have wheat allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, is believed to be behind many of these wheat-related health issues.
An individual who is sensitive to or intolerant of gluten might experience mood swings, depression, difficulty concentrating, or changes in behavior after eating food containing the protein. Experts estimate that as many as 20 million Americans who do not have celiac disease are sensitive to gluten.
In addition, a separate disorder — wheat allergy — can cause everything from skin rashes to asthma. Wheat allergy is thought to be far less common than celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, but it can lead to life-threatening consequences, including anaphylactic shock.
When a person with celiac disease eats wheat, the lining of the small intestine over-reacts and shuts down. Unable to absorb nutrients from food, sufferers of the disease might experience malnutrition, along with numerous other symptoms. For doctors who aren’t familiar with this condition, the symptoms are often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome or indigestion.
Treating those conditions doesn’t help, however, so the nagging health problems continue, even though a simple celiac disease blood test, followed by a biopsy for confirmation, is all it takes to identify celiac disease. However, the condition is not on the radar of many physicians, so it’s not at all unusual for patients to struggle with health issues for years before finding out what’s wrong with them.
Let’s say your blood test shows that you do not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, but you still don’t feel quite right. There’s much more you can do on your own to determine if wheat is a problem. You may want to start with a test for gluten sensitivity, which you can obtain online from EnteroLab (www.enterolab.com). Or you can simply start with the same thing I tell my patients — a gluten-free challenge diet. Here are the four essential steps you need to follow:
Let’s say your blood test shows that you do not have celiac disease, but you still don’t feel quite right. There’s much more you can do on your own to determine if wheat is a problem. I recommend starting with the same thing I tell my patients — a gluten-free challenge diet. Here are the four essential steps you need to follow:
Clear your cupboards and refrigerator of products containing gluten — commonly found in wheat, rye, and barley. To determine if you are sensitive to gluten, you need to completely eliminate it from your diet for a minimum of 30 days. This is no time for half measures. You must give your body time to heal. If you give up bread made with wheat, for example, but continue to eat ordinary pasta, crackers, cereal, etc. (as opposed to gluten-free), your results will be skewed. In other words, you must commit to going totally gluten-free for 30 days. So get ready for some label reading, and remember — even the smallest amount of gluten is unacceptable for the next month.
Replace gluten-based foods with gluten-free versions. These days, that’s fairly easy. Food manufacturers are very aware of gluten and wheat health issues, so there are gluten-free breads (check the frozen foods aisles), pasta, cereal, and much more.
If you bake, you can make your own gluten-free cookies and breads by substituting any of the gluten-free flour blends on the market today. I encourage my patients to focus on foods like vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and brown rice or other grains that are naturally gluten-free. If you are going out to eat, ask your server about dishes that do not contain gluten — and stay away from the breadbasket. Remember, you aren’t giving up bread, cupcakes, and doughnuts forever — it’s only for 30 days!
During your 30 days without gluten, I urge you to keep a diary documenting how you feel. Are your symptoms the same or are they improving? How about your energy levels — the same or better? Weight loss or gain? At the end of the month, this summary can be helpful for sorting out your condition.
At the end of four weeks, reintroduce one form of gluten to your diet. Don’t go overboard. Have just one slice of whole wheat bread, for example, and then wait four days before consuming any additional gluten. Use your diary to write about your body’s reaction. Did any symptoms that had disappeared return? If so, you might want to continue avoiding gluten. If not, try one portion of another food containing gluten, like pasta. Again, wait four days and record the reactions.
This pattern of eating a possible problem food every four days is known as “the rotation diet”, and it has been shown to be very useful for identifying food sensitivities.
So, again, if at the end of the 30 days you find that a slice of wheat bread or a bowl of pasta causes some digestive problems, joint pains, memory issues, or another complication, you would probably be better off avoiding gluten entirely. Some patients with gluten sensitivities find that they can eat gluten occasionally, but not every day. That’s fine, if it works for you.
If you’ve been to more doctors than you can count or if your physician keeps insisting there’s nothing wrong with you — and you know there is! — try eliminating gluten from your life for a month and see how you feel. I’ve seen patients go from weary and depressed to Energizer Bunny in a matter of weeks, just from giving up gluten. That doesn’t sound like such a bad trade-off, does it?
If these symptoms sound familiar, give the gluten-free diet a try, it gets easier as you go along and it is well worth the effort. Keep me posted on your progress, you are not alone!