Three years ago at this time of the year, I had a brilliant epiphany. It was about my health. For years, I’d had issues with migraines. This is not surprising nor alarming of itself, so I (mostly) ignored it except during allergy season. I had always been a “sensitive” child, as my parents called me, prone to intestinal pains and sick stomachs, so it likewise was not a huge shock when I started to have oesophageal reflux (also called acid reflux), even though I couldn’t understand why I was having it. My usual diet avoided trigger foods anyways. When the pains in my lower abdomen didn’t stop after some weeks, I kept going back to the doctors until they finally declared I had something called GERD and I needed to follow a high-fiber diet. OK, I could use the fiber. But what was this GERD?
Turns out, Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a rather large umbrella term that doctors use when they really can’t figure out what is wrong or how to fix it, except by treating the symptoms. None of the articles actually say this, but read between the lines a little bit and that’s what I saw. My friend had been diagnosed with this the fall before, so I was somewhat familiar with what it was–but with her, it was all diet based. She had been working too hard, taking too many classes, and eating a strict diet of Starbucks and Taco Bell. She began to do better once we figured out some easy meals to make out of canned veggies and meat. Better than fast food by a long shot.
But my diet was fine. Why was I having the same thing my friend had? Why the “we don’t know what’s wrong with you besides a bad diet” treatment? I couldn’t have a bad diet. I was following the USDA food pyramid very well lately, incorporating the recommended amounts of whole grains, fruits, and veggies into my diet. I realized that at the same time I was having GERD flare-ups, my contact dermatitis went insane. My thighs and ankles itched, to the point where I was crying and drawing blood with the itching. I usually did well with a do-not-touch-the-itches regimen, but I still had white hives. Not red hives. White. I wasn’t sure that they even were hives, but there was simply nothing else they could be. They weren’t bug bites.
And then it hit me. Hives are an allergic reaction. It could be an external allergen or something I was consuming.
If I was allergic to something I was consuming, then my gastro-intestinal tract would be feeling bad, too. Now, I knew whatever it was, it had to be a borderline allergy, nothing violent like my allergy to peppers. One tablespoon of bell pepper and I could kiss my evening goodbye after 20 minutes. Whatever I was currently allergic to, it had to be in for long haul, taking hours or days or perhaps weeks to kick in. What had I eaten for that long, what were known allergens other people had?
Eggs. Dairy. I certainly ate a lot of dairy.
I was checking out some charts on lactose intolerance symptoms when I came across a chart comparing lactose intolerance symptoms to gluten intolerance symptoms. They are shockingly similar. GERD-like problems, headaches, hives, fatigue, mental fogginess. Check, check, check, all the way down the list on both suspects.
But what was gluten? It’s a component in wheat, the stretchy binding protein which makes bread flexible and able to hold the carbon-dioxide bubbles produced by yeast farting after consuming sugar in the dough. And some oats have gluten, while some don’t. So, I was looking at a diet restricted in either milk or wheat. Or both. That sucks.
Any chance I don’t have an allergy to them? Sure. But then I’d be a real freak of nature with mysterious hives, GERD, chronic migraines, and mental fogginess. Or I have a food allergy causing those symptoms. Which sounds more likely? Right. I went back to the doctor, and asked if they could do a skin-poke-test-thing to see if I was allergic to dairy or gluten. They said they could test me for Celiac’s Disease, but if the test came back negative all it meant was I didn’t have Celiac’s. I could still be allergic to gluten. Only a small portion of gluten allergic people have Celiac’s, the doc told me it was about 2%. She said I would simply have to cut the suspected allergens out of my diet for at least two weeks, but better for a full month or two.
I managed to cut out dairy. Cheese was a sad thing to let go, but I told myself I didn’t need the fat in it anyway. I found I hated soy milk. But I liked chocolate hazelnut. Whoo-hoo for being a kid again, drinking chocolate milk.
I tried for a week to cut out wheat. Freakin’ impossible. Pizza! Pasta! Most sauces. Cookies. Cinnamon rolls. Bread, oh my gosh, BREAD. Sandwiches. Chinese noodles. Every single thing in the university eateries had gluten, all but split pea soup and the salad bar, provided I didn’t get anything crunchy to go on top like croutons. Mmm. Salad. That is exciting for two days. I pretty much ate broth, apples, and chocolate hazelnut milk for two weeks while I failed miserably at gluten free baking. Three years ago they didn’t have all the gluten free recipes they do now.
One day, I broke. I needed my freaking cheese, of all things. Cheese. Once I had a substantial portion, I realized I had probably eaten enough to trigger an allergic reaction. So I binged on dairy. I chugged cow milk. I ate a whole big tub of yogurt. I had more cheese.
Then I waited to feel terrible.
I didn’t. I still felt fine. One day, two day, three days after my binging of dairy, and I felt normal.
Ooooh-kaaay then. Probably not allergic to dairy.
Then I thought: Let’s try wheat this time. Pizza. Pasta. Cookies. Cinnamon rolls. Bread. Chinese noodles. Crackers and cheese and pears. Everything whole-wheat, everything as packed with gluten as I could make it.
12 hours later, The Itching began. It was one of the most horrendous itching episodes I had ever, ever had in my life. I broke out the antiseptic and antiobiotic cream and had to wrap my bleeding ankles. Possibly a delayed reaction to the dairy, but my bet was on the gluten. Remember how I said I had recently begun to follow the USDA food pyramid? I’d upped my gluten intake weeks before coming down ill. I kept eating dairy as usual, felt no worse, and I felt better when I avoided gluten for a few more days.
A couple of weeks later, I tried the gluten experiment again. Same miserable results.
Well…at least I could throw away my migraine prescription, my GERD over the counter stuff, the special creams for my legs, and feel more mentally aware. It also meant I had to pick up the ‘gluten allergy’ label. And start an uphill battle with gluten free flours. But I was in denial. It wasn’t easy to go gluten free. I eventually discovered I have more of an intolerance than a true allergy. I can have a single serving of gluten-laced products in a day without issues, but no more.
Now I know much better about gluten free baking, and the products from my kitchen are never suspected to be gluten free. Sometimes someone with good taste buds can tell that there’s something different about those cookies. What is that nutty flavor? (Answer: probably chickpea flour) It’s easier for me, now, but when we were living in a hotel room in between homes, I really started to feel crummy. The thing I notice the most now, after being free from my allergen for years, is that when I have gluten, I feel foggy like I’ve taken the wrong allergy pill. No wonder I struggled with classes.
I’ve managed to learn enough to help other people with this allergy. I even have a host of recipes I give out to people. Cakes, cookies, sweet breads, sauces, gravies, pies, a little bit of everything I’ve managed to make a recipe for.
…but I still haven’t managed to make a good loaf of bread. Curses!
Like I said, I was just reminiscing about my journey today. Three years ago I thought I couldn’t eat much of anything, and now it’s amazing how much I know and how much I’ve grown and managed to change other’s lives for the better.