Should You Go Gluten Free?

Is gluten bad for you? Is a gluten free diet healthier? Gluten Sensitivity vs Celiac Disease?

Hey You! 

This was my week of crazy health news that I'd like to share with you. 

Until now, I haven't shared much of this on the blog, but now I want to, because I hope this helps you a) navigate the wild world of gluten and b) get more in tune with your own body & wellbeing. 

Here's my story

The problem

Apparently 40% of women in the U.S. have symptoms of overactive bladder at some point in their lives. Typically, women experience this after giving birth. I happen to be one of the unfortunate few who deals with this sans the joys of a new baby. 

So, what does this mean? As embarrassing as it is to admit this over the internet, it means I pee my pants! I mean, not always, and not enough that anyone seems to notice (eeeek, I hope not!), but I notice. As you can imagine, I've had some very awkward moments in meetings with my boss or counseling clients when I abruptly run the bathroom. Awkward at best. 

I have been to every kind of specialist you can imagine, but no one has been able to explain what's causing this crazy chronic bladder inflammation & irritation.  

And then there's the mental health part. Some healthcare providers hypothesized that my bladder issues are related to chronic stress & anxiety. That theory does not exactly come as a relief. If only anxiety was a switch I could choose to shut off!

Spastic bladder aside, I have spent most of my adult life struggling with varying degrees of anxiety and depression. The crazy thing about this is that "on paper" my life is pretty perfect. My family loves me enormously, I have a brilliant, sweet & supportive husband & a dog that I love beyond words, my job is fulfilling and my future is bright. So what's there to be anxious & depressed about?!? 

After years of therapy and trying almost every meditation/self-help program available, I opened up to the possibility that I have a biochemical imbalance. I gave antidepressants a go for over a year. They definitely provided relief, but only temporarily. Like rain dripping through a leaky roof, the depression & anxiety managed to seep their way back in. 

naturopathic medicine digestive health

The naturopathic solution

As registered dietitians, Megan and I are trained in evidence-based medicine, meaning we give recommendations based on what is shown effective by research. Unfortunately, despite all the miracles of modern medicine, it can sometimes fall short. In my case, it became clear that conventional doctors do not know how to fix my bladder or my brain. I decided to set aside my evidence-based bias and see a naturopath. 

The naturopathic approach treats the body holistically. This means naturopathic practitioners don't see my brain and bladder as separate organs to treat, but instead view it all as related, all pieces of a greater whole, working (or not-working) in unison. 

Another interesting component of naturopathic care is the emphasis on digestive health. Your GI tract is where you absorb all the nutrients that enables every function in your body, from serotonin uptake to oxygen delivery. As a dietitian, you can imagine I jumped right on board with this theory. Doesn't it makes so much sense that if your gut is not absorbing nutrients your body needs to thrive, bodily functions will start to fail?!

Celiac disease & the gut-brain connection

How gluten affects mental health 

Long story, not-so-short, the naturopathic doctor did my antibody and genetic testing and diagnosed me with Celiac Disease. (She also gave me some other diagnoses, but that story will have to wait for another day). 

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley). In response to gluten, the body produces antibodies, feisty fighters that squash and destroy the intestinal cells that absorb nutrients from the GI tract into the bloodstream. The only treatment is lifelong, 100% elimination of all gluten. 

I raised a skeptical eyebrow. If I had Celiac Disease, wouldn't I be waaaaaaaay more sick than I am?!?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Actually depression is one of the major symptoms of Celiac Disease. Sounds crazy, but actually there's a lot of emerging research showing that actually our brain & gut are tightly linked. Just like when you're nervous and you get sick to the stomach, the signals go in the opposite direction as well. When the gut the is upset neurological signals are sent to the brain. Additionally, the GI tract is full of serotonin receptors. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, you know, diarrhea, bloating, gas, all that fun stuff, is actually just as linked to serotonin imbalances as is depression. 

The Celiac also explained the bladder situation and the micronutrient deficiencies (vitamin D and iron) I battled with earlier this year (I wrote about it in the Zucchini-Noodle Greek Lasagna blog post). Oh yeah, and those runner's trots always slowing me down! (If you've ever gone for a run with me, you know how frequently I make pit stops.... not a pretty picture.) 

What does this mean for you?

Celiac disease vs gluten sensitivity 

The deal with gluten

Well, in case you haven't noticed, gluten is being thrown around like a bad word. Somehow "gluten-free" has become synonymous with "healthy". The thing is, unless you have a specific disorder, like Celiac Disease, gluten is not necessarily bad for you. It's literally a protein!

I like to compare gluten to pollen. Lots and lots of people have seasonal allergies. However, for those of us who do not, pollen is not bad for us. Similarly, gluten is not bad for everyone.

It's worth noting that many gluten-free products are highly processed with refined grains and preservatives. 

All of this said, gluten-sensitivity is definitely a real thing, celiac disease or not. For those with gluten sensitivity, eating this protein can cause inflammation in the gut and damage to the intestinal cells. As you can imagine, this can cause some seriously uncomfortable bloating and many other GI issues not talked about at the dinner table.

It can also have downstream effects. If you're not getting the nutrients you need, other systems in your body will fail to thrive. This can mean anything from fatigue to getting more colds. 

I shared all of my issues to help make you aware that:

  • a) if you don't have a gluten intolerance, you don't have to avoid gluten. Enjoy delicious whole grain breads! Life is short and food is one of the great joys of life! 
  • b) before deciding whether or not to avoid gluten, it's worth taking a look at your entire health picture, mental & physical. If there are long-term struggles, anything from anxiety to anemia to bloating, then having your digestive-health evaluated is worth the while. Knowledge is power.
  • c) your primary care may not be aware of this gut-brain-health connection and may not know what tests to run. Neither naturopathic or conventional doctors have all the answers about your body, so I'm a proponent of talking to both. Why not glean information from all sources!

I'm still not sure I have Celiac Disease. I am waiting to see a gastroenterologist to gather more information. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I know that there's some serious imbalances in my body and if cutting out gluten means I get to realize my healthiest & happiest self, then it's worth a go. I'll let you know how it goes!

Love & Zest,

Anna

How gluten impacts your health

PS Questions about your own digestive or other health issues? Want to learn more about my experience? I'm here to help!

Shoot me an email: anna@eatwithzest.com  


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