“Gluten Free” has become my new favorite catch phrase.
It’s an up and coming term found on food and product labels in recent years, much to the relief of those suffering from the ill effects of the grain-based protein. While more people have heard about it in association with celiac disease, an autoimmune intestinal disorder caused by exposure to gluten in the diet, few have heard about its association with other diseases, particularly asthma.
It’s estimated that some eight million Americans suffer from asthma, and two million Americans suffer from celiac disease, although a Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology study indicates that there are millions of undiagnosed cases still yet to be discovered.
As an asthma sufferer myself, I became curious about gluten after I had an epiphany earlier this year. After eating a bowl of puffed wheat cereal, my lungs immediately reacted with an asthma attack. I wondered what could have caused it. I began researching everything I could find on the different variables, which might have induced the attack. I came across a few articles about wheat, gluten, and its affect on asthma. I was astounded to discover studies that point to a correlation between the two. For 50 years, I have endured the asthma that has interrupted my life in so many unpleasant ways, yet never has any doctor suggested that I may be gluten sensitive. But in retrospect, it all made sense. Gluten was in most of the foods I ate, which explained my frequent attacks. It also explained other maladies I’ve suffered, from migraines to stomach pain. So I decided it was time for me to look into this further.
I found out through much research that gluten sensitivity is not measurable in a standard allergy test, and such tests most often come back with a negative diagnosis. The only sure way to find out is to remove gluten from my diet. That meant giving up standard types of bread, pasta, muffins, cakes, pies, sauces of all kinds, foods containing thickeners, and myriad other products, including makeup. For three weeks I miraculously stayed away from gluten, substituting “gluten free” items, and avoiding questionable foods. My local grocer carries gluten free breads and pastas, as well as other selections, which helped in my diet transition. I was surprised and delighted when after three or four days, my breathing improved. After a few weeks, I didn’t use my inhaler at all for days at a time. I slowly re-introduced gluten into my diet, only to find my symptoms returned. A few times, I ate things I thought were gluten free, only to suffer an attack. I’d read the label more carefully to see that it contained gluten. It became pretty clear to me after a month or so that gluten was indeed a culprit contributing to my asthma symptoms.
But it didn’t stop there.
During my hours of research, after pouring over study after study, I came across some unexpected facts about a group of vegetables and fruits called “nightshades.” Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers of all kinds, eggplants, some types of berries, all belong to this category and all can contribute to asthma symptoms. Studies indicate that nightshades can cause the body’s immune system to attack itself due to the high levels of alkaloids it releases during digestion. In most cases, nightshades play an important part in maintaining a healthy immune system, but for people with autoimmune disorders, like asthma, and arthritis, too much is not a good thing. That’s why asthma suffers often take immune suppressant medications, to ward off the body’s immune system’s attack on the lungs.
Living gluten free was great to avoid some asthma symptoms, but it didn’t address my low tolerance for infection. My frequent lung infections meant lots of hospital visits. Nightshades might be a cause. I love spaghetti sauce and all foods Italian. I love Mexican food. In fact, all my favorite foods contain nightshades. They were a staple part of my diet. So removing them was going to be a real challenge for me, or so I thought. I was surprised how many wonderful food varieties were out there waiting for me.
It was a slow process. But after I spent three days in the hospital earlier this year for asthma, followed by weeks of bed-rest, coupled with other ailments that may have been caused by my diet, I returned to a gluten free/nightshade free regimen. After three weeks, I didn’t have to have breathing treatments or use my rescue inhaler except if I faltered and ate something I shouldn’t, like ice cream containing gluten.
What’s more astounding is that my lung capacity has improved. I can breath deeper than I ever have before. Ever. I can fill my lungs and continue to breathe in far past what I could have before. And I don’t cough. I don’t wheeze. And it doesn’t hurt. In fact, it feels so good! Having lived with lung disease for a lifetime, it seems nothing short of a miracle that I can have this level of clarity and capacity in my lungs. It’s amazing.
I continue to use my steroid inhaler, which has never really made that much of a difference. Though I’ve struggled with medications for years, I don’t want to remove all of them until I’ve tested these new eating habits for the long term. It’s incredible, though, that I’m actually addressing the cause of my ailments rather than just the symptoms. I’m keeping a journal to present to my doctor. At my last visit, he said I know as much if not more about asthma than he did. He chuckled. It’s true; we do have the resources available to take better control of our health, if we choose to take the initiative. It could make all the difference.
In future blogs, I’ll discuss the diet more completely and talk about what other illnesses are affected or caused by diet; from recipes, dining out, current studies and research, book reviews, and making the diet transition when you’re family eats differently than you.
Don’t let your diet eat away at your health. Be proactive. It’s not easy, but it’s not too hard, either. It gets easier. And you are so worth it.
(Disclaimer: Don’t change your diet without consulting a physician. This blog is not intended to diagnose ailments, or suggest treatment. It is strictly an opinion piece and reflects my own personal experience. Your situation may not apply. Seek medical advice about any health issues you may have.)