Health Problems? Could Be Gluten

Editor’s note: For a related story, please see Marta Lane’s Tastes of Kaua’i on page 8.

Last August, when I came home from an Africa mission trip, I stepped on the scales and discovered a 10-pound weight loss. Losing weight is usually met with, “Congratulations, how did you do it?” In my case, reaction to my new “look” was, “Have you been sick? You need to put on some weight.” Thank you very much.

I really didn’t feel well either, so my doctor and I went in search of answers. Sometimes people return from remote areas of Africa and other developing nations with intestinal parasites, but thankfully tests were negative. Still, two months passed and the weight didn’t return. This would get expensive if I had to downsize my whole wardrobe, which was looking quite baggy.

More fun tests by a gastroenterologist that included what I call “organ spelunking” – little cameras exploring my gastro intestinal tract – ruled out any major diseases such as cancer (my grandfather died of stomach cancer in his mid-60s), diverticulosis and celiac disease. Aside from a little common acid reflux, I was healthy. I just didn’t look it – or feel it.

Meanwhile, some friends suggested looking at gluten sensitivity. Huh? Celiac disease, a serious condition related to gluten intolerance, had already been ruled out, I assured them. Still, I agreed to consult with naturopathic doctor Laurie Steelsmith for other possibilities.

The definition of the word “gluten” on Wikipedia made me question why I’d ever eat it. “Gluten is the composite of a prolamin and a glutelin, which exist, conjoined with starch, in the endosperm of various grass-related grains.” Yuch. But how I love my bread, rolls, pasta, biscuits, pizza dough, gravy and waffles – all of which contain gluten. I prayed gluten and I were compatible.

Dr. Steelsmith, author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health (Three Rivers Press, 2005), wanted to help me further rule out things that could be causing my symptoms and suggested a test that would reveal whether I was in some way allergic to this binding material found in every grain except rice, millet, corn, buckwheat and a couple of others.

“An allergy to gluten can cause significant digestive problems, intestinal wall inflammation and malnutrition from poor absorption of nutrients,” she writes in her book. “I’ve seen many people with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, greatly reduce inflammation of their joints when they follow a gluten-free diet.”

I was in denial, certain I didn’t have this allergy, because a life without sourdough and Grapenuts just wasn’t doable for me.

But the test results were clear. I have two of the anti-gluten (my term) genes, which means my children and my parents each have/had at least one. My parents never knew they had this gene, but Mother, poor thing, had gastrointestinal problems her whole life. No, mine isn’t celiac disease, which makes a person obviously sick, but my genetic predisposition can disrupt the immune system possibly causing weight loss and other symptoms.

Steelsmith wasn’t sure going off gluten would help my issue, but suggested I try it for a couple of months. Luckily, my good friend and doctor, who (unfortunately) has celiac disease, has guided my diet, suggesting brands of yummy gluten-free products. Food manufacturers are now producing ono gluten-free dessert mixes, breads, pastas and even pizza dough. Just in Austin, Texas, I ate at an upscale pizza restaurant, The Grove, that makes the best gluten-free pizza I’ve ever eaten, including regular pizza.

So after five months gluten-free, I’ve gained five pounds, feel great, and mostly don’t pine for the old gluten foods. While I can’t say with definitive medical certainty that gluten was the culprit, I know I discovered something important in the process.

Unfortunately, most insurance doesn’t cover (cost $149) a unique screening test at Entero Lab in Dallas (, which specializes in this type of testing. Its research shows that immune sensitivity to gluten is very common, “present in 30 percent to 40 percent of all Americans.” The lab web-site states: “Although these reactions can cause malnutrition, growth failure in children, osteoporosis, many autoimmune diseases (including colitis, diabetes, arthritis and many others), most of the affected individuals are unaware they have it because there have been no sensitive tests capable of diagnosis.”

I hope my story will help someone else.