By now, everyone has heard of gluten. If someone told me they hadn’t heard anything about gluten or its connection to fibromyalgia, I may wonder if they’ve been living in an igloo in the Inuit islands. It’s in the news everywhere! Packages on the grocery store shelves have labels that shout Gluten-Free or NOW Gluten-Free! What we hear most is that gluten is “bad.” Few of us understand why.
I've worked with who have fibromyalgia
also have a sensitivity to gluten.
Does that statement shock you? Well hold on to your hat. Even if you feel you've read it all, please be sure to read this entire article because I'm going to share some additional information about gluten that will very likely surprise you – and just may make a big difference in your fibromyalgia symptoms.
and what that has to do with fibromyalgia.
But let’s start with the basics … what you’re likely to already know. As always, I take great care in providing information in easy-to-understand language and in small, (forgive the pun) digestible chunks:
First of all, I typically refer to gluten as “wheat/gluten.” The reason for this is to ensure that readers understand where they’re most likely to find gluten.
Wheat/gluten is a sticky, glue-like protein found mainly in wheat, barley and rye, as well as in oats and other grains due to cross-contamination. Refer to this useful “Unsafe Ingredients List” from Celiac.com for a detailed listing of where gluten may be hiding in your foods. If you read labels at all, you’ll quickly notice that wheat is in everything!
Helpful Tip: If the label says “flour” and does not specify a known gluten-free variety, then it’s safest to assume that it comes from wheat.
Our modern wheat grain is not the same – genetically – as wheat that was produced even just a few decades ago.
This modern wheat, according to Dr. Davis, author of Wheat Belly, has the capacity to raise blood sugar at an alarming rate. In fact, according to an Australian university study, two slices of whole wheat bread can produce a more pronounced blood-sugar spike than six tablespoons of pure table sugar.
Dr. Davis also points out that the protein components of wheat have a direct impact on hunger levels. Wheat/gluten actually activates hunger hormones, which increases hunger and carb cravings.
When wheat/gluten is consumed by those who are sensitive, the immune system responds by attacking the small intestine. This affects the body’s ability to absorb and process nutrients.
Furthermore, because the lining of the small intestine has been compromised, small particles of “food” can permeate through the damaged walls of the digestive system (a.k.a. Leaky Gut Syndrome). This can lead to an autoimmune response bringing on a cascade of additional problematic symptoms.
Currently, the main diagnostic resource available is a blood test. This is most commonly used by mainstream traditional medical professionals. Accuracy varies widely.
If related antibodies appear in your blood test results, you’re likely to receive a diagnosis of Celiac disease.
There’s a difference between having Celiac disease and being wheat/gluten sensitive or intolerant.*
Wheat/gluten is connected to weight management issues since it’s one of the leading causes of whole body inflammation.
Now that you’ve read an overview of the impact that wheat/gluten has on both the body and the diet, it’s time to address what this means for those of us with fibromyalgia.
Here are just a few of the symptoms linked to the issue of inflammation:
|Digestive imbalances including constipation and/or diarrhea|
|Adrenal challenges including anxiety and sleep concerns|
|Cognitive impairments including foggy-thinking|
|Inability to maintain a healthy weight|
|Whole body pain|
|Headaches and/or migraines|
|Tendency toward yeast infections and yeast/candida overgrowth|
Do you find the symptoms listed above to be incredibly familiar? If you have fibromyalgia, you likely have concerns with many if not all of these symptoms. The point is to show how similar the symptoms of whole body inflammation are with those of fibromyalgia.
Inflammation isn’t the whole cause of fibromyalgia, per se, but by reducing whole body inflammation – and its sources — the intensity of fibromyalgia symptoms can be greatly reduced.
My Personal Experience with Gluten
I have my own personal recovery story with wheat/gluten which is nothing short of miraculous. When I first significantly changed my diet, I only knew that I was frustrated with my overall, never-ending, ever-increasing pain. Maybe you can relate? I just wanted it to stop!
After dozens of visits, when my doctor suggested that my high cholesterol levels were the source of my pain, I knew something was wonky. It just didn’t make sense to me. That was my own personal straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back moment.
I’d read that changing to a healthier, more natural food nutrition plan could be helpful and healing. But I didn’t believe a word of it. I tried it anyway, but didn’t do so with the intention to heal. I did it to show my doctor that I could lower my cholesterol on my own – and still have the same pain levels. I wanted to prove that nutrition didn’t work!
I jumped with both feet into a completely different nutrition plan that seemed incredibly radical at the time. Way back then, I’d never heard of diets that were gluten-free, dairy-free, grain-free, or processed foods-free. At that time, my idea of “eating healthy” was to switch from regular cookies to SnackWells. What did I know? I’d never even heard of whole foods much less able to point them out at the grocery store. I had no goal, no plan, and no idea what I was doing. All I knew is that I wanted to drop my cholesterol and a few pounds along the way. Even more important than my health, I wanted to prove my doctor wrong.
There’s nothing like a dose of motivation.
And, to my surprise, I as SO right! And, I was so wrong. I did (probably) lower my cholesterol. I did drop weight. I did that and more. I learned that nutrition does matter. I never went back to spill the beans to that GP. You see, I started to feel so good I forgot about my doctor. Almost right away, I felt symptom relief in my painful joints. The stiff and painful feeling in my hands completely went away. I had relief from the frightening swallowing problem I'd had as well as from my heart-burn and chest pain. I started to think more clearly and I felt as if the clouds had parted in my brain. I had amazing improvement with my life-long IBS and other gastric challenges. I created a new me!
Of course, this didn’t happen all at once. Some symptoms dropped away quickly; others took more time. It’s important to note that my pain levels did NOT reduce right away. Pain is a complicated result of a combination of issues. Nutrition is a big part of those issues, but it is just one part.
It took me another six months or more to really see my pain dwindle to about 20% of what it had been. Remember that this is my story. We are each different. I’ve had clients who’ve experienced drastic pain relief almost right away from nutritional changes alone. I’ve seen others who feel significantly better overall, but the pain lingers until they deal with other issues such as stress, fitness, detoxification and more.
Through adding a fitness program, quality supplements, and healthy stress-management practices, I’ve lived nearly 90-95% pain free for the past ten years. That’s a miracle in itself and one for which I’m eternally grateful.
So, what nutrition plan jump-started my health journey, you ask? It’s very straightforward. I consumed simple meals of healthy proteins (fish, chicken, turkey, some beef, etc.) and healthy veggies. That was my menu, three meals a day. For hydration, I drank mainly water and sometimes tea.
Was this a perfect diet? No. Back then, I didn’t have a clue that I was completely missing out on one crucial nutrient – healthy fats. To learn more about the benefits of this often missing nutrient, check out this post: "Why Being Fat-Fearful Launched My Weight Loss Journey." I also didn’t understand the importance of eating foods that suited my own personal Nutrition Type.
Prior to starting my new nutrition plan, I had been eating a predominantly vegetarian diet, which was closer to what I’d now call a junk-food vegetarian diet. It consisted of canned, frozen, and packaged convenience foods — mainly breads, snacks, and dairy. I ate little to no proteins and very small portions of vegetables (although at the time I thought I ate plenty).
I had NO idea that I was following a diet that would become popularized ten years later. I didn’t intentionally seek a diet to remove wheat/gluten, dairy, artificial sugars, fake and processed foods, etc. I didn’t focus at all on what I was cutting out. I only focused on what I was adding in.
So, as promised, here are a few more facts about wheat/gluten that may be new to you.
What you may not know about wheat/gluten:
If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you may not know that living a wheat/gluten-free lifestyle helps to reduce whole body inflammation, thereby reducing inflammation-related fibromyalgia symptoms.
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, today’s foods that include wheat/gluten include what he calls, a super gluten, a super starch and a super drug (meaning the properties inherent to wheat/gluten create intense cravings driving you to eat more).
*While a wheat/gluten sensitivity or intolerance isn’t the same thing as Celiac disease, they both have a significant negative health impact when not addressed.
If you have a sensitivity or intolerance to wheat/gluten, it’s not as important to know your levels of sensitivity as it is to remove it from your diet and begin to heal.
Removing wheat/gluten from your diet for a few days or a few weeks does not give your body the time it needs to achieve significant healing.
Eating packaged convenience foods that are labelled “wheat/gluten-free” can still be inflammation-causing and problematic.
100% of the fibromyalgia and/or autoimmune clients I’ve worked with have demonstrated a sensitivity or intolerance to wheat/gluten.
100% of the fibromyalgia and/or autoimmune friends and colleagues that I’ve worked with have all found various levels of healing after dealing with their food sensitivity issues – beginning with wheat/gluten.
My favorite naturopath and colleague Glen Depke (www.DepkeWellness.com) sums up his professional experience here:
“I have reviewed over 4,300 adrenal kits in my career and have seen only five that showed a ‘balanced’ result. In fairness this is based on health challenged individuals, so if you have a health issue, there is approximately 1/10 of 1% chance that your adrenals are actually functioning in balance. To take this one step further, I find that the single biggest trigger for adrenal insufficiency in my clinic is wheat/gluten intolerance. Upwards of 90% of my clients with adrenal insufficiency are also dealing with gluten issues. And that percentage jumps to 100% for those who have fibromyalgia and / or autoimmune challenges. These numbers are simply staggering!”
You may have noticed in my story above, that years ago, I cut out a whole lot of inflammation-causing food groups besides wheat/gluten. Obviously, removing wheat/gluten from your nutrition plan isn’t a panacea for all of your health concerns. But … it’s certainly a start. What if removing wheat/gluten from your diet can help you to launch your own health recovery journey?
There’s more to follow in my next article which will focus on wheat/gluten myths. For now, simply take one step at a time. Be objective rather than critical of your results. Don’t strive for perfection. Instead, strive for patience and persistence. Your body may take time to heal, but feeling better will provide you with the needed motivation to continue!
Sue Ingebretson (www.RebuildingWellness.com) is an author, speaker, certified holistic health care practitioner and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. She is also a Patient Advocate/Fibromyalgia Expert for the Alliance Health website and a Fibromyalgia editor for the ProHealth website community.
Her #1 Amazon best-selling chronic illness book, FibroWHYalgia, details her own journey from chronic illness to chronic wellness. She is also the creator of the FibroFrog™– a therapeutic stress-relieving tool which provides powerful healing benefits with fun and whimsy.