Gluten-free diets have been discussed in the fibromyalgia and autoimmune community for more than a decade. As far back as 2001, I recall studying gluten and trying to figure out what a sticky protein found mostly in wheat had to do with my overwhelming joint pain.
No matter how you slice it, gluten is still a topic of interest today.
Have you been told that ALL you need to do is follow a gluten-free diet to heal your fibromyalgia symptoms? If you’re like me, comments such as this probably make you roll your eyes and sigh.
If only life were that simple.
Fibromyalgia and the causes of fibromyalgia are complicated. As humans, we’re complicated creatures. And, the foods, environment, circumstances, and injuries that contribute to our symptoms are complicated too.
That’s why it’s annoying to hear statements that make it seem as if fibromyalgia pain can be “fixed” by one simple act. It would be more helpful if it were put this way: Does gluten contribute to your fibromyalgia symptoms?
Now, that’s a subject you can sink your teeth into!
Gluten can definitely play a role in a body that’s reacting, and over-reacting, to specific inflammatory foods. (More on gluten-containing foods later in this article.)
When it comes to looking at gluten as the ONLY problem rather than part of the problem, I offer the following five points to consider. They illustrate why shopping the gluten-free aisle of your store isn’t the solo solution it’s cracked up to be.
1) What’s in gluten-free foods?
For the purposes of this post, when I refer to gluten-free foods, I’m referring to breads, pastas, cereals, cakes, muffins, pancakes, protein bars, crackers, chips, and any packaged, premade foods or boxed mixes that advertise a gluten-free label.
Have gluten-free cupcakes, for example, ever given you gastric distress? Do you wonder why that is?
Gluten is a gummy and pasty substance (think “glue” when thinking of gluten) that makes foods hold together and can help them to stay pliable. Many years ago, I worked in a restaurant and we actually boasted of paying a premium price for high gluten flours for our baked goods.
Unfortunately, gluten is also connected to higher inflammatory reactions from those of us who are sensitive. Eliminating it is no magic remedy. When the gluten is removed from packaged foods, something has to fill the void, right? Other ingredients are added to compensate for the loss — and many of them are added in high quantities.
These substitute ingredients are used as fillers and thickeners. And, they’re not always “intestinal friendly” options. For those who deal with intestinal inflammation (a common co-factor of fibromyalgia), this can be a significant problem. For this reason ….
can worsen IBS.
Because the fibromyalgia body is already in a highly reactive state, these ingredients can agitate intestinal inflammation and create a cycle of gastric distress.
Valuable clues can be found on package labels. Watch for these four categories of cheap ingredients that provide volume with little to no health benefits. From a nutritional content standpoint, they’re considered to be low quality and “junky” foods. (1) (2)
- JUNK FLOURS
Many packaged gluten-free foods rely on cheap flours made from other grains (rice, oat, corn, etc.), as well as beans, potatoes, seeds, or nuts.
- JUNK SUGARS
Sugar is commonly used in high quantities as a filler to replace gluten. Sadly, many gluten-free foods are very high in sugar once you add up all the individual sweet ingredients. To download a free chart on 60 aliases that can be used for sugar, check out this article, 60 Ways to Hide Sugar in Labels.
- JUNK POWDERED STARCHES
Starches can be found in various forms including potato, tapioca, root, cornstarch, etc.
- JUNK CORN
This inflammation-provoking grain is unfortunately found in just about every packaged food. While it doesn’t technically contain gluten, its other properties (including mycotoxins, and likely GMO sources) make it something to simply avoid. (3) Corn is found in sweeteners, flours, thickeners, additives, and much more.
2) What else are you eating?
For those who have digestive dysfunction (leaky gut, IBS, colitis, etc.), the body becomes over-reactive to certain food categories. Unfortunately, many of these highly-reactive foods are in many processed and manufactured foods.
Here are the most common foods that trigger inflammation in the body: wheat/gluten (grains), sugar, corn, caffeine, dairy, peanuts, artificial sweeteners, MSG, food dyes/added chemicals, soy, and eggs.
Food allergies are a similar yet different topic. When looking at food allergy issues, these common foods are added to the list above: tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.
It’s very common to experience sensitivities to more than one category of foods. In particular in the fibromyalgia and autoimmune communities, grains, corn, sugar, soy, dairy, artificial sweeteners, and MSG top the list.
3) What’s in your environment?
Our inflammation problem isn’t based only on what we eat. Contributing factors include external toxins (chemicals, cleaners, health and beauty products, etc.), internal toxins (chemicals/additives found in medicines and vaccines, as well as processed foods, etc.), injuries, infections, and more.
Even our relationships and surrounding support systems can contribute to our ability to fight off infections and inflammation. Our relationships can help or hinder our efforts.
And, what about the “environment” between your ears? Negative thoughts, emotions, fears, and anxieties have the power to create inflammation-causing responses throughout the body. Repetitive negative emotions contribute to a consistently inflamed digestive system.
Fortunately, positive thoughts have the power to create the opposite reaction. Feelings of relaxation, comfort, peacefulness, and self-acceptance can produce healing hormones that can help to counteract the daily stress we experience.
4) How healthy is your digestive system?
If you’re dealing with fibromyalgia, autoimmune challenges, or chronic illness, inflammation is a common denominator for each of these conditions.
the root commonality to most diseases. (4)
As your personal experience with inflammation either worsens or improves, you find yourself on a varying spectrum of health. Are you on an upswing of healing and improvement or a downward spiral of increased symptoms?
Both scenarios are directly related to what you’re eating and the health of your digestive system.
For this reason, your impact from gluten-free packaged foods may differ from that of someone else. On a broad scale approach, healing the digestive system can be thought of as occurring in phases.
First, gut imbalances such as yeast, parasites, and infections must be addressed. Next, introducing healthier foods that assist in the healing process can be added. Removing processed foods and addressing food sensitivities are also a part of this step. Finally, the last phase is one of maintenance and sustainability.
Healing can be a slow process, but the rewards are too numerous to mention. A short list includes:
- Reduced pain and chronic illness symptoms
- Improved immune function and ability to fight off infection
- Improved mood
- Improved sleep and ability to achieve restorative rest
As you can see, the benefits of healing the digestive system are far-reaching and worthwhile. Because there’s a wide spectrum of healing that takes place, there’s also a wide spectrum of impact that follows consuming gluten-free processed foods. Reactions range from extremely noticeable to undetectable.
But, here’s an important caveat: If you consume packaged and/or gluten-free foods and do not have a noticeable reaction, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Many reactions can be undetectably elusive – yet still dangerous. Also, it’s possible that there are so many other issues going on that potential reactions are simply masked by greater, more obvious problems.
5) Going beyond wheat/gluten.
Gluten-free information online has traditionally been abbreviated as GF. You may or may not have noticed, however, that there’s been a subtle shift in this trend. In the health world, there’s been a change in our conscious awareness of how ALL grains affect our digestive health.
Grains in general are now considered inflammatory foods for many of us (5) and for this reason, designations of GF may now refer to Grain Free (which obviously means gluten-free as well).
About six years ago or so, I started to read more about the topic of cross-reactivity. Apparently, once the body becomes reactive to gluten, it can also become reactive to other proteins that are structurally similar in nature. Proteins found in wheat (and other gluten-containing grains) are very similar to the proteins found in oats, corn, and other grains that are typically referred to as “non-gluten” grains.
You may be surprised but your body probably isn’t. When I eliminated gluten some fifteen years ago, I didn’t understand why I still had digestive issues with other grains including corn and oats. I even had issues with gluten-free varieties of oats. It seemed my body simply had a programmed response to grain in general. My personal reaction wasn’t necessarily painful or overly problematic, but it just showed me that grains are not metabolized well by my system. They make me gain weight and feel hungry. That’s not a good combo.
I found that other non-grains were problematic for me, too. My body reacts negatively to some seeds, nuts, and seed “ancient grains” such as quinoa, millet, and amaranth. They’re not as reactive as actual grains. But I can tell that they’re not an ideal source of nutrients for me.
My experience isn’t isolated. It’s very common to find that grains contribute to the inflammation problem. For that reason, it’s a well-documented practice in the fibromyalgia and autoimmune communities to simply avoid grains in general. (6)
To wrap this up, here are some resources that can help you navigate your own healing journey when it comes to removing gluten from your diet. Below you’ll find links to articles defining sources of gluten (some of them very surprising!), many gluten myths, and how gluten relates to your fibromyalgia health.
http://www.celiac.com/articles/182/1/Unsafe-Gluten-Free-Food-List-Unsafe-Ingredients/Page1.html5 Surprising Sources of Gluten: http://rebuildingwellness.com/5-gluten-foods/
The Top 12 Gluten Myths That are Dangerous to the Fibromyalgia Community (including a chart of food sensitivity symptoms):
How Gluten Issues are Connected to Fibromyalgia: http://www.prohealth.com/library/showarticle.cfm?libid=18639
Now that you have the resources you need, hopefully you’ll feel better informed when it comes to making selections at the supermarket. Whether it’s your goal to become a better label reader or better at identifying foods that never contained gluten in the first place, one sure result is happier and healthier mealtimes in your home!
- Don’t fall for “gluten-free” foods made with junk carbs
- Trying To Avoid Gluten? Don’t Make These Common Mistakes!
- Mycotoxins are contaminating these 10 food staples
- Inflammation at the Root of Most Diseases
- What is Wrong with Grains
- Gluten Associated Cross Reactive Foods
Sue Ingebretson is the Natural Healing Editor for ProHealth.com as well as a frequent contributor to ProHealth’s Fibromyalgia site. She’s an Amazon best-selling author, speaker, and workshop leader. Additionally, Sue is an Integrative Nutrition & Health Coach, a Certified Nutritional Therapist, a Master NLP Practitioner, and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. You can find out more and contact Sue at www.RebuildingWellness.com.