Sigh. We have a gluten-free girl in the house (again), and this time it looks to be permanent. Many of you know that my husband is a holistic nutritionist. Our family sort of specializes in treating health problems with food — in letting, as Hippocrates said so long ago, our food be our medicine. (Hippocrates also said walking is man’s best medicine, but I digress.) But using food as medicine doesn’t necessarily mean we do lots of permanent, complicated diets. While my husband designs special diets for special cases (like cancer patients or hyperactive children), at home we just eat real food and call it a day.
I explained my thoughts on food in more detail six years ago in my post An Incomplete Theology of Nutrition. The pertinent part of that, for today’s discussion, at least, is when I explained how socially difficult it was to have severely allergic children — how it isolated us from others, how we skipped fun things, how we felt alone.
Ultimately, we have to face the fact that there exist many tensions in a fallen world, and one of them has to do with food. What I mean is, God created everything, and some of the things in everything He called “food” and also He told us that everything He made was good. So logically, I can say that stuff exists, some of this stuff is food, and all that food is Good.
That is nice and all, but what about allergies? I think the tension is resolved simply by saying something like, “Look, God made peanuts, and peanuts are Good, but that doesn’t mean they are good for all people all of the time. It’s a fallen world, and allergies are real.”
And oh. my. word. are allergies real. The stories I could tell, people! Allergies can be so much more than watery eyes and tummy aches.
And allergies, of course, are not the only thing. We also have issues like Celiac disease, which is not an allergy, and yet a situation in which consuming gluten — something that God put into food which He declared to be Good — can cause damage to the intestines that results in severe vitamin deficiencies and even death.
And the list goes on. Creation groans, and we groan with it.
I asked my daughter if I could share her story, and she said yes. In fact, she told me I need to share it — because what if it helps someone else? So that’s what we’re doing today. We’re sharing.
One of my daughters has struggled with her brain for a long time. As she has gotten older, she’s been able to articulate it better. For the past year, she has said things like, “Mom, I feel like my brain doesn’t work as well as other people’s brains work.” Or, “Mom, today feels like I’m in a dream and things aren’t real.” Or, “Mom, I don’t feel like I can remember things that I should be able to remember.”
I have worked so hard with her over the years, but it has always been a struggle. I was a chronically ill child myself, and I know the kinds of fruit that struggle can bear in the life of a child, so I don’t think that struggle is in and of itself a bad thing. But I also don’t feel like we have to sit back and accept every difficulty without trying to figure out how to fix it, or at least relieve it a little.
This summer, everything sort of came to a head. My daughter was in a situation where she was, for the first time in her life, trying to keep up with other kids. And she couldn’t do it. I found her sobbing on her bedroom floor. “I can’t remember these things. Why can’t I remember these things? I want to remember these things!”
I contacted a group of trusted friends and asked them what they thought. These are women with whom I have spent hours studying all sorts of things — everything from educational philosophy to homeopathy. I asked for a homeopathic remedy specifically. Can I fix this through medicine? I wondered.
It was one of those time-stopping moments when my friend asked me about removing gluten. “Have you thought about it?” she asked. “In my family, our brains don’t work right when we eat gluten. I didn’t know why until I read Grain Brain.”
Suddenly, my mind went all the way back to the beginning, so many years ago, back when I was trying to recover one of our children from Asperger’s, and discovered that I could turn symptoms off and on through food exposure. At that time, I had just finished reading Karyn Seroussi’s book Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder. In it, Seroussi details part of the history of the discovery that some people do not properly digest gluten, and that the result is partially digested proteins which function as opioid-like neuropeptides and are debilitating to the brain and nervous system. The research in this area eventually resulted in a urine test.
How had I overlooked this?
Years ago, this same daughter had tested allergic to gluten. We had Done Things, and now she was Better. She no longer tested allergic, and all of her digestive symptoms were gone. Naturally, I had made the assumption that she was good to go on gluten. But what if this was not the case, and also explained why she didn’t learn to read until I put the family on the GAPS diet for a few months?
I am kicking myself here.
Allergic reactions and bad neuropeptides may both result from eating bread, but they are not the same thing, and the latter will never show up on an allergy test.
I immediately called my husband. “We need to do an experiment!” And, thankfully, he was more than supportive. He even brought home an armful of things from his clinic that he thought might help her — fish oil supplements, that sort of thing.
We did a two week trial. The second week, she was a different child. She was remembering things. She was happier. She was more alert, and not quite so shy.
But how did I know it wasn’t the supplements? My inner mad scientist needed to know the truth. So my husband and I decided to allow her to go back to eating gluten, while keeping all of her additional supplements the same.
Now, we don’t eat a lot of gluten. Because our children had to be gluten free for so long early in my motherhood, I never got into the habit of serving gluten-containing foods. The effect seems to be cumulative, and at our house accumulation takes a while. It was a couple weeks before we started to notice it. But eventually, even she noticed — she came to me and told me she thought she needed to go back on her diet — that her brain felt “broken” again.
We took her back off gluten. Two weeks later, she was doing well again. School lessons have been so much easier for her this year. Not perfect. But easier.
So now she’s gluten free (except for communion on Sundays), and for the foreseeable future. I never wanted her to have to be on a special diet. But how can she not be, when it makes such a huge difference in the way her brain works?
When I knew it was permanent, I contacted my mother-in-law. She has worked in special education for thirty years. She has seen it all. I don’t know why, but I was shy about telling her — I guess mostly I was thinking it’d be an inconvenience for her whenever she was with my daughter. Instead, she said something that fascinated me. You see, I had forgotten, but I lent her Karyn Seroussi’s book years ago when I was done with it. Since then, she’s been suggesting gluten free diets to her parents. “I think this is great,” she said. “I have never had one of my students go on a gluten free diet and not improve.”
That’s why my daughter and I decided to share. Gluten isn’t bad. For many, it’s quite good. But for kids that are struggling, it might be worth the experiment.
It was definitely worth the experiment at our house.
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