A Case Study of Gluten “Freedom”

Zoe Linton, an aspiring acupuncturist, has been interning at PRH with Zoe Strauss since early 2013. She works seasonally for the Forest Service as a Backcountry Ranger/Trails Laborer in Paradise Valley, and is planning her move to San Francisco to begin acupuncture school this winter.

Many people ask me why I’m gluten free, whether it’s just a phase or for some greater reason. The truth is that it has helped me manage my chronic asthma, which I’ve struggled with since I was a very young child, and it was Chinese Medicine that led me to take the steps towards this healthier and happier state. Profound diet changes are not to be taken lightly, but in some special cases like mine, they can make a huge difference.

It all began in early January of 2014, about a year after I started interning for Zoe at PRH. It was a few days after New Year’s and I was taking part in your average holiday food binge while filling my free time with watching movies and other sedentary activities. The overindulgences and terrible food choices finally caught up with me and I did not feel well. I was nauseous, bloated, lethargic, tired, and most of all my asthma was flaring up. Normally an active person, I let go of my desires to get outside and ski or run, and instead chose to hide out inside. I knew that in order to feel better I would have to change some aspect of my life, but I needed a plan.

Zoe had been tailoring my acupuncture treatments to help manage my asthma since I began seeing her, but when I presented my compromised state she suggested I do a cleanse that would allow me to determine how to eat to support my asthmatic condition. After all, Chinese Medicine’s philosophy takes a more holistic approach to health and healing, and since I was neglecting my diet I wasn’t addressing the whole picture. I was receiving treatments which were great and helpful, but then I would undo so many of their effects by going home and eating the wrong foods. Never having tried to change my eating habits, I figured a cleanse couldn’t hurt. So Zoe and I sat down in the consultation room and outlined the next four weeks of my life, what I’ve come to remember as a month full of protein shakes and creative minimalist cooking.

According to Zoe’s cleanse, I was to stay away from peanuts, red meat, processed foods, sugars, alcohol, coffee, all fruit except for apples and berries, dairy, soy, rice and of course wheat. Veggies were all good, quinoa was good, healthy fats like olive oil and coconut oil were good, a wide range of spices were encouraged, and I would have to drink a LOT of water. Zoe provided me with Chinese herbs and supplements to help rid my body of toxins, and to make sure I was still getting all of the right vitamins and protein. At any other point in my life, I believe I would have said no, that I would just be more conscious of my diet and make small changes. It seemed hard and annoying. No drinking? No sugar? Not even oranges? But I committed. It was the middle of winter already and I wanted not only to feel better, but I needed to feel productive and finding a solution was an excellent goal.

So I did it! It was difficult, as changing many habits all at once is difficult, but I was able to find ways to make meals interesting and different. I started exercising a little bit each day, and by the end of four weeks I was feeling pretty great. Carrots tasted sweeter, and my cravings for candy and coffee had finally waned. I slowly reintroduced foods into my diet one at a time and journaled about how I felt for the next few days. Peanuts? All good. Rice? Good as well! Dairy? Not too bad! Wheat? OH NO! And so the mystery was solved. After reintroducing all foods individually, the only adverse reaction I experienced was from wheat containing foods. Within eating a single piece of toast, my stomach hurt, I felt tired and sluggish, and my asthma flared up. I tried other gluten containing foods and came to the same conclusion, so I decided to keep cutting out wheat and see how the next few months went.

A year and a half later I’m still sticking to my gluten free guns. I’ve been able to cut the amount of prescription drugs I’m on for asthma in half, and this chronic condition has become infinitely more manageable. I still carry around an emergency inhaler, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I used it. I no longer suffer from the “brain fog” that is associated with eating wheat, and I have more energy. It turns out that being gluten free hasn’t been difficult for me; I happened to pick a time when being gluten free was a pretty big fad diet, and so nearly every grocery store has a gluten free section, many coffee shops now have gluten free baked goods. But even if this weren’t the case, maintaining a gluten free diet wouldn’t be difficult. Once I had the opportunity to experiment with new meals and recipes, I realized that I wasn’t really missing out, and the benefits for me far outweighed the slightly “off” taste of rice pasta. I’m still pretty bummed when I walk into a surprise office pizza party, but at least my breath comes easily.

Once again, I must assert that big diet changes are not for everyone and should be well researched and planned out. That being said, small changes can have big results: cut out most processed foods, only drink alcohol on weekends, eat fresh and in season fruits and veggies instead of frozen ones, stick to red meat once a week. But if you’re thinking that you might need to look into bigger changes, PRH is here for you with Nutritional Counseling guidance, tailored treatments, and most of all, support.