Intro to the gluten-free diet: Overcoming physical and emotional challenges of getting gluten out
In this three-part series, Jenny Finke, creator of Good For You Gluten Free, shares how to adjust to life on a gluten-free diet after being diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. This is the final part of the series – providing advice on how to manage the physical and emotional challenges you may face when going GF.
In my prior post, I discussed how to overcome some sticky situations that come up when you’re on a gluten-free diet. As I always say, being gluten-free is not easy, but it does get easier with time.
In this article, I’d like to talk about some of the physical and emotional challenges that you’ll be dealing with as you adjust to your new life on a gluten-free diet. There is so much to learn and do, and, at the same time, you may not realize that your body is going through so many changes as well.
Here’s what you can expect:
(1) Physical Changes and Challenges
Dealing with withdrawal
One of the hardest parts about going gluten-free is that it will take some time for your body to adjust to life without gluten. What I mean by this is that gluten is a highly addictive substance, and overcoming that addiction isn’t easy. Just like giving up sugar, caffeine or cigarettes, giving up gluten is hard, too.
I didn’t realize just how addicted to gluten I was until I quit it cold turkey. In the weeks and months after quitting gluten, I was emotionally out of it. My brain was filled with all the things I needed to learn and do now that I was gluten-free. I was grumpy and stressed out, exhausted and overwhelmed. I suffered from major brain fog, forgetting things left and right, and not feeling myself at all. All of these characteristics were highly out of character for me.
According to Dr. William Davis (the author of the best selling book, Wheat Belly), wheat is an opiate and a highly addictive substance .
Dr. Davis says in a blog post on the Wheat Belly Blog, “Wheat is addictive in the sense that, if you don’t have any for several hours, you start to get nervous, foggy, tremulous, and start desperately seeking out another “hit” of crackers, bagels, or bread, even if it’s the few stale three-month old crackers at the bottom of the box. Wheat is addictive in the sense that there is a distinct withdrawal syndrome characterized by overwhelming fatigue, mental “fog,” inability to exercise, even depression that lasts several days, occasionally several weeks.”
He goes on to say that while wheat is an opiate, it doesn’t bind to our brain receptors and make us high, rather it makes us hungry and stimulates our appetite. Cravings for gluten can (and likely will) be intense.
So if you’re feeling intense brain fog, increased appetite (and even weight gain), and even a little depressed, this is your body’s way of physically coping with withdrawals from wheat in your diet. This, too, shall pass with time.
Furthermore, you might gain weight not just from your increased appetite, but a lot of people with celiac disease gain weight because it’s the first time in their lives that they’re fully absorbing nutrients. Many celiacs are nutrient-deprived. The small intestine responsible for nutrient distribution and absorption is severely damaged, and this has impaired the body from absorbing food properly.
On the flip side, giving up gluten may offer positive physical changes, too.
Some people will find their energy is back and fatigue lifting. Their bodies are finally absorbing the nutrients it needs to thrive, and they’re finally feeling normal again. Some people will also lose weight, as they cut out a lot of junk food and begin to eat healthier. (Just be sure to avoid gluten-free junk food – just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s good for you!).
Others will find that their symptoms subside and even eventually go into remission just by removing gluten from their diets. (If symptoms do not begin to subside, talk to your doctor, health coach or dietician to learn about additional techniques to restoring your health).
(2) Emotional Changes and Challenges
While a gluten-free diet can help you restore your health, regain energy and even help you feel more mentally healthy, there are new emotional challenges you’ll face in the process.
Dealing with stigma
For starters, many people (and even doctors) thumb their nose to the gluten-free diet, not understanding the medical need for such a restrictive diet. The gluten-free diet carries a stigma. I’m not sure how that stigma started, but the gluten-free diet is often the butt of jokes and judgment from uneducated people who believe diet has nothing to do with health. They see the gluten-free diet as just another fad diet that will come and go.
However, for celiacs, and even those who are gluten sensitive and experience intense symptoms when they eat gluten, this diet is all they have in their quest to feel better and relief from their symptoms. There is no magic pill that can fix someone with celiac disease and this might frustrate a doctor who is trained to administer pharmaceutical drugs, not food, to fix everything. In fact, most doctors have sorely inadequate nutrition training as only one-fifth of American medical schools require med students to take even a single nutrition course.
On top of it all, celiac disease is the only disease that comes with a scarlet letter. What I mean by this is that you have to wear your disease on your sleeve. You have to tell everyone you have celiac disease because food is involved in almost all social and business situations.
On the flip side, someone with arthritis, cancer, eczema, asthma or diabetes doesn’t have to share their condition with complete strangers each and every time they want to eat outside of the home. But for someone on a gluten-free diet, we have to tell waiters, new friends, and complete strangers (such as conference organizers) that we have celiac disease and need a gluten-free meal. Having to wear your disease so publicly takes an emotional toll on a person no matter how strong you think you are.
Those on a gluten-free diet also might feel anxious. Traveling, for example, requires a lot of stress and advance research and planning. Social functions can feel isolating. You watch everyone eating and you suddenly feel alone and deprived of the social aspects of enjoying food with friends. No one seems to understand how you feel but you.
Increased productivity and energy
With all this said, the emotional health of someone on a gluten-free diet also may vastly improve. A healthy, gluten-free diet can help you think more clearly, miss less work, have more energy, and feel healthier and more alive than ever. Plus, you’ll be feeling better than you’ve ever felt, turning your health around and avoiding a lot of the unhealthy foods your friends will continue to eat so recklessly. You know your sacrifices will pay off big time in the end.
Plus, the gluten-free diet gives you clear insights into your friends and family like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The friends who truly care about you will be the ones always bringing you a gluten-free snack or texting you about the latest gluten-free menu at a local hotspot. They will happily make you a gluten-free meal because they want you to come over and be with them. And, you will make so many new friends as gluten-free people have an unspoken bond and friendship (it’s true!).
After your body adjusts to the gluten-free diet, and you fumble through things along the way, you’ll come to realize that life on a gluten-free diet isn’t so bad. For the first time (in a long time) you will have the clarity, focus and good physical and mental health you were meant to have and deserve.
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About Jenny Finke
Jenny Finke is a certified integrative nutrition and health coach and founder of the blog, Good For You Gluten Free. Jenny put her celiac disease symptoms into remission and lives a healthy, full life with celiac disease. She lives in Denver, Colorado.