Editor's Note: While going gluten-free can help alleviate symptoms for some patients with fibromyalgia, it won't help everyone. Please consult with a medical professional before attempting any type of diet to cure a medical condition.
Four years ago, I was suffering from constant pain and paralyzing fatigue, as well as from depression, stress, and weight gain. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in my early forties. Until then, my doctor and I had both chalked up my exhaustion, aches, and pains to parenting active children while working part-time. But eventually, my aching muscles began to keep me up at night. I'd often go back to bed when I got the kids off to school and took naps nearly every afternoon.
Then, my husband took a new job; a different health-insurance plan meant changing doctors. My new physician used blood work to rule out other illnesses like Lyme disease, cancer, and thyroid problems. She explained that most fibromyalgia patients have a number of specific "tender points" on their bodies—places that are painful to even the gentlest touch. Some of my tender points were at the back of my head and on my shoulders, elbows, and hips. No wonder I cried "Owww!" when my husband hugged me.
The doctor prescribed Flexeril, a muscle relaxant; Tramadol for pain; and a low dose of the antidepressant Cymbalta. The meds helped me sleep at night but I occasionally needed cortisone shots for pain in my right hip. A couple of years of monthly talk therapy helped me get my stress under control and reframe the negativity I'd fallen into in my achy and exhausted state. I felt better, but never entirely pain-free.
It wasn't until we moved to the west coast that I realized how much my diet was contributing to my problems. My teenage daughter had asked to see a holistic practitioner because therapy and prescription drugs hadn't relieved her of paralyzing anxiety. I was so impressed with the naturopathic physician and the way she treated my daughter that I made an appointment for myself.
This doctor took an extensive health history, queried me at length about what I ate, and used a technique called applied kinesiology, or muscle testing, to determine that my adrenal and thyroid glands were out of whack, and that my body was full of inflammation. She was convinced my diet was a huge contributor to my symptoms and urged me to avoid several food culprits, including coffee, sugar, and dairy. But wheat was at the top of the list.
Visions of crusty French bread, fettuccine Alfredo, and Belgian waffles danced through my head. Old friends. Comfort food. Could I really live without them? And what about pizza? Was she kidding me? Over the years when my "fibro fog" had left me feeling too exhausted to cook, my husband, two kids, and I had ordered lots of pizza. I was also guilty of frequently running the kids through the drive-in for burgers. And like my mother, when I did cook, I served bread or rolls with nearly every meal.
Unknowingly, I had been aggravating my gluten sensitivity for years and it had seriously affected my health and moods, but now I was joining the untold numbers of people who can't tolerate wheat. This was going to be a huge lifestyle change.
Giving up gluten turned out to be easier than I thought. I'd tried lots of diets and had been moderately successful at losing weight. Trouble was, I always gained it back and continued to be plagued by sluggishness and pain. So I was thrilled to have someone point me in the right direction and tell me what to do. Giving up wheat was like being assigned an important new work project—I was highly motivated to succeed. I felt an instant connection to my new doctor and believed her when she promised she would help me get well. Besides, I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired and nothing else had worked.
I've always loved cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, especially because my Italian husband is a hearty and appreciative eater. I didn't want to compromise on the taste and quality of food, so planning healthy, gluten-free meals became an exciting challenge. I researched websites and cookbooks for recipes and ideas. I now keep a large binder filled with delicious gluten-free versions of old favorites like shrimp with pasta, stir-fry, and even a fantastic lasagna that's both dairy and gluten-free.
I found that I didn't have to give up much when I gave up gluten. When dining out with friends, I research restaurants ahead of time and can almost always find something on the menu. I'm lucky to live in Los Angeles where so many places are willing to accommodate dietary restrictions. Sure, I get questions about my choices—whether I have Celiac disease or a wheat allergy is a common one. Some people think going gluten-free is just a fad, but I can live with the cynics because abandoning wheat has had such a profound impact on my life.
After two years of gluten-free eating, I lost more than 40 pounds and have kept it off for a year and a half. I got off my pain medicine and antidepressants, and I feel healthier than I did during a dozen years of living with fibromyalgia. In fact, I consider myself cured.
I was surprised to learn how many alternatives to traditional wheat products are on the market now. As with most things, some are better than others. I occasionally crave a sandwich, so I keep gluten-free bread in the freezer, but I've yet to find a brand that's indistinguishable from loaves made with wheat flour. It's much better toasted because otherwise gluten-free bread falls apart easily and the taste and texture aren't quite right.
There are decent gluten-free crusts out there, but being dairy free has been a challenge when it comes to pizza. Milk products are highly inflammatory and tend to be filled with hormones and antibiotics. I took the naturopath's advice and cut them out, but I've struggled to find fake cheese that mimics melty mozzarella. After much trial and error, I did find wheat-free spaghetti that has the flavor and consistency of traditional pasta. Even my husband has given it his seal of approval. He also now prefers gluten-free waffles and hardly ever complains that he rarely gets an opportunity to sop up his marinara with a sliced baguette.
One thing that caught me off guard at first was how many everyday foods have wheat hidden in them—including soy sauce (tamari is a great substitute), bullion cubes, hot dogs and some salad dressings. Going gluten-free has taught me to be meticulous about reading labels and simply to avoid some foods altogether.
Naturally, as with most healthy fare, gluten-free alternatives are more expensive than their wheat-laden counterparts, especially breads, pastas, and flours, which are several dollars more per package. So, yes, my grocery bill has risen, but it's money well spent. It's a worthwhile investment in my health, vitality, and longevity. How can you put a price on that?
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