Day 4: A Gluten-Free Life. Really, It’s Just Been Six Months
I have always been someone who prided myself on being willing and able to eat whatever was put in front of me. Once, the guy who lived in the apartment downstairs from me in West Philly invited me to an after-hours event at Vientiane Café, a Thai restaurant on Baltimore Avenue. He was hosting a private dinner where they were going to serve even more authentic Thai food. This included water bug pâté, which I ate. So the first time I had to positively answer the question whether I had any dietary restrictions, I was embarrassed. Even just last weekend, when a friend asked, “You guys eat everything, right?” I took it as a point of pride that we were thought to be “those kind of people,” the people who weren’t fussy. Then I had to say, well, no, I’m gluten-free.
Then you get those looks. I know those looks, because I used to be the one giving those looks. They are the looks that say, oh be serious. Only about 1% of the population has celiac. And celiac is the only legit reason to go off gluten. Because you know studies show gluten doesn’t have any effect on healthy people. (This last point is not entirely true–read this New Yorker article, but I used to maintain it, just as much as the next person.) And I would be that person, like people I encountered on Facebook and IRL, who would say that there is no reason other than celiac to go off gluten. Not just say things, but say things, you know, the way people can on social media. I confess, I considered myself superior to people who supposed that gluten was the source of the troubles when they had little evidence that this was the case.
Then I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and told that I would need to be on a hormone for the rest of my life, and I was like, I’ll pass. So I did some research, and I learned that–what do you know?–gluten can be related to thyroid health issues. I swear I saw on the Mayo Clinic website that gluten is one food that should be avoided, but now they have taken down the discussion of how diet can affect thyroid health. Oh well. In any case, what I learned was that gluten can imitate the thyroid protein, so the thyroid sees gluten and thinks there is sufficient hormone and doesn’t make more. This leads to fatigue and brain fog. I had been living at a low-level of fatigue and brain fog for so long I didn’t realize that that was not just the general way life was supposed to be–I was napping almost every day for five years or so, and often forgetting words or using the wrong ones.
So I decided I would try to go off gluten. I was not very good at first. I got the diagnosis right before I left for a month in Europe last summer. It was hard to be gluten-free on the road, and in a foreign country where I often didn’t know how to even ask if something was gluten free. So I would describe my diet as gluten-light. When I came back, I was more aggressive about cooking without gluten, so I was getting gluten-lighter and eventually gluten-free. I found myself feeling more alert, avoiding that 2:30 in the afternoon pressure over my eyelids, and finding my words better. Someone told me when I mentioned this that the placebo effect is very real. To be fair, I probably would have said that six months before.
Then I went to the doctor and had my thyroid numbers checked again. Thyroid numbers are backwards — on a scale from .4 to 4.0, under .4 is hyperthyroid or overactive thyroid, and over 4.0 is hypothyroid or underactive thyroid. The reason is that the test actually looks at the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is the governing gland that makes sure the rest of the endocrine system is working as it should, so when the thyroid goes haywire, the pituitary makes up for it by producing more hormones. So the more pituitary hormone you have, the less your thyroid is working. When I first had any inkling that there might be a problem, last winter, my thyroid was around 3.7. Not yet definitively hypothyroid, but on the edge. That’s when I began thinking about things I might do with my diet (like avoid high intake of cruciferous vegetables — really! There is a study for that). When I went back in June, the numbers were higher 4.2, so that’s when they recommended the hormone therapy. That’s when I made the slow transition off of gluten. When I returned in October, my numbers had returned to the middle! 2.083. I told my doctor that the only thing I had changed was going off gluten, and she said, well, I don’t know about that, but your numbers are much better.
So yes, I don’t have a study. It was just me. But the numbers changed, and I felt better. I learned two things about this. People will not believe that something you are doing in your diet makes you feel better, but they will be more likely to believe it if you have numbers to support it. People’s testimony (often women’s): not believable. Data: Truth! Yes, ok, we all know that there is a whole industry out there bent on getting you to Try This One Trick to cure all that ails you and that most of it is bullshit. But this is no reason to disbelieve the testimony of patients. There are many reasons why there might not be studies to show a thing. For one, no pharmaceutical company stands to gain from showing that going off gluten can support thyroid health, even cure thyroid disease, so no pharmaceutical company would run such a study. Lack of studies is very different than studies that show that there is no effect. Though lack of studies that show that there is a correlation between a thing and a disease could be taken as support for that thing when there are studies that show the positive effects of the thing, as when scientists repeatedly disproved the study that argued for a link between vaccinations and autism, see this write-up in the Scientific American. Even studies that contest whether gluten is indeed a problem, don’t argue either that gluten is good or that there is no problem, but that the problem might have a different cause.
The other thing I learned is stop having opinions about other people’s diet choices. There might be reasons that you have no information about. And people should not have to prove to you that their diet decisions are legit and not based on junk science just so that you will allow them their choices. I was guilty of it. Now I know better. Now like all recent converts, let me tell you why I’m more right now.