A strange thing happened to me last Saturday.
Most weekends, my family goes out for brunch after spending the morning at the gym. Usually, brunch for me means a simple bowl with brown rice, veggies and lean protein. However, last weekend, we decided to make the trek to Slappycakes, a local breakfast mecca where each table features a built-in griddle for DIY pancakes. Sounds fun, right?
In the past, I had bristled slightly when Slappycakes was suggested — the wait times are legendary (we did end up waiting about 45 minutes for a table). Aside from the anticipated wait time, though, I suppose I was protesting because I've figured out that pancakes aren't really my thing. I have long suspected that I have a gluten sensitivity, and am also prone to high blood sugar issues.
I know — I'm that person. Just the kind of person you want sitting with you at the make-your-own-pancakes place.
Still, I wanted to be a a good sport — the kind of carefree, fun-loving mom who makes her kid's day by agreeing to go to the famous pancak-ery.
Plus, it was Cheat Day, and I figured I could live a little.
So, off to Slappycakes we went. My son happily ordered apples, bananas and chocolate chips to top his pancakes, and I ordered an egg on the side, hoping the protein would help my body balance the carbs and sugar. I capped it off with some coffee to keep the carb-crash at bay.
After brunch, my son and I headed over to my parents' house for a visit. But while making the 20-minute drive, I became aware of a thick fog settling in — not outside, but in my own head! I felt as if I had literally been drugged. It was that same out-of-it, foggy feeling that comes with a couple of drinks — the kind that leads you to call a cab.
While I knew I was of course sober, I wasn't thrilled about driving through the clouds of my own brain fog. I felt fortunate we were close to our destination.
When we got to my parents' house, I tried to snap out of it and be social. But now I was feeling a bit nauseated, and a dull headache was starting to take shape. I headed to the guest room for what I hoped would be a quick cat-nap — and was out for nearly two hours.
Two hours! And I mean out. It was an epic energy crash — and an utter waste of what would have been a lovely afternoon with my family. I felt better when I woke up, but I didn't really feel “normal” until the next morning.
Now, in all fairness, Slappycakes may have had gluten free batter on the menu, and it's my fault for not noticing that. But I doubt even gluten free batter would have helped much. I suspect my body was already compromised by a separate Cheat Day carb indulgence (pasta dinner) from the night before. It was like a refined carb-fueled perfect storm. The pancakes probably just put me over the top.
The good news is that I followed a healthy diet for the rest of the weekend, and I used my Sunday to prepare a couple of nourishing (gluten free!) soups to enjoy throughout the week.
My little pancake incident, though, definitely reminded me to be more mindful about my Cheat Day decisions.
And it's a great opportunity for all of us to consider how dramatically certain foods — especially refined foods such as flour, and common allergens such as gluten — can zap our energy.
For me, gluten — found in wheat, barley, and rye — happens to be one of the most powerful energy thieves around.
Do you also experience mysterious energy shortages or seemingly random health issues?
If so, you may fall within the wide spectrum of gluten sensitivity.
Keep Reading if You Think Gluten Sensitivity is Overrated — or Even Imaginary
On one end of the spectrum, you have celiac disease — where, among other things, eating gluten will literally mess up your intestines so bad you can't absorb nutrients. This affects only 1 in about 133 Americans currently, but the numbers have mysteriously increased 400% over the last 50 years. Why? Many experts think it has to do with environmental toxins; specifically, hybridized wheat.
The rest of the gluten intolerance continuum includes people like me, who experience some sort of reaction upon ingesting gluten. The number of people affected by gluten sensitivity is much debated, ranging from 6-33% of the population. It's also estimated that the vast majority of people who are sensitive to gluten are undiagnosed.
Relatively little is known about non-celiac gluten sensitivity, as reported by the New York Times, in reference to a 2011 panel discussion by the world's leading celiac experts:
What they still do not know: how many people have gluten sensitivity, what its long-term effects are, or even how to reliably identify it. Indeed, they do not really know what the illness is.
The definition is less a diagnosis than a description — someone who does not have celiac, but whose health improves on a gluten-free diet and worsens again if gluten is eaten. It could even be more than one illness.
People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity don't appear to suffer long-term damage to the intestinal villi, as do people with full-blown celiac disease, but the list of symptoms is no less disturbing. In fact, a review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 “diseases” that can be caused by eating gluten, including:
- Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, cramping, abdominal pain and constipation
- Irritable bowel disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Foggy mind and loss of energy
- ADHD-like behavior
- Unstable blood sugar levels
- Weight gain
- Rashes, hives, acne, and other skin conditions
- Canker sores
- Joint pain
- Leg numbness
- A general feeling of unwellness and/or unexplained health issues
Gluten intolerance and sensitivity has even been linked to cancer, autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia.
Yep — it's a scary list all right.
Generally, I don't like to employ scare tactics, but I think this list is helpful if you're struggling with certain health issues you haven't been able to resolve. I think it's especially helpful since I've read case after case involving people who were able to resolve a multitude of symptoms simply by giving up gluten.
Which is no easy task — believe me, I love a Pearl Bakery baguette and a wedge of soft French cheese as much as the next person. But if you keep going back to the doctor with joint pain or headaches or skin issues or unexplained fatigue — or have trouble getting pregnant — then it's definitely worth taking a closer look at gluten and other common allergens.
So what should you do if you suspect gluten issues and want more information?
One way would be to eliminate gluten for a week (ideally three), recording observations about your symptoms daily. After the gluten free period, “challenge” your system by eating gluten-rich foods such as bread or pasta for a day or two. Then see how you feel. For example, did the headaches go away, but return when you ate bread?
Ideally, you'll want to get yourself tested for gluten allergy/celiac disease. Important note: don't eliminate gluten and then get tested. If you indeed have a sensitivity to gluten, but stop eating gluten before your test, your blood serum won't show the telltale antibodies, and you might get a false-negative result.
Want more info? Here are some links you might find useful:
- Center for Celiac Research and Treatment: Celiac Disease FAQ
- Center for Celiac Research and Treatment: Gluten Sensitivity FAQ
- Gluten: What You Don't Know Might Kill You (by Dr. Mark Hyman)
- Questions and Answers on Gluten: Part 1 and Part 2 (by Dr. Frank Lipman)
- Gluten Free, Whether You Need It or Not (New York Times)
I'm thinking about getting tested pretty soon myself. It's been more than 15 years since I was last tested, and the antibody testing has come a long way since then. Plus, our sensitivity to gluten can change or increase over time.
In the meantime, I'm definitely reconsidering how I use my Cheat Day indulgences.
And I'm learning how to be okay with being the person who doesn't order pancakes at the pancake place. After all, there were plenty of other Cheat Day-worthy items on Slappycakes' menu that didn't involve gluten or flour.
How about you? Do you have your own gluten story to share? Please post a comment below — I'd love to hear from you!
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Personal note: I'm so grateful that my relatives living in the Philippines are safe and okay. However, there are so many who have been affected by Typhoon Haiyan, and they still desperately need food, fresh water, medicine, and shelter. Please consider making a donation to UNICEF to support much needed relief efforts. For information, please watch this public service announcement from my brother Erik Spoelstra, Head Coach of the Miami Heat. Here's the link to make an online UNICEF donation.