Time to talk about menopause and gluten

Updated 5.1.2015
I have occasionally mentioned in passing on these pages that I minimize gluten in my diet. Please note the verb there, MINIMIZE. I have been tested for celiac's, the details of which will be discussed shortly, and I do not have celiac's disease. I do not think that I have any sort of wheat allergy either. So why avoid gluten? Because when I do, my gut is happier (I have no IBS symptoms).

These thoughts were spurred by this article in Vox, but I've lost count of the number of articles "debunking" the need to avoid gluten and/or touting how healthy gluten is. If gluten doesn't bother your, mangia bene— you can have my portion too because for me avoiding it has improved my quality of life.

tl;dr summary

  • Post menopause I suffered symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • I was tested for lactose intolerance and celiac's disease. ALL tests were negative
  • Avoiding lactose eliminated 85% of the issue.
  • Avoiding gluten solved the remaining 15% of the issue.
  • Four years later, my gut remains calm.
  • I don't care if you eat gluten or think it's healthy, I choose differently.

Post Menopause

I have always meant to discuss my passage through menopause in these pages, the word appears after all in the tagline for this site, but for various reasons have not yet. That changes with this post (or posts depending on how long this gets or how often I return to the topic).

My gluten tale begins with my menopause. As discussed in more detail elsewhere, I went through menopause on the early side of typical. I was 42 the first time I paused in my menses, and was 45 at the point where I declared it finished.

At 48, I was diagnosed with osteoporosis, and was prescribed Fosamax. About six months after beginning what was to be a two year course of the Fosamax, I began to experience gastro-intestinal (G-I) distress (think 6-7 on the Bristol Stool Scale) and lost my taste for coffee. The coffee bit was important, because the surest "tell" that I was pregnant was that I couldn't stand the taste or smell of coffee.

Clearly I wasn't pregnant, so something else was up. I learned to drink coffee after my undergraduate days when I went to Europe for the summer. At that time everyone in Europe seemed to drink coffee and smoke. I didn't do either, but began to drink coffee to have something to do with my hands. Coffee in Europe was strong, and so I learned to drink it with both cream and sugar. My habit was to have two large mugs of coffee each morning with breakfast. Now I was finding that I could barely drink half a mug before dumping it in the sink.

Worse than that of course was the G-I distress. I don't know how people suffer with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome for years (or so they claim). I was miserable, and so when I had my annual physical I made sure to describe my symptoms to my doctor. Since I never have any complaints or symptoms to discuss with him, he took it very seriously.

One of his first thoughts was the Fosamax, but G-I distress is not known to be one of the side effects of that drug. Lactose intolerance was another thought. So he told me to stop taking the Fosamax and try eliminating dairy from my diet for 2 weeks. He also ordered tests to check for lactose intolerance and celiac's disease. I actually didn't think that any of these options were likely, but only because I'd forgotten that my own mother never drank milk. Since she couldn't drink milk, I have the genetic possibility of developing lactose intolerance. Before doing anything though, my doctor warned me that often times the tests are negative and the diagnosis winds up being IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), which means "we don't know." The gut and what effects it are not well understood, the best he could do is eliminate the likeliest suspects.

As it turned out, all the tests were negative, even the lactose test. However, once I removed lactose from my diet the difference was stark. Within two days the gastro-intestinal distress was all but gone. Within six days my skin was different. I hadn't even realized how bloated I was until I wasn't. So despite being told that the tests were negative, I didn't add lactose back into my diet. I did start to add cheeses, though even there I find I have to be moderate in my intake or suffer the consequences.

So problem solved, right? Not quite. About a week or so after I quit lactose, the G-I issues began again. at that point, I decided to eliminate gluten and see if that made a difference. it did make a difference, and for the first time in months I as happily in the 4 zone of the Bristol Stool Scale. So I continue to try to minimize the amount of gluten in my diet. Note the verbs there in that sentence. The celiac's test was negative, my reaction to gluten is not an auto-immune response. This is very important because gluten is found in a surprising number of products. However, since I felt better not eating gluten, I avoid it when I can.

I want to be clear here. I do not think the effects I've experienced avoiding lactose and gluten for four years are a "placebo" effect. Placebo effects tend to wear off with time, these have not. If I eat lactose, I know it because I spend an awful day eliminating it from my body in the bathroom. I go consume small amounts of gluten, mostly in beer at this point, but I do not request gluten free when I eat at a restaurant. I simply don't order anything that comes with bread, or don't eat the bread. I'm not celiac's, and so this works fine.

I want to emphasize again that BOTH tests, lactose and celiac's were negative, suggesting that there was no reason to take either out of my diet. And yet doing so solved my gastric distress. People never question my avoidance of lactose, but constantly do my avoidance of gluten despite my having no more reason for avoiding one than the other. Yes, I get that gluten-free has become a food fad. That doesn't change the benefit that changing what I eat had for me.

Gluten free does NOT mean no whole grains

I am not, nor will I ever again be low carb (I was for about a month in my early 30s). I eat plenty of whole grains, legumes and starchy carbohydrates. I just don't eat wheat, barley or rye very often any more. In fact, since avoiding wheat I eat a MUCH greater variety of whole grains, and a good deal more legumes. No, I can't eat most industrial processed foods, but I struggle to see why this is such a bad thing.

Rather than wheat breads or pasta I have potatoes, quinoa, millet, amaranth or rice (of all colors). I am not deprived, nor struggling to have variety on my dinner plate. Yes, I do sometimes still buy some processed foods, and yes, I do buy the gluten free varieties. I also read labels. I know what's in my food, and if I don't like what's on the label I don't put in my cart. I do cook at home more often than the average American, but so what? I was cooking at home more often than the average American when I ate gluten. I don't see that as a negative to my choice either.

Specific beefs with the Vox article

Gluten free alternatives do NOT have to be less healthy. I baked wheat flour breads, pizza doughs, cakes and pie crusts for years at home, I now make bean flour and non-gluten four breads, pizza doughs, cakes and pie crusts at home. Instead of mixture of refined and whole wheat flours, now I use whole bean and whole (non-gluten) grain flours. I stack the nutrition of the new loaves against the old ones all day, any day. It is simply false that gluten free means lower nutritional value.

Frankly, avoiding gluten mostly isn't difficult unless you eat a lot of industrial processed foods.

The importance of gut health should not be under estimated. It's probably TMI, but I'd take a life without gluten all day every day over a life with runny stools and pain in the bathroom. It might not occur to someone who hasn't experienced it, but it's a REALLY shitty way to live (pun intended). Avoiding gluten and lactose is a drug free inexpensive (yes, really, you don't have to break the bank to live gluten free) way for my to have a better life.

Eat and enjoy your gluten if you can and guzzle all the lactose you can get your hands on. I won't preach at you nor will I look to share any of yours, but leave me and my choices in peace.


One Mom in the Middle…
of parenting… of her career… of life…

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