Of Pleasure & Pain: A Personal Experience & Some Gluten Free Food for Thought

I often write about the science and medical information behind many different kinds of disease states or pathologies we may have in our society, but today I want to write about something a little different. I want to explore with you (and myself) some of the psychology behind how and why we make the health choices that we do. I want to do this because how and why we make decisions plays a major role on the success of the medical experience and the quality of our lives in general. It is safe to say that there is a fair amount of philosophy involved in these decisions. And there is a whole lot of emotion involved as well. I want to share with you a recent discovery about my own health and some of the thoughts that I am struggling with. And while reading this article I would ask you to think about your own life and transpose yourself into a similar situation. What would you decide? How would you feel? I hope that you read this article with an open heart and a willingness to look at how you may be living your life and if that choice is really serving you in a healthy and positive way.

My story starts off pretty much like everyone else’s. I grew up in suburban San Diego. I belong to a very loving family and have had the best care that anyone could ask for. I grew up eating what everyone else ate… Pretty much everything. It was sometime in graduate school when I began to notice an increase in migraine type headaches. I was in school for Chinese Medicine so therapy was free and plentiful and I kept my headaches down to a minimum. But time passes and things tend to get worse. By the time that I moved back to San Diego, started a practice and a family the migraines began to increase in severity and frequency. Now, I have had a fair amount of head trauma in my day. One particular incident was a bicycle accident when I was 14 where I required reconstructive surgery on my face and had suffered a bad concussion. And I can count 4 times total where I have been knocked out cold or at least had my bell rung pretty bad, so headaches seemed appropriate given my history. Right around this time I also started noticing eczema like patches forming around my body. They were small but I noticed them and they itched. And just like the headaches they began to get worse. Something was going on here.

The more that I learned over the years of studying Functional Medicine the more I realized that my symptoms came from something that I was doing every day. Something that I eat probably since the skin usually always reflects the health of the digestive system. But the only thing is that I don’t have any gut symptoms. I decided to run some tests anyway. I never showed up positive for anything in any significant way so I kept on going with what I knew and ate whatever I wanted to eat. I don’t gain weight easily so carbs were of no concern to me. Those rushed morning bagel sandwiches, the occasional pastry and coffee, burritos, burgers… Why not, I am healthy. This was a comforting thing to know that I can eat what I want and not have any health problems. I can grab something out instead of making it myself. But why are my headaches getting worse? I had had enough and decided to pay for a new and much more advanced gluten screen for myself. After all, I teach this stuff and I tell my patents to do it so I should probably do it too.

What I found shook me to the core. All of the more basic gluten tests I have done in the past were all wrong! Not only am I just a little sensitive to gluten, I am very sensitive to the stuff. In fact I showed positive to a couple of other self tissue antibodies associated with gluten sensitivity as well. This means my immune system is attacking my own body as a direct result of the gluten exposure. The results of that blood test provided me with a positive diagnosis of a silent Celiac condition. It is considered silent because it does not come with the generally crippling digestive pains associated with Celiac Disease. But if I continue to eat gluten I run the risk of seriously compromising my health in the future. For me and others like me, gluten exposure equals tissue destruction. And tissue destruction will eventually lead to full blown Autoimmune Disease. I also know that I have two family members with Type I Diabetes and Optic Neuritis which are both Autoimmune Diseases. I can easily go that way too if I let myself. I choose not to. But it does leave me with an uncomfortable feeling about what my family is eating and how it may be contributing to their health.

So where does this leave me? Just two months ago I was living a care free life of eating whatever I choose in the false assumption that I was not hurting myself. After all, my stomach wasn’t hurting or blowing up like a baloon like all my other Celiac patients. Today I am faced with abandoning many of the things in my life that offer joy and happiness. The thought of not eating Chinese Dumplings ever again, or one of those fantastic Mona Lisa Italian Subs in Little Italy, or New York style pizza makes me sad to say the least. Or how about those bagel sandwiches that saved my ass many times on those rushed mornings between dropping my kids off at school and getting to my first patient of the day? I am in a bad spot. I am forced to decide about doing what I know is probably the most important health care decision that I can make for myself by avoiding those foods or I can continue to eat and feed my convenience / temporary happiness until something bad happens. Not a fun predicament.

In talking to many different people recently about this concept I have discovered one thing. People are horrified of the thought of losing gluten. Why? Why would we think this way when we have so much at stake? Many people have stated to me that they simply would not want to know if they are sensitive or not. They would actually rather live in ignorance and feed the reward centers of their brain with the yummy things before taking a more serious look at what may literally be killing them. And they are not shy about stating this outright. There is also just a basic disbelief that something like a food could cause so much trouble. So yes, people do look at me sideways sometimes.

In my readings over the years primarily in Eastern Philosophy I have come to understand that we humans have a very strong force within us. You can consider it the Ego Mind, or that uncomfortable, insecure spirit within us which drives our thoughts and decisions. This Ego Mind is constantly at odds with the outside world. It is constantly at odds even with its own body. For example, it is cold outside and “I” (the spirit mind) am uncomfortable. “I” don’t like the way that guy looked at me. “I” am uncomfortable in this chair. “I” don’t like eating vegetables. Whatever it may be for you, there is an insecure ego which if allowed to, will drive the decision making. This is the case with even the most secure of us humans. At our core we are insecure beings and much of what we see in society supports this concept. In Neurology this can be attributed to a center in the brain called the Limbic System. This is the reward / punishment system and is very powerful. It is where addiction takes hold. When you feel happiness you are feeling the Limbic System. It is the first place that we process our sensory inputs from the outside world. Second to that comes the rationality of it all from our Frontal Lobe. Unfortunately the reward centers are very powerful and can strongly influence the rational part of our brains. Give “Me” (the ego mind) what I want! I won’t be happy unless you do! Think of this part of your mind kind of like a spoiled child who wants his ice cream and will throw a tantrum if he does not get it! This is what I am feeling right now. This is what others hearing my story feel when they think about themselves giving up something like gluten. This is what parents of Autistic children may feel when they are told that their child cannot have gluten or dairy. “It is just too hard!” “That’s all he will eat!” There are all kinds of reasons our Limbic Brains can come up with to get what it wants.

So here I am… I am forced into this philosophical debate between my Fontal Lobe which really knows better, and my Limbic Brain which just wants to be happy and get what it wants. Lucky for me, my knowledge and training keep me on track. I also get the privilege of working with very chronically ill people who suffer worse problems associated with their gluten sensitivity. And please understand that these people have very chronic and serious conditions. I do not want to get to that point. And more than that, I do not want my patients to get to that point either. The reality is that once you make a change like this and begin to feel better, the loss of the yummy things becomes much easier. You find new yummy things. And just feeling well is yummy in of itself! For me I have not had a migraine since stopping the gluten. I consider that yummy. I get to spend more quality time with my family when I don’t have a migraine. The migraines though were just a symptom, or warning light of larger problems going on. And boy am I glad the I finally listened!

So if you are feeling achy, tired, bloated, have chronic headaches, or have ever been diagnosed with an Autoimmune Disease, gluten could be to blame. The quality of your life could dramatically improve by cutting this one thing out of your diet. I am currently working towards building a specialty clinic in Celiac and Autoimmune Disease so stay tuned for this in the next 6 months. Get yourself tested and give yourself a good educated chance to counter the little comments that the Ego Mind is telling you every day. You never know how something like this could change your life for the better!