Why no dairy or gluten for me?

If you get grossed out reading other people's medical stories, or if you just really don't want to know the sordid details of my digestive woes because you know me personally and you'd rather not have such images in your head, don't read this post.  Just skip it, trust me.

I've had digestive problems of one sort or another as long as I can remember. Reflux, constipation, diarrhea, pain.  Once, when I was pregnant, the toilet got clogged (after I was using it) and when the plumber cleared the line (expecting to find a toy or something inappropriately flushed), he told my husband, "Dude, your wife should see a doctor for that."  We had a good laugh, but it was true.  And it wasn't "once" that the toilet got clogged, it was all the time; but that one time it was so bad that I thought I'd permanently ruined the plumbing in our 100 year old house, and we had to call a professional in to actually remove the toilet to clear the lines.  So embarrassing.

 

I've also had migraine headaches with increasing frequency over the years.  I experience the headaches as intense sensitivity to light and noise, throbbing all over my head, and a subsequent inability to function normally.  I put an ice pack on my noggin, take Excedrin for migraines, and retreat to my darkened bedroom. Triggers seem to be watching movies or TV in the dark, working on my computer for too long, being out in the sun without a hat, skipping my morning cup of black tea, and stress. Go figure. The headaches remain something of a mystery, although my new diet seems to have had a positive effect on them.  I also got new glasses at roughly half-strength prescription for computer use, and those have helped immensely. Apparently I have a severely deviated septum, which may contribute to the headaches, but sleeping with a humidifier has basically eliminated all instances of waking up with a migraine.

 

For at least the past 10 years, if you handed me a tissue any time of year, I could blow my nose and fill that baby with snot on command.  Plus, I have weirdly sensitive skin -- I get hives and rashes sometimes -- although that seems connected to soaps and topical stuff, but I don't know.  And sometimes being around perfume or smoke or other chemicals in the air brings on an asthma attack. And for the past few years I've had an atrocious short term memory.  Don't I sound like a fun friend and a delightful spouse?

 

About a year ago, things got really bad with my stomach. I had terrible tummy aches all the time and, for a few months, I only had diarrhea. Mucousy nastiness. I couldn't pass gas if I wasn't safely seated on the toilet already because I had no control over the mucus. And the pain? My heating pad was my new best friend. Plus the migraines were happening almost daily.

 

After being poked and prodded and examined and tested by the gastroenterologist, he came up with the brilliant deduction that nothing was really wrong, so in cases like mine, they just call it IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).  One of the books I proceeded to read was by Dr. Alvin Newman, "The essential IBS book : understanding and managing irritable bowel syndrome & functional dyspepsia" (2011).  In it, Newman lays out a number of coping strategies and ways to manage life with IBS, which really has been an enormous help.  One of the main points was setting aside time (say, 15 minutes) once or twice a day to sit on the toilet even if you don't think you have to go. Such a simple suggestion, but it turns out to be quite helpful. Except for the minor complication of bleeding hemmorrhoids, which don't take well to hanging out on the toilet for so long.  I haven't figured out a good solution for that yet.

 

But a bigger help was the suggestion to cut out dairy and gluten. Completely. I went on to read several other books about the problems those foods can cause, and they made a pretty damned convincing case for me to try it based on my profile and symptoms. I'm not going to make the case here, because I'm not a medical expert but I'll pull together a list of some books in the near future. Bottom line: inflammation. I haven't been officially diagnosed as gluten intolerant, but I know what is working for me now.

 

The trouble is ... bread and cheese are at the very top of my list of favorite foods. Butter. Croissants. Cheese filled pasta with more cheese melted on top. Sourdough toast with goat cheese. Quiche. I'm going to stop there because it's really just torture to list all these things I can't eat anymore.

 

I gradually cut down on gluten first, and started noting some improvements, but nowhere close to normal functioning.  Then I got more serious about it and I felt better, but still not good.  Then I reduced dairy and tried only having lactose-free dairy.  Again, better but not great.  Finally I cut out ALL gluten and ALL dairy (including foods with casein or milk powder or whey) and THEN I really felt better physically.  But sooo bummed out.

 

However, I have also figured out that when I "cheat" or slip up and eat food that I didn't realize had something verboten in it, I either start spraying blood all over the toilet bowl (gluten) or squirting mucus farts (dairy).  My abdomen growls and moans audibly and I feel like the only bearable position is curled up with a heating pad or a cat substituting for a heating pad. The cat also adds beneficial emotional healing.

 

I'm not going to pretend that I'm all happy now and I've fully embraced my new dietary lifestyle with missionary zeal.  I do greatly appreciate not being in pain all the time, and cutting out dairy seems to have pretty much erased my sinus allergies, which was a nice surprise perk.  But being dairy and gluten free is inconvenient, time-consuming and expensive, and I have to re-educate myself how to cook in a satisfying way. I often end up making stuff separate for my kids and husband who equate gluten-free and dairy-free with yucky tasting and unnecessarily abstemious. I'm trusting this is a process and we will find a way that works for us, but we aren't there yet. Maybe in a year or two, I'll look back and laugh at myself -- maybe I will have found great joy and I won't miss the old way anymore.

 

So here I am, trying to make peace with my new reality while allowing myself a sense of mourning for so many of my favorite foods. I am truly appreciative that I have been fortunate enough to find a regimen that works.  I do maintain perspective, remembering and feeling grateful always that this is not cancer, this is not life threatening, this isn't even unmanageable. It's just, shall we say, a pain in the ass.

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