My Fibromyalgia Healing Journey - The Gluten Issue

by Karen Lee Richards Patient Advocate

Last November, I began telling you about the new journey I embarked on to improve my nutrition and fitness, with the hope of also reducing my fibromyalgia symptoms and improving my overall health.

I began my journey into better nutrition simply by trying to make healthier food choices--substituting foods I was currently eating with either organic versions of the same food or with a more nutritious alternative. While that was a good first step, I knew if I truly wanted to experience an improvement in my FM symptoms, I would have to make even bigger changes.

I also knew that if I wanted to make significant changes to what I eat, I would have to do it gradually. Past experience had taught me that trying to change my diet too much all at once would likely end in failure. So I decided that in addition to choosing healthier foods in general, I would choose one food item/category at a time that is known to frequently cause problems for people with FM and try to gradually reduce or eliminate it from my diet.

To Be or Not To Be Gluten-Free - That is the Question

One of the foods that is frequently mentioned as being problematic for people with FM is wheat flour, which contains gluten. Gluten (Latin for "glue") is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grains, like barley and rye. It gives dough elasticity and helps it to rise.

The first time I ever heard of gluten was when TV talk show host Elisabeth Hasselbeck revealed that she has Celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disorder that damages the lining of the small intestine. The damage is caused by a reaction to gluten. Although I had some significant digestive problems, including symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, my symptoms didn't sound quite as bad as what she described experiencing so I figured what she was saying didn't apply to me--or at least I didn't want it to apply to me because many of my favorite recipes and food items contained wheat flour.

Fast-forward two years... As I was talking with Sue Ingebretson, my health coach through this journey, she mentioned that 100% of the fibromyalgia patients she has worked with have had a sensitivity to gluten. She explained that didn't mean they all had Celiac disease but rather that all had at least some degree of sensitivity to gluten.

Although I realized her observation didn't necessarily mean every person with FM has a sensitivity to gluten, the fact that every one she had worked with did most likely meant that a very high percentage of people with FM experienced problems with gluten. Given those odds, I decided that gluten would be a good choice for the first ingredient I would try to remove from my eating plan.

Deprivation vs. Empowerment

Trying to eliminate all gluten at once proved to be too overwhelming for me. I felt deprived and found myself craving foods with wheat flour. In fact, that's almost all I could think about. At that point, I decided to give myself permission to have one "treat" a day that contained gluten. I felt like a great weight had been lifted. It gave me something to look forward to each day.

The funny thing is, once I allowed myself to have a daily treat, the less important it became. After a couple of weeks, I found I was skipping the treat more and more often. Then one day, I realized I had gone a whole week without eating any gluten. Another gluten-free week followed. It turns out that once I gave myself permission to have an occasional treat, I no longer felt deprived but rather felt empowered to make healthier choices.

Another amazing thing happened. I noticed that my IBS symptoms were gone I no longer had the bloating, gas, and constipation alternating with diarrhea that had plagued me for almost as long as I could remember. I can't begin to tell you what a difference that has made to how much better I feel overall.

If I had any doubts as to whether it was the gluten-free eating that made the difference, a recent experience made it clear. For about a month, I had been craving a good old-fashioned hamburger--complete with a (gluten-laden) bun--so a couple of weeks ago I decided to treat myself. I thoroughly enjoyed every single bite of my hamburger. But the price turned out to be much higher than just the price of the burger. For the next week, my old digestive problems returned in all their glory. I have a feeling the next time I crave something with gluten, it will a little easier to resist the temptation when I remember what the true cost really is.

If you're thinking about eating gluten-free, watch for my next installment. I'll share some of the tips and tricks I've learned to make gluten-free eating easier and tastier along with some of my adventures and misadventures in the kitchen.

Karen Lee Richards
Meet Our Writer
Karen Lee Richards

Karen is the co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association. She writes for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Pain Management.