Coeliac Disease: The Gluten Challenge

Welcome back! It has been a while and a lot has happened in the interim. It turns out that Halloween came earlier than expected for me this year in the form of a nightmarish challenge…

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Over the summer of 2016 I started a Fitness Diary Series on my blog. Prior to doing so I had felt a certain stagnancy in my training and fitness progress. I decided to take the bull by the horns and throw myself into training four-five days a week along with counting macros and eating healthy. I wrote four diary entries in total which tracked my progress along the way (click to read diary #1 here, diary #2 here, diary #3 here and diary #4 here).

Truth be told, after about six weeks of hard work, I wasn’t seeing the progress I had hoped for. Rather I was constantly feeling bloated and whilst I had certainly built up my strength through consistent training and even toned up a bit, I hadn’t achieved the flat stomach I was aiming for.

Feeling confused and frustrated, I began to think back to how I had succesfully ridded myself of that same dreaded bloating over a year ago, having followed an elimination diet and added lots of probiotics into my diet. What was I doing differently this time? Did I need to go back to cutting all dairy/eggs/yeast/gluten from my diet? If you’ve read about my food intolerance testing you will know that its not something I really believed to be helpful (nor do most doctors!). At that time I had felt that it was the probiotic I had taken that really made the difference for me. After a few weeks of taking that probiotic it seemed that I could go back to including all foods in my diet. The probiotic seemed to me to be the common denominator. Problem solved!

Yet suddenly, over a year later, I felt like I was back to square one.

Writing my blog meant that I had pictures of most of the food I had been eating coming into the summer, so, like a detective I began to look through them to see if there was something  in my diet that I had changed over the summer that may have triggered this response. I found my answer in the form of sourdough bread. It was one of the main things that I definitely hadn’t been eating much before but now I was buying it weekly from the local bakery. By the end of the summer I was even making my own sourdough bread at home. Could this be the cause of my issue?

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A big bowl of bubbling, week-long fermented sourdough

Up until that point I had pretty much kept gluten completely out of my diet. I was naturally gluten-free by eating whole foods that were not derived from wheat/barley/rye. Sourdough bread is fermented so is said to be easier to digest and to contain less gluten than normal bread. It is made from flour, water and a little salt. I never imagined it could be doing me harm. I was only having it a couple of times a week, mostly as a treat on the weekends.

However, I was sick of second guessing everything I was eating and fed up of cutting various things out without really getting to the root of the problem. I decided that the best thing to do was to go to the doctor and see what she thought. I explained that all my symptoms had returned and that I couldn’t understand why. One of the main things I seemed to have changed in my diet was the addition of sourdough bread.

Coeliac Testing

The doctor immediately referred me for coeliac testing. I would have to eat a diet full of gluten for a minimum for six to eight weeks prior to the test. This is known as a “Gluten Challenge” and I can tell you that it was absolutely horribly challenging. If I thought I was bloated before, it was nothing compared to what happened once I started my gluten challenge.

From the end of August until the beginning of October I had to consume a minimum of 4-6 slices of bread or equivalent amount of gluten every single day. My clean eating completely went out the window as I went out of my way to fill up on bread, pasta, pizza, cereal, cake, biscuits and all of the things that I never usually eat. Because my diet had been largely gluten-free for so long it was vital that I ate enough gluten daily to avoid a false-negative result. I never wanted to have to do this again, so I made sure I did it right the first time!

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My very first grocery shop on the challenge – gluten for breakfast, lunch, dinner and tea!

 

Apart from bloating I experienced a whole lot of other symptoms during those seven weeks – and for another week afterwards. I was completely and utterly fatigued throughout. In fact, after a few weeks on the gluten-filled diet I hardly had any energy at all for the gym and my blog definitely took a back seat. I never realised just how great my healthy diet made me feel until I was forced to come off it.

The Coeliac Results

Diagnosis for coeliac disease involves a blood test followed by an endoscopy. One must be on a gluten containing diet prior to the test in order for the results to be accurate. After seven weeks of daily “glutening” my endoscopy procedure was complete and the consultant ordered me to go straight onto a gluten-free diet. She didn’t have to say it twice!

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My first gluten-free meal after the endoscopy procedure

After a week of being back on my own diet I began to get some energy back and feel better. Two weeks after my endoscopy I got the results that I was not coeliac! I was absolutely thrilled. What a relief!

I had spent the seven weeks in the run up to my test learning a whole lot about coeliac disease and to be honest I never realised how truly restrictive and difficult it must be to live with. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease and those living with it can suffer a from a whole range of symptoms, many of which are not even gastrointestinal. As little as an eighth of a teaspoon of gluten can do six months worth of damage to the intestine of a person with coeliac disease and they can be ill for a long time after being exposed to these minute levels of gluten. This would make eating out quite a daunting experience, with all the risks of cross contamination in kitchens. Many restaurants can’t even guarantee that their gluten-free options are suitable for people with Coeliac Disease! Those who have the disease are forced to put their trust in staff who may not be well informed on the seriousness of the disease.

In fact, prior to receiving my results, I was in a popular local eatery and I asked if there was any gluten-free options on the menu. The lady assured me that the entire menu was in fact gluten-free. Having eaten there multiple times before I was pretty sure the entire menu was not gluten free. I asked if she was sure and she said yes. I then said “even the bread??” and asked if she could double check. The menu was largely made up of various sandwiches. As I suspected, the bread was not gluten free and they did not offer a gluten free bread alternative at all. If someone with coeliac disease had gone into that same restaurant and been assured that the entire menu was gluten free they would have become extremely ill and possibly suffered months of ill health as a result of that staff member’s misinformed understanding of the menu.

I’m so grateful not to have to worry about things like that and I have a great deal of admiration for those living with coeliac disease and the burden they bear. When food can do you so much harm and there is such a lack of understanding around the medical requirement for a gluten-free diet it cannot be an easy disease to manage.

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The most beautiful calm tide I came home to the day I got the all clear for Coeliac Disease – no filter necessary!

FODMAPs

So now that I have ruled out Coeliac Disease what is the next step? The consultant recommended that I see a dietician and begin the low FODMAP diet. This is a medically recognised and evidence-based (and extremely complicated!) diet for the management of IBS. I haven’t been diagnosed with IBS but the consultant felt that this diet would be helpful for treating my bloating. It is not a long-term diet but is a form of elimination diet. It may help me pin point exactly which foods are not agreeing with me. Ironically the spelt sourdough that I was making at home during the summer is actually FODMAP safe, however the bakery’s wheaten sourdough is not! The FODMAP diet itself is too complicated to get into now so I will write a separate blog post about FODMAPs and will be posting some low FODMAP recipes along the way too!

The Clean Coconut x

Read about the beginning of my Low FODMAP diet here! 

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