This month, I’m cutting all gluten out of my diet. Going off gluten is part of a personal experiment to regulate my hormones. I begin this experiment a secret skeptic that an alternative diet like this one might work for me. While it’s true that many people suffer from gluten intolerances and allergies, I’ve always maintained a certain pigheaded idea that I don’t have any such intolerance and that if I eat healthy, exercise often and brush my teeth, I’ll be completely healthy. Right?
Unfortunately, a sickly childhood and teenage years spent battling chronic headaches, irregular periods and unexplained weight gain contradicts this supposition. I am the unfortunate person who, if a cold is circulating within ten miles, will immediately attract it (same rule applies to rashes, allergies, bronchitis and awkward situations). But my biggest concern is how late I began my period and how irregularly it came: from not coming for as long as six months, to showing up every two weeks—which is no fun, especially during already angst-ridden exam seasons! When my period comes, it is usually a heavy cycle and accompanied by weight gain, anemia and headaches that take me out of commission for days at a time. When I was 14, my parents took me to a Naturopath doctor who recommended that I do an elimination diet to try and pick up on any allergies I might have. I abstained from eating all gluten, corn and oats for two years, which did seem to cut back on the illnesses and hold off weight gain. But the diet was inconvenient and I think I was already prejudiced in a teenage way against decisions made by my herb-loving mother: the first chance I got, I started introducing gluten back into my diet.
But, a few weeks shy of my 21st birthday, I’m giving the Gluten-free Experiment another go. After a summer spent working at a garden in the mountains and maintaining the healthiest lifestyle I ever have, the health problems and imbalanced hormones persisted. I suffered constant migraines and my weight refused to plateau, even though I was training for a half-marathon, hiking every day and working an active manual-labor job. The first day I was done with my summer job, I went to a Naturopath Doctor determined to give alternative medicine a (second) chance. The doctor spoke wisely, gave me hot tea and had a bird-chirping sound system in her office: what was not to love? The problems she pinpointed with my hormones aligned with everything I had experienced since I first started my period at 15 and her plan for balancing my hormones made sense. She directed me to try and regulate my hormones by doing three things: go get my bloodwork tested, apply Progesterone Cream ever night and abstain from eating Gluten for a month.
While I had always assumed that Gluten sensitivities fell in the same camp as most typical allergenic reactions (such as headaches and stomach problems) my doctor explained to me that many women who are sensitive to Gluten can have a wide range of Hormone imbalances, including cluster headaches, irregular periods, fibrocystic breast disease, ovarian cysts and polycystic ovarian syndrome, thyroid problems… the list just goes on. Being sensitive to Gluten can have a variety of complicated repercussions, especially for women.
Barely two weeks into this plan, I can offer no greater report then to say that abstaining from Gluten is hard. I am obsessed with baking—and therefore, wheat products—and this came as a blow to my crazy muffin-and-bread-making habits. Initially, the headaches have persisted, but I attribute this to the shock my system is going through with an altered diet. But I can truthfully say that not eating gluten has, for all-intents and purposes, cut out most white sugar and filled me with more energy. I’ve also discovered that not eating Gluten has made me thoughtful in a new way about my food: while I like to think that I do think about the sources of my food, all too often I forget that my eating habits need to be catered to what my body and my hormones need. This summer, though I ate a local and delicious diet with lots of good potluck fare, I certainly ate plenty of sugar and carbohydrates. Going off Gluten has made me more in tune with what affects individual properties have on my body, and how to regulate them so things work smoothly.
My Naturopath Doctor also recommended that I be more intentional about Protein sources, since I’m a Vegetarian and normally seem to think that eating Peanut Butter is sufficient (hint: it’s not). Without Gluten as an excuse for natural Protein sources, I have started to begin my days with Eggs, Oatmeal or Yogurt, and also avoid sugary fruits which spike my blood sugar. I have stuck to eating lots of black beans, summer fruits and vegetables (August Tomatoes are so good) and gluten-free grains like Brown Rice. I am both curious and optimistic that this new dietary intention will help regulate my hormones, plateau my weight and maybe (a girl can dream!) clear up my skin. Maybe it will make me more open-minded about alternative medicine, and give me the courage to better understand what my body needs. Maybe at the end of the month, I’ll cut back on Gluten, abstain from it all together or return to eating it regularly. Who knows? A month can work wonders. I’ll be sure to update you when I wrap up this little experiment!
Top illustration by Johanna Björk.