Am I Gluten Sensitive? My Troubled Wheat Love Affair – Part 1

il grano

There was a time when I was a proud neophyte sourdough baker who used to consider non celiac people claiming wheat intolerance… shall I say it? Alright, yes, I used to consider people like (now) me gluten-free freaks.
I am sure that my baking pals can recognize themsleves in this superior attitude of disbelief towards people who refuse to eat the best of all foods, bread. Which, when made with organic ingredients and fermented with love and sourdough can surely do no harm. Even Michael Pollan, in the height of his knowledge on everything food says it…

It was with a sense of shame that I experienced my first ever reactions to wheat.

But let’s go with order. For some reason, I refused bread since I moved from Italy to Sweden. It was only during pregnancy, when even the smell of local store-bought bread was making me sick, that I started to heavily miss my Roman sourdoughs, which I remembered vividly from my childhood.

So at the first occasion (namely when my baby was already in the toddler stage and after discussing my doctoral thesis), I finally put my hands at a loaf of bread. Made with my own sourdough culture and local organic (modern) wheat flour. It was, as some of you know, love at first… knead. Me and my doughs seemed to be the essence of harmony. And, as an added value, I could enjoy eating bread again.

The hydil lasted for a year or so. Then, quite abruptly, I started to experience reactions to my own bread (and to any other source of wheat). For the first few weeks, I stayed out of bread and pasta and the symptoms (intestinal discomfort, abnormal bowel habits -sorry, not fancy) improved. I then tried to go back eating the bread I made, and the symptoms started again. I remember trying out local spelt hoping it would have been easier on my gut. Wrong. At that time I was very focused on the gluten issue. There was a lot of talking about gluten intolerance and, well, with extreme sadness I started to believe that gluten was a problem for me, too.

bimba nel grano-la mia

Then, when I saw that I could not tolerate spelt either, I tried to go gluten-free and learned the difficult craft of gluten-free baking. Results were quite interesting and some were encouraging. However, I was having reactions even to my gluten-free bread. Not exactly the same type of reactions, but still. So what was it for God’s sake?

I went to my local GP and asked, and he told me that I should just avoid all the foods that were causing me discomfort. Easy to say. I could not eat pasta (of any type, even GF was bothering me) nor bread (same as pasta) nor cookies or cakes or waffles or…. c’mon, I love food, how was I supposed to live? More importantly so, I am a passionate baker. My love for food sustains my experiments in bread craft. Baking without being able to eat my bread was a torture. Not only the pleasure of eating my favorite food stuff was gone, but also that of doing my favoring thing, baking.

Was this a punishment for something I have done in a previous life (or maybe in this one)?

I know believe that what I came to experience was a consequence of how I have eaten my whole life, plus the result of the exposure to several factors, and the lack of exposure to others.

Anyway, I was not going to resign to go paleo. I don’t think it is environmentally sound to go paleo (i.e. grain-free), plus I don’t think anyone should give up grains that easy. I surely wasn’t going to abandon my all food heritage and my favorite food memories without fighting.

Still carried away by my single-minded gluten-sensitivity-hypothesis, I started to look more in depth into heritage varieties of wheat.

My thinking was: if my grandparents could eat wheat with every meal of the day and lived both to nearly 90 years of age without experiencing any reaction whatsoever to it, why shouldn’t I? And, if I couldn’t, wasn’t maybe something in our food supply that had changed?

I already tried with the organic and the sourdough option, and although after my first crisis bread fermented exclusively with sourdough was far more digestible to me than other types of bread, I was still having reactions. The only other variable that I could change was the type of wheat. Spelt did not work. But was the spelt I tried truly more similar to what my grandparents were eating in their youth than our modern varieties of wheat?

So I started to look for types of wheat that had not been altered in the last 60-70 years.

Unfortunately, most of the heritage flours I could find were whole grain. I had noticed that I had stronger reactions to wholemeal wheat, and indeed the whole wheat heritage varieties I tried were more or less unwelcome to my already suffering gut. Finally, I found a sifted heritage variety to which, when fermented with sourdough and baked, I had little or no reaction to. Evviva.

I was very happy of my find, but felt quite limited in the range of breads I could make and eat. I added small amounts of other grains to my basic heritage white, but it was still a big limitation.

I have read and read and read to try to understand the rationale behind this increased tolerability I had for a pre-World War II sifted wheat flour. Studies comparing heritage to modern wheat in terms of the gluten profile are indeed sparse and inconclusive.

Then eventually I ran out of my heritage white, and started to eat random flour for a while. Awefully bad reactions. So bad I started to doubt I was merely wheat sensitive and feared I could have celiac disease. And so I finally took all the tests. That was scary. For years I had been avoiding taking the tests, for fear of a positive answer. That would have meant no wheat whatsoever. No natural fermentation trapping those lovely gasses into that miraculous gluten network I could savor the fragrant results of. I was terrified.

gluten

And then a few weeks later (and not so long ago) the results came. My intuition was right. I don’t have celiac disease. Although gluten is likely playing a part in my reaction to wheat, it may not be the main and surely not the only problem. Not for me and probably not for most of the people like me. So what is it? What has really changed in the last 60-70 years? And how can we change this back?

I will synthesize the state of the art on this topic, with reference to scientific evidence, plus some of my current (but always evolving) hypotheses in the next article -or articles, let’s see how synthetic I manage to be and how interested I manage to keep you. Thanks a lot for reading, and please let me know about your own personal experiences or thoughts on this matter. And, no matter what, always keep breading!

UPDATE: Part Two is not out, and you can find it HERE. I hope you will join the discussion and, if not, thank you for reading and sharing!

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Barbara Elisi

Hi there! I am the "soul" behind Bread & Companatico. My main interest is the preservation of bread tradition and craft, with an eye to health. I hope you are having a good time reading this blog, and please don't be shy to connect with me through comments or emails and do keep on bread-ing! ๐Ÿ™‚
14 replies
  1. Becca
    Becca says:

    Hello, I too am on this journey. I am sensitive to gluten, dairy and eggs. I am not allergic and have not always been this way but my intolerance had become more intense with terrible gastro reactions. I then began looking into my gut flora, a life on antibiotics for one illness or another I believe had thrown out my balance and so I have been consuming fermented food and kefir and the other day I was able to consume gluten for the first time in years without vomiting, terrible stomach cramps or diarrhoea (sorry, too much information) just hungover like symptoms but already a huge improvement ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    • Barbara Elisi
      Barbara Elisi says:

      Hi there Becca, thanks a lot for sharing your experience!
      I think your approach is really wise, and very similar to mine. I also realized recently that I had been taking antibiotics in the period preceding the first onset of my symptoms. and an altered gut flora has definitely an extremely relevant role in averse reactions to wheat.
      keep me posted on your own experiments with reintroducing gluten. have you tried with pasta or bread? and if bread, what type?

      Reply
  2. Karin Anderson
    Karin Anderson says:

    Very interesting articles (I read part 2, too)!
    For a long time I had that “superior attitude” towards proclaimed gluten-sensitivity, and thought I would shoot myself, if I became really gluten-intolerant. I’m not, but I have family members and friends that are, and, since the store-bought gluten-free stuff tastes like cardboard (besides being so expensive), I started looking more into gluten-free recipes.
    I will include a link to your article in my latest post http://hanseata.blogspot.com/2016/02/gluten-free-dinner-rolls-with-oat.html

    Reply
    • Barbara Elisi
      Barbara Elisi says:

      hi there Karin and thank you so much for reading and for sharing.
      I really appreciate that you do make the effort to understand and to make bread for everyone. wheat intolerance does not have to be a punishment, everyone deserves good bread!

      Reply

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  1. […] you can learn from Part One of this wheat sensitivity series, the usual blood tests my GP prescribed did not suggest I have […]

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