The Great White Buffalo

Our understanding of the effect that wheat and gluten can have on our bodies is very primitive. I’m not gonna get all Wheat Belly on you though. Just go ask an MD about the connection between your mysterious health condition and diet. After they’ve finished laughing at you, they’ll look you square in the face and say “that’s impossible. Now go fill this prescription and stop asking questions.” Is it really impossible? Are you sure about that, doc?

You're not hopeless, it's just glutenNow let’s rewind to about 10 years ago. I was a younger lad just out of college, trying to make my way in the world. Being in your mid-twenties can certainly lend itself to drinking copious amounts of beer and eating somewhat questionable nutrition.  We all were doing it, but I was the only one getting sick. And I had no idea why for a long long time.

An itchy rash was my first clue that something was wrong. The dreaded eczema on my forearms and a little on my cheeks. Very subtle but concerning nonetheless. I’ll never forget when the dermatologist broke the news to me. “You have eczema. Watch this video and it will tell you everything you need to know.” So I sat and watched weird people on TV looking totally miserable sitting in bed or standing in front of a vanity washing various parts of their bodies and applying some sort of cream to the “affected area.” It seemed so final, so depressing.

When the doctor finally came back in I asked “how do I get rid of this?” She said, “it’s genetics, you don’t, it lasts forever. Go fill these prescriptions and put it on the “affected area.” Such a permanent and hasty prognosis. Ah, Western medicine. We’ll save that discussion for another time.

So for the next 7 years I would wax and wane with mysterious skin rashes. On my face almost always, arms and legs sometimes. My neck and back. I could control the rash, but I had to use prescription meds. Lotion didn’t work or anything else. Only the drugs worked. I had to literally prevent my immune system from reacting to something. What was I reacting to? If I brought it up in a doctor’s office, it was quickly dismissed as silly. “Not plausible.”

At times I thought there may be a link between food/gluten and my mysterious skin condition and my more recent “dry eye” diagnosis. But the drugs worked to mask the problem and the thought of addressing my crazy idea about the food component seemed like a journey I really didn’t want to take. “It’s genetics. I can’t do anything about this.”

Over the next couple of years, I saw countless general practitioners and dermatologists. Western medicine practitioners all said my intensifying and highly unpredictable skin condition could only be treated by drugs and that food or diet or gluten or whatever could not be the cause of it. It was simply impossible. I met some naturopathies who liked the idea of gluten being a problem but I thought going gluten free was totally ridiculous. Too hard, too complicated, and what if it doesn’t work. “I guess I’m just unlucky and I’ll have to live with this.”

What the hell is wrong with me?

I was a traveling salesman for a long time. Flew everywhere, hotel points, mileage upgrades, horrible diet. You get the idea.  About 18 months ago, I found myself at the breaking point. I walked into my hotel bathroom to get ready for the day’s meetings and my symptoms were utterly and totally out of control. I looked ghastly. Swollen face, rash all over my body, bloodshot eyes, like an alien, really. Just how a business man should look when he walks into someone’s office to ask for money. I cancelled the rest of my trip and flew home. “What the hell is wrong with me??”

I met with a brand spankin’ new naturopath the very next day. Told her my story and she surprisingly said “I see about 10 or so people just like you every week. Unexplained symptoms that don’t respond to anything. We can do an elimination diet but it’s probably gluten. And if it is, you need to be totally gluten free for the rest of your life.” So I tried it and confirmed it. Gluten! Just to do everything right I got the Celiac blood work and endoscopy done. Tube down my throat, awesome anesthesia drip, and then little bits of me under the microscope. Wasn’t a Celiac but the writing was all over the wall. I think deep down I had known for a long time. Too scared to face the truth. Literally.

They tell me I’m the mysterious Great White Buffalo of gluten related disease. I’m a Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerant. Which is basically doctor language for “we don’t exactly know why you need to be gluten free but you damn well better be.”

After trying to go gluten free and failing miserably again and again, I finally and fully committed to the lifestyle and have been since May 2012. I’ve been inadvertently “glutened” countless times and have had so many setbacks. It’s rather extreme and I don’t recommend for everyone, but I decided to quit my 6 figure job and move to Hawaii this March. I’ve cooked every meal at home and I’m eating an entirely whole foods diet to absolutely ensure I don’t get glutened for several months. I want to give my body an amazing and much needed opportunity to heal itself.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve met a fantastic ND, Michael Traub, who’s been practicing since 1984. He’s seen just about everything under the sun. Want his number? He helped me identify and is treating a thyroid condition which is undoubtedly Hashimoto’s and yet another reason to stay gluten free.

Ok, so now that you are sufficiently depressed by my story, you might ask “what’s the point of all this?”

The point is, it’s working! I’m getting better. I still have some bad days and I’m not totally 100 percent but this is the best I’ve felt in a long time. I’d like to be healed instantly and feel better immediately but nature doesn’t work that way. My journey to right all of the gluten wrongs will be a long one, but well worth it. Added bonus, I think I’m in the best physical shape of my life. I can feel my old self slowly coming back into form and that puts a big smile on my face. The dreaded bathroom mirror isn’t so scary anymore.

In fact, giving up gluten is actually the easy part in all of this. The worst part for me was figuring out what was causing my weird and unrelenting symptoms all of these years. A lot of my friends still think that this is all in my head. For a long time when I had symptoms, I doubt most people even noticed. The signs were so slight and seemed so harmless. But over time, they got worse and worse until I literally couldn’t stand to look at my own reflection.

If you’re on the fence about going gluten free, you must realize that it’s not a black and white thing. You may not have the tell-tale signs of Celiac. You don’t need a diagnosis to know you have a problem with it. Trust your instincts. Modern medicine is just scratching the surface on this. Do what you feel is best for your body. You can get better despite what some guy in a white lab coat tells you. It’s not impossible.

- Dave Barber

  • Jenny O

    Awesome Dave! Great to hear you are feeling better… keep on spreading the word! Hard to believe doctors STILL don’t know about gluten intolerance.

  • Sandra

    It is awesome how much better you do feel when you take control of your diet. Congratulations on feeling better and sticking with it :)

  • Dave Barber

    Thank you for reading, guys. Food truly is thy medicine. Keep checking us out for more stuff on whole foods living!

  • Christine

    Thanks for this. It’s so nice to reaffirm that I am not alone in my struggle to be well. Everyday I meet with ignorance from coworkers to sadly family. Wish I could move to Hawaii to live clean too :) keep writing!

  • Rachel

    Thanks so much. It is like I was reading an article about myself. I’ve been gf for 2 years and still itch. I had more tests done and also found I’m allergic to dairy. Joy. 2 whole food groups off limits now. It is a daily struggle and there is nothing I want to be more than just normal. It sucks knowing I have to change my whole life again, but it is good to have support like this and not feel alone.