Insomnia: A Sob Story (with Gluten?)

Yawwwwwwn. If I’ve seen you lately, I’ve probably graced you with one of those. It’s not that I’m bored or being rude. It’s just that sleep . . . hasn’t been happening lately.

I’ve written before about such light, possibly celiac-related topics as bloating and hair loss. After several low-sleep months, I felt it was time to address this new one. I’ve tried writing this post many times already but kept falling asleep in the middle of a

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just kidding. Honestly, if I could fall asleep so readily, I’d welcome it (and then complain about it). But, I can’t. So, with all of us alert, let’s talk insomnia.

In the past, I’ve occasionally gone up to a few days having trouble falling asleep. Lately, though, it’s been constant.

Insomnia, among other sleep disorders, is on the laundry list of conditions associated with celiac disease. Jane Anderson has written it up for About.com. That said, like bloating and hair loss, it’s also associated with a million other conditions and sometimes exists on its own. (The NIH can tell you all about it.)

So, where’d mine come from?

Because my insomnia started long after I went gluten-free, I have a feeling, for once, celiac’s not to blame. However, in the past, I did wonder if occasional insomnia meant I’d been glutened. (I’ve never “caught someone in the act” of glutening me, so it’s hard to be sure. Still, certain blech patterns appear.)

Thus, my first thought was: have I been eating something new and contaminated that I didn’t properly check? I don’t think so . . . though I did eat too much gluten-free junk this winter. A dietary spring cleaning is underway, and way needed.

Insomnia cookies

Not gluten-free. Probably for the best.
Photo © Robyn Lee | Flickr

My next thought was to blame a new medication. Insomnia’s not a known side effect, but I wouldn’t put it past my body to react in a unique, idiotic way. It’s slimly possible that the medication was contaminated; though I checked with the manufacturer, I received the standard “We can’t guarantee it” response, since they don’t test their final product. Having stopped taking it, I’m waiting for changes. So far, zilch.

Or maybe it’s stress? It is a possible trigger for roughly 75 percent of bad things. A colleague gave notice and I got promoted right around the time this started. Not bad, except that I feel even more buried than usual underneath a mound of work that never shrinks.

At night, as I try to make myself a willing vessel to oblivion, my mind jumps to multiple unchecked to-do list items. I’m not going to do any of them in the middle of the night, but I do shift position, refluff my pillow, and worry about it. (Mindfulness gurus would say to keep a notebook on my nightstand to jot these things down. Setting this up is something else I never manage to check off my list.)

Sprue Jr says labeling it “insomnia” is the problem: that by expecting it, I perpetuate it. But I disagree. It is . . . what it is. And insomnia by any other name would still suck.

While I’m not sure what is causing my insomnia, I can tell you one thing my insomnia has caused. Sleeplessness, you see, leads to bloglessness. For some time now, I’ve been down to one post a week. And it’s not for lack of ideas or time, I swear. It’s lack of sleep.

insomnia digital clock

Watching the clock is another insomnia no-no. Seriously. Don’t do it.
Photo © Fairy Heart | Flickr

Sleeplessness spawns laziness in more ways than one. It saps your energy, motivation, and attention. Sleep is incredibly (though still largely inexplicably) valuable to humankind’s ability to think, learn, and generally function.

Staying awake too late the night before encourages endless snoozing sessions (a horrible habit, and not actually restful at all, but tell that to my half-conscious brain) and skipped morning workouts. Bummer, because “regular exercise” is another top tip for insomnia prevention.

After feeling tired all day, it’s inescapably appealing to go to bed as early as possible. Plus, standard anti-insomnia advice preaches not to stare at backlit screens at night, so I’ve been trying to power down earlier, even if it means no post the next day—and even if I’m likely enough to simply lie in bed, unable to nod off, for hours, wishing I’d just stayed up to write.

Sluggishness and sleeplessness: two miserable conditions that reinforce one another nightly.

I’ve tried melatonin, chamomile tea, and valerian root, which I must tell you smells like death. None worked.

Still, I’m hopeful this’ll be the last time I complain to you about sleep. It’s spring: time for regeneration, spending time outdoors, being active, and maybe less stress at work. Somehow, I feel this must get better.

But for the time being, at least, my posts will continue to come about once a week, possibly sporadically, and I hope you’ll keep checking in despite that (subscribe, even—make my day!). At heart, this blog is about health; and right now, for me, that means getting back to zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

Do you struggle with insomnia, or have you ever? Does it seem to be linked to gluten? What works or doesn’t work for you? 

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Passover vs. Easter: A Gluten-Free Showdown

Much fuss is made about how gluten-free-friendly Passover is. Grain-free foods line the grocery shelves more at this than any other time of year. Macaroons and gluten-free matzo everywhere. It’s great.

But . . . the holiday story is all about bread. Sure, there’s some stuff about plague, tyrants, blood of lambs, eldest sons, escape from persecution, miraculous divisions of seas, and so forth, but at heart the holiday comes down to unleavened bread. And while, with its dry, crumbly, not-quite breadiness, matzo certainly calls to mind gluten-free bread, it does usually contain gluten—just no yeast, or enough time for gluten to do its thing (since, in the story, there was no time to wait for bread to rise before fleeing Egypt).

In fact, according to many authorities, matzo must be made from wheat, rye, barley, spelt, or oats, the “five grains” mentioned in the Torah, all of which contain gluten, besides oats (though that’s debatable). Some authorities don’t even believe gluten-free matzoh should be allowed at the Passover Seder! Not so friendly, after all.

Passover s'mores made with matzo

Pastel-colored matzo s’mores, though remarkable, are also not entirely canonical.
Photo © Jasmin Fine | Flickr

Easter, on the other hand—that’s a real gluten-free holiday, and I’ll tell you why: Jesus is well known to have been a big bread eater. He consumed so much of the stuff he actually considered his body to be made of it! The very night before his death, he broke bread with his disciples and told them he was giving it up. I won’t speculate on what symptoms may have led him to that decision, but no matter—it was too little, too late.

As the story goes, Jesus died because a bunch of angry people nailed him to a cross (and because it was foretold), not because he ate too much wheat. Fair. But then, after three days in a tomb with no bread, he regained his energy to the point that he actually came back to life! Miracle from god, or miraculous gluten detox?

Unfortunately, the moment the stone rolled back from his tomb, Jesus proved old habits die harder than deities’ sons. His proof to his disciples that it was really him, alive again, was, in fact, “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).

the Last Supper - Jesus breaking the bread

“Don’t eat it, Jesus! The doctor said…!”
Sigh. No one ever listens to the apostles.
Photo courtesy Waiting for the Word | Flickr

Soon enough, all that bread weakened Jesus again, enough that he had to be carried up to heaven, where he planned to sit (at his father’s right hand) for eternity. That sounds like some serious fatigue!

So you see, though manufacturers may not exactly be rushing to produce egg- and bunny-shaped Easter treats on separate lines the way they’ve stepped up to the Kosher for Passover plate, the Easter story is way more sprue. And as celiac celebs go, it doesn’t get much better than Jesus.

Naturally, the entire argument falls apart if you consider that the Easter story contains a commandment to eat bread in memory, just like the Passover story, and how unlikely it is that God would have sent his only son to Earth and then saddled him with a not-yet-discovered autoimmune disease. Classic literary criticism.

By the way, for anyone wondering—based on my reduced posting of late—whether I too have died, fear not: I live, and my posts shall come again next week, provided neither the Old nor the New Testament God smites me for blaspheming first. I know what you’re thinking, so I’ll say it for you: hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

Regardless of which holiday you’re celebrating this year, I hope it’s a happy one! And if you’re celebrating neither, I’d wish you a happy spring, except that here in New York, it too seems to have died. Here’s hoping for a speedy resurrection.

happy Easter to our Christian friends, happy Passover to our Jewish friends, to our atheist friends...good luck

Thank you, Marsmettn Tallahassee of Flickr. You’re too kind.

For more blasphemy from me, read this oldie but goodie about sin. Alternatively, for more on why Passover actually is pretty cool for those with GRDs, try this article or this list of products to try, or just Google “Passover gluten-free,” because, seriously, the entire Internet has something to say about it. 

Do you stock up on Kosher for Passover gluten-free products? Will you be celebrating with friends or family this weekend? And what, in your opinion, is the best gluten-free holiday?

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More on drugs: Big questions and non-answers about celiac disease medication development

My first post about Columbia’s celiac disease symposium was heavy on snacks, light on facts. That’s partly because, as I mentioned, many facts are undiscovered. But also, under the residual influence of my sugar high, I got a bit carried away and didn’t make space for what I did learn.

The comments on that post made it clear I’m not the only one interested in medicating my symptoms into oblivion, and just as clear that many have serious reservations about the idea. So, I thought I’d circle back to a few more questions about the celiac disease medication options being developed:

What non-drug options exist?

Many of us have ongoing symptoms. But that doesn’t mean we all have non-responsive celiac disease or the dreaded refractory CD, and it doesn’t mean we all need medication.

In some cases, symptoms are not due to celiac disease, but to coexisting autoimmune diseases or other conditions (e.g., small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or “leaky gut”). These conditions may have been triggered by your celiac disease, the trigger for your celiac disease, or just coincidence: a sign of your good luck. In any case, if you have another issue, you have to treat it; various options exist.

In other cases, modifying your diet even more can help. You may be inadvertently consuming gluten. You may have other sensitivities—most commonly lactose intolerance—or allergies. You may need to go low-FODMAP (more on that to come). And you need only glance at the “new and popular” gluten-free cookbooks on Amazon to see how many GF people are deciding to go paleo.

Interestingly, several bigwig doctors at the conference claimed to have no idea what paleo is. A fellow attendee asked about it, and they shrugged the whole thing off as a passing fad beneath their attention.

Banksy caveman with burger and soda

Banksy doesn’t know what paleo means, either. But he’s not my doctor.
Photo © Lord Jim | Flickr

As a vegetarian, I’m far from espousing the paleo diet, but I find the doctors’ cavalier attitude absurd, considering how many of their own patients must be going paleo, and the diet’s striking similarity to the “gluten contamination elimination diet” that has demonstrated success in one small study, in which over 80% of patients with ongoing symptoms became symptom-free.

Both diets require cutting out grains, legumes, and processed foods. What sets them apart is philosophy: paleo is about changing your diet for life, with the idea of eating the way we evolved to eat; the GCED is about restricting your diet for a limited time to target a specific issue. (In the study, many participants returned to a “standard” gluten-free diet after six months, without new symptoms.)

In my opinion, both diets, as well as their offshoots (e.g., The Wahls Protocolshould be of interest to doctors engaged in treating patients with non-responsive celiac disease. But at the conference, inexplicably, no one addressed them. So if you were wondering what we know about going grain-free, the answer may as well be nothing. 

Anyway. Back to drugs. Who needs them? 

Well, we can say who doesn’t: anyone without lingering symptoms, anyone with symptoms who has already found a solution, and anyone who feels the symptoms they have aren’t worth the trouble of taking a pill.

Even when drugs are available, it’ll be your right to be suspicious of them, and certainly your right not to take them. But consider this: the main arguments against taking medication are:

  • expense—but the gluten-free diet is expensive, too
  • hassle—but the gluten-free diet is a hassle, too
  • dependence—but we’re all dependent on the gluten-free diet already
  • side effects—but the diet has those, too:

As for medication side effects—who knows? But the drugs currently being developed are meant to target gluten, not the body, so their side effects may in fact be less severe than those of the diet. Not many things affect us on more sides than diet does.

For those of us who want them . . . when can we get them?

The panel of reps from Glutenase, Larazotide, and Immusan-T, gave some very slippery answers to this question: “no way to know”; “too many variables”; “developing a drug is a marathon”; and so on.

The moderator, much to his credit, insisted on pinning them down: “Assuming things go reasonably—not miraculously—according to plan, when can we expect these drugs to hit the market?”

One drug representative gave a very flip answer to this question (perhaps indicating a lack of confidence in his ability to answer it). Another seized this opportunity to lean forward and intone, directly into the mic, “Three years.” That set the bar: the other two grudgingly agreed that three to five years should do it.

That’s not so far off (!), but we do have some time to decide whether we want to take medication in addition to our diet.

Why not talk about it now? What worries you about drugs? What doesn’t? What else have you tried or are you thinking of trying? And why don’t docs care about cavemen?

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