This was a particularly tough weekend for me because I got accidental gluten contamination on Friday. I always know almost immediately – certainly within the hour – when I’ve messed up. Individuals with celiac disease get various symptoms if they are exposed to gluten after adopting a gluten-free diet. Some possible symptoms include bad stomach aches (you know what that means!), headaches, joint pain, extreme fatigue, rash (called dermatitis herpetiformis), insomnia, brain fog among other things. Sounds fun, right? I get a very sudden and severe headache, followed by fevers, unbearable joint pain, and about a day later I get a rash, all of course, while battling digestion wars.
This round was particularly tough. I got some accidental cracker crumbs on some vegetables I cut up on my counter (I live in a home that is not gluten-free – only I am). I read some research that it only takes 1/16th of a thumbnail of a gluten-containing product for someone with celiac to have gut damage for up to six weeks. Celiac is an autoimmune disease so that with gluten ingestion, the body starts attacking its own healthy cells, particularly along the gastrointestinal tract. Villi (the absorptive finger-like structures that line the GI tract) get flattened, which essentially mean they no longer help the body absorb the nutrients that are being ingested.
I usually get fevers, a relentless headache, and a rash for a week or so. The joint pain and fatigue lingers for a couple of weeks, and it takes several weeks to get my stomach back to normal. My headache and the joint pain are really the worst, the latter especially as a runner. I lose significant joint mobility and have unforgiving throbbing that won’t cease. Some times you can literally watch my knees throb as my blood pumps through: red, white, red, white. It’s like a low-budget circus act! Trying to run is like what I imagine it would be like for the Tin Man on “The Wizard of Oz” to run. Sometimes my joints even lock up so I basically fall over because they won’t bend when I expect them to.
Now it is about 72-hours since the gluten exposure. I still have a headache but my fever is gone. My joints, although painful, are less stiff so at least I can move better.
The real consequence is that when the villi get destroyed, we stop absorbing nutrients. This of course, is also really bad for a distance runner, especially when you already have a nutrient-compromised diet like mine, that is very limited due to so many allergies. The moral of the story? Always be incredibly careful when you have celiac disease when preparing your food. Even if the food is gluten-free, make sure it stays clean, uncontaminated, and is prepared in a safe way.