My Gluten Story: gluten, fertility, and hypothyroidism
I am often asked when/why I decided to go gluten-free. It's a somewhat personal subject for me, as it relates to my trying-to-conceive journey, so I wasn't sure whether to post about it. However, I believe in sharing information and that open communication about difficult subjects brings people together and can potentially lead to an easier path for others, so this is the spirit in which I am sharing. If it's TMI for you, just go ahead and skip this post.
After 6 months being BC-free (after several years on hormonal BC), my menstrual cycles had not regulated. I was having 40-60 day cycles, which is not good for trying to conceive. I spoke with my then-OB/GYN, who had me come in for an appointment and did blood work. She hastily diagnosed me with PCOS (which later was determined to be moronic by two other medical professionals) and told me that I needed fertility meds. She insisted that meds were the only way I was going to get pregnant and the only way to regulate my cycles. I found this hard to believe, given the sensitivity of the menstrual cycle, and decided to seek a second opinion. My instinct was that most mainstream docs would jump on the medication bandwagon given the current state of our health care system, so I opted to seek the opinion of a naturopathic doctor.
My ND spent 90 minutes with me at my first appointment. She did a thorough case history and really listened to me. She examined the bloodwork I had had done and ordered more of her own. She discovered that I had an underactive thyroid, specifically Hashimoto's hypothyroid. My mother and grandmother both have hypothyroidism, so I'm not sure why the OB missed the mark on this, but my ND prescribed a combination of homeopathics, glandulars, natural remedies, and natural thyroid supplements (porcine thyroid). In addition, she recommended that I go gluten-free and cut out sugar and caffeine. My T3, T4, and TSH numbers showed that I had an under-active thyroid, but it was important to also test for thyroid antibodies. The presence of antibodies in my blood was what led her to diagnose the specific type of hypothyroidism, as being an autoimmune type. In essence, my body sees my thyroid as an invader and has produced antibodies to attack it, which causes it to under-perform. She claimed that going gluten-free is an important component to any treatment plan for underactive thyroid, but it is particularly important for the autoimmune type. She also recommends going gluten-free if you are planning to get pregnant (something about being an anti-inflammatory diet). So basically, cutting out gluten was important for me and my treatment goals on multiple fronts.
It took a few months to get the bloodwork completed and get my treatment plan worked out, but I was able to conceive naturally after about 4-5 months in the care of my ND, and about 3 months after regulating my cycles. Here is a timeline:
Feb 2009 cease BC
Sept 2009 visit to OB
Oct 2009 OB told me to go on meds and said I couldn't conceive naturally
Nov 2009 1st visit to ND, started supplements/homeopathics/etc, immediately had 1 normal-length cycle
Dec 2009 1 long cycle
Jan 1, 2010 Gluten-free
Jan 2010 cycles regulated
Feb 2010 started porcine thyroid, cut out caffeine & refined sugar
Mar 2010 started Circle + Bloom
Apr 2010 conceived
Fourteen months in all, which isn't terribly long in the large scheme of things, but longer than I had wanted/expected.
I did add sugar back in shortly after I conceived (I unfortunately have such a sweet tooth!) and I started drinking small amounts of caffeine about 2 months after I gave birth. I was a little bit concerned about some of the alternative sweeteners (i.e. stevia, zsweet, etc. I'm not talking about things like nutra sweet, aspartame and splenda–I have never really consumed those) during pregnancy, so I figured I would just go ahead and eat sugar and not worry about it. I am toying with the idea of cutting out sugar again now, or at least limiting it.
When I had my antibodies checked in summer 2010, they were within the normal range, which means that my body had responded so well to the natural treatments I was under that I seemed to be almost healed. I still have Hashimoto's hypothyroid, but I hope at some point (i.e. when I'm finished having babies and breastfeeding) to manage it with diet and supplements and not have to take the porcine thyroid.
Going off gluten seemed like a daunting and monumental change when I was first faced with it. All I could do was think about all of the foods I wouldn't be able to eat. However, looking back now, I really don't feel deprived at all, and I feel so much better in so many ways. I have found excellent substitutes for everything I could possibly want with the exception of Guinness. Here are some of the other positive outcomes besides sweet Penelope!
- I used to have terrible stomachaches and diarrhea all the time. It didn't matter what I ate–it seemed like I felt sick after every meal. Since going off of gluten (and eating natural/whole foods, which is a whole 'nother post!), I have had virtually NONE of these problems. This was an experience where I didn't realize how sick I was until I was healed. I think when you live in this state, you just think it's normal, but I was not living my best life, and only now do I realize how unhealthy I was.
- I have more energy.
- I used to have what I thought were allergies (itchy throat), but I now think was related to gluten, as this has gone away.
- I used to get colds every couple months, and I have only been sick once since going GF (that was right after returning from a 2-week trip abroad while pregnant...jet lag?). This is particularly astonishing, as the immune system is depressed during pregnancy and I was working with school kids.
- My hair and nails are stronger, healthier, and they grow faster. My hair is also shinier.
- I have not had a single skin breakout since going GF, and I do nothing except wash it with soap and moisturize.
- My legs used to itch all the time, especially after shaving/showering, but this has gone away.
If you're thinking about going GF, a lot of people will say to try it for a week. My advice is to eat lots and lots of gluten for a week first and see how crappy you feel. THEN, try going GF. It can take up to 3 months to clear it from your system, so I recommend trying it for 3-4 months if you're going to go for it. But there's no harm in starting with a week. Honestly, if you cook at home and eat natural, whole foods, it's really, really easy to cut out gluten. You'll basically just have to buy an alternative flour for cooking/baking and you'll need to change to GF bread and maybe a handful of other things (soy sauce, beer, etc).
One other take away message relates to the BC pill. I think there is a lot about the pill that is unknown, and I also think it's really hard to predict whether it will take a long time for your cycles to come back or not. Some people have no trouble bouncing back, and it takes a long time for others. If you're thinking about TTCing, I recommend going off of the pill for a full year beforehand and using a non-hormonal BC. It is very stressful when you want to become pregnant and have trouble, and getting your body ready well beforehand can do a lot to ease that difficulty. Taking Charge of Your Fertility (Toni Wechsler) is a great resource for natural birth control methods, which can be used in conjunction with barrier contraceptives to prevent pregnancy without interfering with your body or compromising your fertility. I think that book should be required reading for every woman.
I'm willing to field questions on this topic, so ask away!