Adapting to a gluten-free diet

AUBURN — There’s nothing like enjoying a tasty coney dog, hamburger or slice of pizza until you discover you can’t swallow.

While 2020 is a year many of us would like to forget, it’s been a blessing for me in some ways because I no longer have issues swallowing food.

To get to this point, I have been to the emergency room, a gastroenterologist and an allergist-immunologist to try and determine the source of my issues.

The picture has become a little clearer. Some dietary adjustments mean I no longer eat traditional hamburgers or pizza, but I can still eat those foods by eliminating the gluten in the buns or crust.

Swallowing issues

Before my dietary changes, sometimes while attempting to swallow food, I could feel my esophagus cinch up or close, almost like a clenching fist.

I could always breathe. I simply couldn’t swallow.

The only remedies I could find were to slowly walk around in hopes of the muscle relaxing and allowing the food to go down or expel it.

Sometimes the first option worked. When it didn’t, sometimes, the other option resulted in not being able to stop the expelling mechanism, leading to dry heaves and the cinched feeling in my esophagus.

The first time this happened, I was able to go to the hospital’s walk-in clinic for a shot to relax the muscle. The second time, I had to go to the emergency room because the walk-in clinic was closed.

The emergency room was an experience — being hooked up to a bunch of machines to make sure I wasn’t having other issues.

Fortunately, there were none, but that experience convinced me it was time to do something about the situation.

My history

The first time I can remember having issues swallowing food was about 10 years ago while driving to LaGrange for a football game. I had stopped off at a fast-food place to grab a quick bite as I drove to the game.

Out of habit, I almost never eat while driving — mostly out of fear of dropping or spilling food. On this occasion, a bite of my hamburger got caught and wouldn’t go down. I had to pull off to the side of the road until it came up.

There have been many other occasions where I would have to excuse myself from the table to walk about or go to the restroom in hopes the muscle would relax. If it didn’t, it would come back up.

Gluten-free path

After my ER visit, I went to my family doctor, who referred me to a gastroenterologist.

In the last nine months, I have undergone three endoscopy procedures — in which a doctor inserts a tube down the esophagus to examine the upper digestive tract.

At my initial visit in March, my doctor observed inflammation throughout the tract, but fortunately, there were no signs of blockages, strictures, ulcers, precancerous abnormalities or celiac disease.

He prescribed a medication to reduce stomach acid. Acid reflux is something I can remember having maybe as early as 10 years old or earlier.

My second endoscopy took place in July. The doctor was pleased with the progress, noting that the inflammation had greatly subsided.

At this point, he recommended that I begin a gluten-free diet and see an allergist to determine if other factors were at play.

A gluten-free diet means I don’t eat anything that has wheat as an ingredient. I have also limited the amount of dairy and altering the type of milk and cheese I consume.

Gluten is a protein found in most grains, including bread, cereal, pasta and baked goods. It can also show up in soups, sauces, salad dressings, and even prepackaged lunch meat.

Over two visits to the allergist, I received approximately 80 pinpricks on my back and arms, testing for a wide range of allergens. I was told I was allergic to just about everything, but not to any foods.

I was prescribed an allergy medication. I take the acid-reducing tablet twice each day and the allergy pill every night.

My third endoscopy followed in September, with all signs of the inflammation gone. Following my doctor’s advice, however, I continue the gluten-free diet.

Adapting to change

My beautiful wife does the grocery shopping, and knows to carefully read package labels. She has downloaded and shared with me several mobile phone apps that read a package’s bar code to determine if the product contains gluten or dairy.

In addition, she has joined a Facebook group, “Gluten & Dairy Free Lifestyle” that offers tips on gluten- and dairy-free recipes.

We have baked gluten-free bread together. That’s an accomplishment for me, since my cooking skills were largely limited to eggs, TV dinners and frozen pizza before we were married. Going gluten-free applies to all of us in the house — me, my wife and daughter.

My wife and daughter have found pretzels without gluten, as well as substitutes for sandwich cookies and chocolate-covered candies.

Most grocery stores have sections for special diets, and specialty stores are valuable sources for these needs as well.

Many dining establishments offer gluten-free meal options, not just salads. Some fast-food places even have gluten-free hamburger buns upon request. Several pizza places offer gluten-free or keto crusts.

Like marriage, adapting to a gluten-free diet has been a journey for all of us, but it’s one that I feel better about, especially knowing I don’t have to worry about swallowing.