Celiac.com 03/11/2009 - I recently had an unfortunate health experience related to celiac disease.  I learned long ago that it’s my responsibility to manage my own health, so I came up with a strategy that was successful.  Along the way, I also learned some important information that really helped me understand the problem and the eventual solution.  Perhaps this information will help you avoid a similar health crisis.  I’ve included links that can give you additional information.  Disclaimer: I’m not a medical doctor.  This is information that I have gathered based on my own experiences and research.

Celiac Disease

I have celiac disease. I manage it quite well through my diet.  However, if I ingest anything with gluten, for instance a wayward crouton in a restaurant salad, I have a severe reaction that starts within five minutes.  All or some of the following will occur: hives from head to toe, stomach cramps, uncontrollable diarrhea, vomiting, asthma, severe lethargy.  I fall into an uncontrollable sleep that takes about four hours to run its course.  Needless to say, I avoid gluten at all costs.

A Bit of History

Although I am a remarkable person (like all of us), my health history has been quite unremarkable.  Nothing was ever wrong with me and I wasn’t allergic to anything.  I can count on one hand how many times I’ve taken antibiotics in my entire life.  In the past 30+ years, I never went to the doctor for an illness.  I’ve had colds, various and sundry viruses and infections, but they ran their course with slowing down, plenty of rest and fluids.  I believe that the primary strategy should be to give your body the time to heal itself first, and if that fails look for an alternative strategy from your doctor.

Imagine my surprise when about six years ago the symptoms of celiac disease manifested themselves.  (Note: I was going through an acute stressful time in my life when this occurred.)  Along the way, other unexpected food allergies have presented themselves as well.

One of my favorite foods was peanut butter.  Since I was a little girl, I loved feasting on “peanut butter on spoon”.  Out of the blue one day, a typical teaspoon of one of my favorite foods sent me into an anaphylactic reaction.  And then a few months after that incident, a bite of a granola bar with cashews sent me on my first ambulance ride with a rapidly constricting throat to the emergency ward.  My favorite food is now a deadly poison.

I’ve had mild intestinal reactions to all vinegars and vinegar products (a little balsamic is OK), more than three glasses of red wine (not white wine or champagne), milk and cream (not cheese, thank the Universe!).  I’ve also realized that I’m thirsty all the time.  It seems that no matter how much water I drink, I can’t seem to quench my thirst.  I even sleep with water next to my bed and drink several glasses throughout the night and still wake up thirsty.  The water goes right through me and doesn’t seem to be absorbed.  (I have recently been prodded, poked, examined and tested by a battery of doctors as a result of my once in 50-year checkup and they all agree that I’m the picture of health.)

Both my mom and my grandmother suffered from asthma; my grandmother dealt with it her whole life.  When I have an asthmatic reaction, my wheezing and coughing sound just like theirs!  I remembered them being armed with their inhalers and their steroids at all times.  I also remembered that these medical weapons didn’t stop the asthma attacks or the wheezing or uncontrollable coughing.  They only dealt with the symptoms, not the underlying problem.  Mom’s asthma went away when she started eating a gluten free diet.

The Incident

So I’ve come to enjoy cooking.  Regardless of the disastrous results of my past cooking experiences well documented by my children, close friends and family, this new hobby relaxes me at the end of the day, is creative, saves money and insures a truly gluten and allergy free diet.

I recently made a delicious French Onion and Ham Cream Soup.  It was inspired by some wonderful French spices I bought from Penzey Spices.  I made a big pot of the soup and had it for different meals throughout the week.  I didn’t notice at the time an increased feeling of lethargy, intestinal rumblings and increased thirst that got progressively worse through the week.

And then it happened.  About five minutes after devouring the last of my delectable French Onion and Ham Cream Soup, the tell-tale signs of an oncoming asthma attack occurred: mucous pouring into my lungs, wheezing, airways closing up, unrelenting coughing.

In addition, I had horrible abdominal cramping.  I was tremendously thirsty, but the water just seemed to go through me and make me even thirstier.  At about 4:00 am just as I was about to get myself to the hospital, I started to slowly stabilize, meaning I wasn’t getting worse.

I slept for a little bit, then woke up coughing uncontrollably.  My throat was so parched it felt like sandpaper.  I dragged myself through a day of work exhausted, not being able to really get a good breath and feeling so very thirsty.

That night I literally coughed all night long sitting straight up in a chair; I couldn’t lie down because of the coughing.  I couldn’t go to work the next day.  I needed to discover why this happened, how I can prevent it from happening again and implement an immediate strategy for managing this health crisis.

Hypothesis

I realized there was a relationship between several factors: celiac disease, since I had no allergies until it manifested itself; cow’s milk, which I knew was a highly allergic food; asthma, as the allergic reaction, and dehydration, because of the incessant thirst.  By understanding how all of these factors related to each other, I thought I could figure out a strategy to 1) get myself into a healthy state quickly and 2) prevent this health crisis from happening again. (Even thought I knew this was an asthma attack, I wanted to make doubly sure it wasn’t pneumonia or something similar.  I had no fever, chills, aches or pains, headache, or upper respiratory infection.  I was fine one minute and not fine the next.)

Research

Asthma is a disease in which inflammation of the airways causes airflow into and out of the lungs to be restricted.  When an asthma attack occurs, mucus production is increased, muscles of the bronchial tree become tight, and the lining of the air passages swells, reducing airflow and producing the characteristic wheezing and coughing.  Asthma symptoms are usually worse at night.

There is high correlation between people who have celiac disease and people who have sensitivities to proteins found in cow's milk.  Milk is one of the most common food allergens in the American diet.  And most cows eat a lot of grain and perhaps there’s a link here.  Milk allergy symptoms can occur within minutes or hours after consuming the dairy product.  They can be triggered by a very small amount of milk protein in the system. 

There is also a relationship between celiac disease, asthma and dehydration.  People with celiac disease are often very thirsty even after drinking lots of water.  And so are people with asthma.  If fact, many doctors now think that asthma is a symptom of the body managing its water supply.

This is how it works…

Water is needed for every function of the body. Our bodies are 75% water and our brains are 85% water.  Because of the water used in breathing, digestion, enzyme and hormone production, immune function, toxin removal and so on, we need to replace that water frequently throughout the day or our health will suffer.

When we start to dehydrate, histamine production increases to conserve water in our bodies. 

This is vital since our lungs must remain moist to work properly.  Excess histamine, a defense against losing more water, makes it difficult to breath and triggers an asthma attack.  Histamine also stimulates mucous production to help seal in moisture, but that also leads to increased breathing difficulties.  Histamines are also important for immune function, but during dehydration they are mostly used to look for water.  If dehydration becomes chronic, the immune system will suffer; allergies, both inhalant and food allergies, will result because histamine is important for the proper balance of Tcells, antibodies and so on.

Elevated histamine in the lungs causes the spasm of the bronchioles.  This conserves moisture that would normally be lost during breathing.  The mucus that clogs up the airways is the body’s attempt to keep the airways from completely drying out.  Inflammation in the airways is the result of the body bringing more “micro-circulation” to the lungs as a result of dehydration.

Common problem foods for people with asthma are dairy and gluten.  Both are very hard to digest and require a lot of water to break down.  If there is not enough water in the digestive tract when food is taken in, water will be pulled from other parts of the body and localized dehydration will result.  This can lead to asthma, among other problems.

Allergy symptoms of any kind are a sign that we need to drink more water.  Antihistamines and most medicines, either directly or indirectly, actually are counterproductive for the body because they further dehydrate the body and shut off the body’s search for water.  Pain, inflammation and digestive problems are also typically signs of dehydration.  Dehydration is a common cause of migraines, for example. 

And then I unexpectedly learned about salt…

Salt is the other half of the hydration equation.  Salt is vital for the generation of hydroelectric energy and transmission of nerve impulses in all the cells.  Salt acts as a natural antihistamine through salt-sensing nerves on the tongue and plays a major role in regulating water.  Without enough salt, water is not absorbed.

My Strategy

The first step was to get myself in a healthy state.  My re-hydration plans included continually drinking filtered water even through the night, teaspoons of honey to soothe my raw throat when needed and pinches of pink Australian sea salt (a Christmas gift from my wonderful mom) on my tongue throughout the day and night when I felt I needed it, although any sea salt would do.  I also had vegetable juice and fruit juice for additional fluids.

I noticed the salt working in a couple of hours.  I was beginning to absorb the water (I didn’t have to pee every time I drank some water).  It took about two days before the thirst went away.  It was great waking up without a parched throat.  The coughing was still uncontrollable, especially at night, but instead of a constant, non-productive coughing and horrible wheezing, the mucus was beginning to become looser.  It took another three nights before I could sleep lying down, but the mucus had really broken up.  The coughing was actually allowing the mucus to get out of my lungs.  It took about six days to feel like myself again.  I did gain about five pounds.  But I lost it quickly and it was fat lost, not precious water.  Besides, there’s nothing glamorous about walking around in a dehydrated, sickly state.

The second step is to not let this happen again.  I’m now drinking no less than 10 eight-ounce glasses of water every day with a pinch of salt on my tongue if I feel I need it.  I need about ¼ teaspoon of salt for every quart of water I drink.  After a lifetime of poor medical advice, I now know that salt is my friend.  If I drink coffee or wine or if I get the nutty idea to exercise, I have to drink more water.  And no more milk and cream - at least until I’m stabilized for awhile.

If I feel an asthma attack coming on, the best treatment is to drink 2-3 cups of water and put a pinch of sea salt on my tongue.  This will provide my body with the water it needs and the salt will send a signal to my brain to relax the bronchioles by letting it know relief is coming. 

Conclusion

As difficult as this last health adventure was, I learned something that has changed the way I feel and has optimized my health.  I found the root of the problem and fixed it instead of following mainstream medical thinking and putting a band aid on the symptoms.  It’s really scary when it feels like your body is turning on you, and very empowering when you use science and knowledge to get yourself back.  I’ve always said when it comes to business, “the market speaks, just listen.”  I now need to take that advice for myself.  My body speaks; I just have to listen!

As always, Celiac.com welcomes your comments (see below).