June is Alzheimer's and Brain Health Awareness month. As someone whose family has been touched by this disease again and again, brain health is something that matters a whole lot to me.
So when I started having blurry vision and mild headaches in my early twenties, I knew that I needed to deal with it. My usual tendency to minimize problems was overridden by my fierce determination to be in control of my own health.
Random Problems Turned Out to Be Symptoms
When I noticed that I was having headaches pretty frequently, I assumed it was caffeine-related. They came on almost always after lunch, and since I was avoiding afternoon coffee, I thought my body was just crying for a latte. Imagine.
I was achy, too. All of my joints hurt and exercise made it worse. But I was chasing a toddler all day, so that was probably the cause.
Worst of all, I was exhausted. Not just a little tired, but flat out unable to function by the afternoon. I took a nap every day with my kids instead of enjoying some quiet time. I gave up writing because I just didn't have the energy. I was terrified that my body (or my life) would never bounce back from that second baby.
And being tired all the time just made me sad. I was sad that I couldn't write anymore. I was sad that I yelled at my kids. I was sad that I couldn't take them to the park or the museum without worrying about a headache or tired eyes or a hurting back. I was sad that I was sad.
Maybe all of those symptoms wouldn't have struck me as odd if I was in my forties. But I was 23. I had never had a health problem in my life.
So why in the world did I feel so terrible all the time?
I had no idea that food could make you so sick.
I was walking through the grocery store when I felt the headache coming on.
If I can just grab these last few things and get to the car, I'll be okay.
I had started to dread going out because I never knew when a headache might start and it almost always came with blurry vision and the overwhelming need for a nap. But we were out of diapers and coffee, so this trip was a necessity.
I was hurrying through my shopping list and my head was hurting worse. The usual fog was clouding my vision. My heart was pounding because I hate feeling sick in public.
I was on the way to checkout when the store started spinning. I gripped the handle of the shopping cart and willed my feet to keep going.
But then everything in my peripheral vision went black and I couldn't keep walking. I was too dizzy, too tired, too worried about what this all meant.
After handing the baby off to my husband and doing my best to pretend that I was fine, my vision came back and I rushed through paying for our groceries.
By the time we got home, my entire chest was covered in hives.
I was only about two weeks post-partum, so I called my midwife thinking that this was somehow related to my daughter's birth.
I explained everything that had been going on (trying to sound low-key, of course): headaches, feeling tired, a little achy, occasional blurry vision, and now these crazy hives.
I knew that she was going to tell me I wasn't drinking enough water or that of course you feel terrible, your body just went through childbirth.
But that's not what she said. Instead, she asked if I was allergic to any foods.
Our bellies are connected to our brains, apparently.
After determining that I was likely reacting to gluten (my mom is allergic, too), I eliminated it from my diet. Within 24 hours, I was feeling darn near normal again and by day seven, I had forgotten what those headaches felt like.
I was relieved – I wasn’t dying after all.
But it didn’t take long for me to turn to Google. Why did this happen to me? Would it ever go away? CAN I EVER EAT BREAD AGAIN?
(Short answer: I don’t even want to).
What I learned was that gluten sensitivity is becoming ridiculously common, and tons of people don’t even know they have it, since the list of symptoms covers everything from bloating to acne. Sounds conclusive, right?
But what really stuck out to me is the growing body of research that highlights a connection between belly problems and brain problems.
In his best-selling book Grain Brain, Dr. David Perlmutter writes,
“We’re going to explore what happens when the brain is bombarded by carbohydrates, many of which are packed with inflammatory ingredients like gluten that can irritate your nervous system. The damage can begin with daily nuisances like headaches and unexplained anxiety and progress to more sinister disorders such as depression and dementia.”
So Here’s How I’m Protecting My Brain (And My Belly)
- Obviously, I don’t eat gluten. (I don’t have any secret tricks on how to resist the pull of Texas Roadhouse rolls. It makes me sick enough that I’m not even tempted).
- For the most part, I don’t eat gluten replacements, either. I really try to avoid grains altogether and eat more vegetables instead. I know, I know.
- I eat fermented foods like kombucha and sauerkraut. (Officially a dirty hippie).
- I take digestive enzymes and SuperB vitamins and I drink Ningxia every day. (Super grateful for my YL membership here. Get you one of those!)
- I use essential oils for emotional support. (Since the gut-brain connection goes both ways, supporting your emotional health can help heal your digestive issues, as well).