It happens. You’re super gluten sensitive and have been diligent about staying gluten free for months now. But within an hour of dinner on Thanksgiving, at that birthday party, or at that restaurant with friends you start to feel sleepy. Your joints start to ache. You almost feel like you’re coming down with the flu. You feel rumblings – or even pain – in your belly if you also have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). And it dawns on you — you just “got glutened.”
This just happened to a patient of mine. She'd been struggling with severe IBS for years. After taking gluten, and dairy, to which she also is sensitive, out of her diet, she had a near miraculous turn-around in her symptoms. In just a few short weeks no more of the diarrhea that dictated her personal and social life. The severe abdominal pain was completely gone. Her previously bloated belly became flat again. And on top of it, she hadn't had a single bout of the acid reflux that also had been bothering her for years. Along with all of these improvements, her anxiety, which had been a 10 on her personal “Richter scale” has become a manageable 4.
Then it happened. Dinner with friends at a restaurant. Within an hour, she was once again experiencing some of those old symptoms. “Uh oh. Where's the bathroom?,” she thought. Her anxiety shot through the roof. Then she started feeling “drugged” — just exhausted beyond belief. And her joints started aching. She excused herself, went home and slept for nearly 12 hours. Over the next few days her symptoms gradually subsided. “I’d been glutened,” she told me at her appointment. Fortunately, she is again largely symptom free.
If you're gluten free, then you know how hard it is to be 100% sure of the foods you're eating out. And if you're super gluten sensitive, even a little exposure can be a big trigger. Patients often tell me they've gotten glutened. So here's how I tell them to be prepared!
What To Do If You Get Glutened
While there’s no hard evidence for how to deal with what I call “gluten intoxication,” here’s what I recommend to my patients to help prevent — and quickly recover from a gluten exposure that re-triggers gluten-related symptoms:
- Always carry a few capsules of betaine HCL and digestive enzymes with you. An empty Altoids or Newman’s mints tin works wonders for stashing a few supplements in pretty much any handbag or backpack. If you are eating out, take 2 of each at the start of your meal for some extra “gluten protection insurance.” Between these supplements there’s a better chance of breaking down some of the offending proteins that my inadvertently find their way into your food.
- Also carry a few quercetin capsules with you. Quercetin is a bioflavonoid that gives onion skins their yellow color and is what is in apples that keeps the doctor away. It is a natural antihistamine – but it doesn’t make you sleepy at all. It is an excellent quick response to the inflammation and histamine reaction that can make you feel tired, drugged, and anxious after a gluten exposure. The dose is 250 mg up to 3 times daily. An alternate option is a combination of Quercetin and Freeze Dried Stinging Nettles – several companies make combined preparations. Nettles is a common herb that is safe enough that it can even be eaten as a steamed green vegetable – and like quercetin, is a non-sedating antihistamine. Take as directed on the product you purchase, usually 2-3 capsules, 2-3 times/day. Of note, both are safe while breastfeeding, but quercetin is not for use during pregnancy.
- Take a probiotic as soon as you can after the exposure and 1-2 times daily for a few consecutive days after.
- Have Digestive Bitters on hand at home or in your bag (they usually come as a liquid, but you can easily keep a 1 oz. dropper-bottle in your bag). Herb Pharm, Gaia Herbs, and Urban Moonshine all make excellent bitters products. The dose is 1-2 dropperfuls in water with or just after your meal, and then repeat 1-3 times daily. Not all bitters products are safe during pregnancy so check with your midwife or doc before taking.
- Take 600 mg of NAC (n-acetylcysteine) 2-3 times/day for extra detox support for a few days after your exposure. It is also a natural anti-inflammatory supplement.
- Eat light and well for the rest of that day and the next – focus on vegetable broth, steamed vegetables, and fresh vegetable juice to ease the detoxification burden on your body.
Go back to your gluten free lifestyle, of course, and then check in with your integrative or functional doc about what to do next if you still feel crummy. Or see this article for steps on healing your gut if symptoms are lingering or you feel you’ve taken a few steps backward in your symptoms. If symptoms are significant, new, or persistent, also consult with your primary doc to make sure it’s not something more than the gluten exposure that’s causing the problem.