83. Listening to My Body

83. Listening to My Body

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You

Listening to My Body

Sometimes your body is smarter than you are.
 ~Author Unknown

Recently while hiking in the Austrian Alps, I misread the signs and ended up taking a trail that grew more and more challenging, eventually becoming so steep that my body couldn’t go any farther. It simply gave up. Exhausted and lost, with crumbling scree beneath me and slippery rocks above, my body forced me to accept the fact that I was on the wrong path.

Hanging there, clutching a few slick blades of grass and loose rocks that no wise man would have built a house on, I had a few minutes to think about another time when my body had given up on me.

It all started 15 years ago when I moved from my hometown in Tennessee to the home of bread and beer: Munich, Germany. My life was about to take a turn, and not for the better. At first I was overwhelmed by the adventure of it all: a new country, a new job, a new relationship, new pain.

Yes, pain. The second I got off the plane in Munich, I was introduced to delicious, dark bread and German beer—which the Bavarians call “liquid bread”—and I enthusiastically took up the tradition of eating a pretzel with cold butter each morning. I also got my fork into a few Semmelknödel, an unimpressive, soggy ball of boiled bread (but it sure was good for sopping up tasty gravy). The food was really great, but slowly my body began to sense that something was really wrong.

It took me, at least the thinking part of me, five more years to understand what was happening. In my defense, I didn’t notice overnight that I was climbing up the wrong path. My diet in Nashville had rarely included bread or pretzels or anything spelled with an umlaut. I didn’t like beer, and I’d even had the good sense to stop eating pasta 20 years ago when I realized it caused bloating. In the years before I moved to Munich, I’d had bread on occasion, so I’d been experiencing minor intestinal worries off and on for quite some time. Also in my defense, I’m afraid of doctors—which, admittedly, is more of a cop-out than a defense.

In 2001, my body was in such bad shape that it needed a doctor. I had shingles—at the age of thirty-seven. My immune system was exhausted. My body simply couldn’t continue on the same path. It was time to face facts, but first I had to find them. I typed my symptoms—fatigue, joint pain, nausea, regular intestinal irregularity, bloating, and irritability, among a few others—into as many Internet search engines as I could find. This was very helpful. As it turned out, it seemed I had my pick of every trendy ailment in the book, from fibromyalgia to mad cow disease.

One search result, however, kept rearing its glutenous head: an intolerance to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and possibly oats. Remembering my bout with pasta 20 years ago, I said to my body, “Ah-ha!” and went on a gluten-free diet. (If you suspect gluten or celiac disease might be your problem but you love Italian food, you’ll want to be 100 percent sure before you change your life. Go to your doctor and ask to be tested.)

The diet was no walk in the park at first. I had to start by figuring out what all those letters and numbers on labels stand for. Who knows what lurks behind those E541-like abbreviations anyway? I do. . . now. A man obsessed, I refused to eat anything with even a trace of gluten in it.

Dinner invitations posed a minor problem—“minor” only because I don’t have many friends who’d invite me to dinner. The long-suffering saints who did invite me, however, were eager to support me in my experiment. Yet even after my fascinating, two-hour lecture on the benefits of a gluten-free diet—in which I explained repeatedly that gluten is found only in wheat, barley, rye and maybe oats—one friend still asked, “Can you eat rice?”

“Well, yes,” I said with a straight face, “if it’s the kind of rice that doesn’t have wheat, barley, rye or maybe oats in it.”

“Good point! Let me check the label,” she said and trotted off to the kitchen.

During dinner, the same person kept passing me the breadbasket and squinting maliciously. I know she was trying to poison me. I couldn’t blame her: I had asked her to check the label on the potatoes after she checked the rice. Everyone else at the table thought it was funny. The point is, most people don’t know what to do with the word “gluten.” It sounds as if it should be in sticky rice and Elmer’s glue, which I haven’t eaten since second grade.

Bread, liquid and solid, was not easy to give up in a city with a bakery on every corner and a brewery in between. Still, I persisted in turning my diet around. Since moving to Munich, I hadn’t had my mother’s cornbread, so I called home for the recipe I was raised on. I discovered an organic bakery in Munich that bakes gluten-free breads from amaranth, quinoa and rice. The only friend I mourned was my daily pretzel with cold butter. Thinking now about a Butterbrez’n makes my mouth—and eyes—water.

After a grueling three months of careful label reading and boring my friends to death with the latest in gluten-free trivia, my body and the thinking part of me had another “Ah-ha!” moment. We were symptom-free. The intestinal worries had stopped almost immediately. I no longer felt as if someone had blown up my belly with a bicycle pump. My morning nausea had vanished with the Butterbrez’n. I dropped 10 pounds once I dropped the beer. My joints had stopped hurting. Granted, I was still irritable, but that’s just me.

Today, I’m so grateful to finally know what was causing my health problems. I’ve been on a gluten-free path for years now. Of course, I might have avoided the pain of shingles if I had read the signs correctly that my body already understood 15 years ago. But without the knowledge that something as wholesome as wheat and barley could make me sick, I had to learn the hard way—just like I had to do in the Austrian Alps, holding on for dear life near the top of what turned out to be a waterfall.

I hung there for an embarrassingly long time before I mustered the courage to crawl, slide and tumble back down. An elderly Austrian man at the bottom—I’m sure he was a doctor—told me later that even if I had made it to the top, I’d have found only a sheer cliff with no way to get back down safely.

Once again, I was fortunate that my body had the good sense to give up when I could still get back to the right path.

~Christopher Allen

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