Falling asleep at the steering wheel. Bone crushing tiredness. Needing to run to the car for a nap at lunch time and lie to your colleagues that you were running errands. Crippling stomach pain. Bloating so bad it is embarassing. Waking up feeling drunk even when you had not a drop to drink. Being laid up on the couch, throwing up bucketfuls. Having to lie still with your vertigo because the room was spinning. Feeling a fog over your brain, as if you are living in slow motion and under water. Ringing ears and blocked sinuses. Mood swings. Migraines the calibre of which you would not wish on your adversaries. Explosive diarrhoea alternating with jaw clenching constipation.
This is an amalgamation of the symptoms that I and other people I know have endured. They seemed random and unrelated, until we realised that an allergy to gluten was the cause. Going gluten free is how we managed to overcome them and get back to living normal lives.
If you have been following my food journey for a while, you will know that about three-ish years ago I made the decision to cut out gluten from my diet, or to go gluten free.
You have probably come across this concept before and wondered what gluten is and why folks might want to avoid it.
So, what is gluten? I have to explain this to different groups of people about fifty-eleven times a week. The short answer, is that gluten is a protein found in certain grains (specifically wheat, barley and rye). Some people include oats on this list, but the truth is oats don’t contain gluten in and of themselves, but they sometimes get contaminated by gluten in transport or in storage/processing facilities.
Gluten is responsible for many activities structurally and also flavour wise; not least that wonderful, elastic sponginess in bread and for the alluring bite in pasta. If you are allergic or intolerant to gluten, it means that you are going to face some consequences when you consume anything made from wheat, rye or barley. This means no more bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, doughnuts, pastries, instant noodles, beer, vodka or whisky. There are two types of gluten allergy; celiac and non-celiac (the former being classed as a full scale autoimmune disease).
Unfortunately, in 2015, for health reasons, I had to cut out all gluten from my diet. As a food lover and a semi-professional baker, it was difficult to kiss goodbye to all my favourite goodies. Imagine never being able to eat agege bread or a croissant or cake, or spaghetti, or a meat pie or puff puff again?
After the momentary panic, I decided that I wasn’t going to let an allergy stop me from enjoying my favourite things, so I threw myself into figuring out how to work around my limitations. As luck would have it, my husband (then boyfriend) was going through his own set of health challenges and we discovered that he too was violently allergic to this mysterious substance called gluten. We have very different reactions to it (more on that later) but having us both share an allergy, as we were planning to share a life, inspired me to figure out a way for us to enjoy our favourite things.
I have debated long and hard about being more overt about our gluten free lifestyle on social media and also on my website. As a foodpreneur I feared that it was too niche and that it might alienate me from opportunities. Some people have said to me that it’s because of “too much book” or “privilege” that I can entertain the notion of being allergic to bread. Some people have said that Africans don’t have allergies and that we “opt into” these things because of collonial mentality. Except this is not a notion or a whim, it is a real thing. Some of us are allergic to wheat gluten, same way some folks are allergic to milk and no mansplaining will change that.
With the passage of time, I have realised a few things.
a) many more people than currently realise are allergic to gluten in Nigeria, and are suffering unwelcome symptoms because either they don’t have the language to explain their discomfort or they worry that there are no alternatives if they acknowledge their discomfort. The three biggest allergies I see are whets/gluten, dairy/lactose and nuts (in that order).
b) if I don’t use my lived experience to help people going through similar issues, then what is the point of it all? My biggest belief is that we are all here to help each other, and so I am choosing to share my learning and experience in this paticular food space to help anyone that needs it and to broaden the conversations that we are having about food and lifestyle in Nigeria.
On reflection, the consciousness around allergies and cooking wholesome food as a means to a balanced lifestyle has been with me for a long time. In my family, I have folks who are allergic to as many different things as you can think of. Some of my most creative recipes and food discoveries have been borne out of the challenge of creating yummy feasts that we can all enjoy without that conspicuous feeling of ‘missing out’ hanging over us.
So now, you are probably really keen to know what some of the symptoms of gluten intolerance are, and how you can tell if you are suffering from it. Here are some of the most common symptoms below:
Digestive issues – bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea, reflux, nausea, irritable bowel symdrome or abdominal pain.
Sinuses – asthma, vertigo, headaches, nasal allergies and reduced immunity and frequent colds.
Brain fog – feeling like there’s a haze over your brain and you can’t think clearly. You can’t concentrate and you feel lethargic.
Constant tiredness – feeling exhausted all the time, even when you have just woken up from a full night’s sleep or from a long nap.
Anxiety and depression – many people don’t realise, but there is a huge connection between what happens in the gut and what happens in the brain. Many people are walking around with mood disorders because the gluten they are habitually consuming is making them feel cray cray.
Skin issues – some people react on their skin with itchy hives or rashes that flare up after eating things that contain gluten.
Fertility issues – doctors are beginning to correlate the role that gluten plays in infertility and spontaneous miscarriages.
Behavioural issues – in children, a gluten allergy has been known to make children on a spectrum feel much worse; from ADHD to Autism and others.
These are some of the most common symptoms of gluten intolerance, but of course there are others. Everybody is different and I am just sharing based on my own lived experience and research. I am not giving medical advice. The most important thing is:
a) to be in tune with your body and really take note of how it feels after you eat certain things.
b) get allergy tested so you know exactly what to avoid/how to keep your body healthy and happy.
I hope this has been useful to you for yourself, or for sharing with someone you know who might be suffering certain symptoms and not knowing why.
As I mentioned earlier, it is my utmost joy to be finally able to speak out about this and to help anyone else experiencing dietary restrictions to enjoy a reasonably happy and healthy food journey, within the context of Nigerian and indeed African food.
Any thoughts or questions? Please drop them in the comment section below.