“They cooked everything from scratch and I got really sick that night. It was like I was drugged. The next morning I asked the cook, ‘What was in that spaghetti you made us that was so yummy?’ It was entirely wheat gluten,” Brightwell said.
Brightwell is gluten intolerant, which means she is unable to digest gluten properly.
“If I eat gluten, I’m sick. If I don’t, I’m pretty healthy,” she said.
Some people who have a gluten intolerance might also test positive for Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune reaction to gluten. When someone with Celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system attacks the small intestine, causing malabsorption of nutrients. According to Brightwell, malabsorption can lead to things like diarrhea, stomach cramps and, in her case, even cavities.
“When I finally got sick enough to where I had to drastically change my diet, I had no immune system left,” Brightwell said.
As she flips a browning, gluten-free buttermilk pancake with her spatula, Brightwell pulls a milk jug out of her fridge and gives it a shake.
“I got this buttermilk from Wright’s Dairy. Most commercial buttermilk has wheat in it, but Wright’s doesn’t,” she said. “All of the food in my house is gluten-free.”
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the only way to treat the disease is to maintain a 100 percent gluten-free diet. Brightwell says that even though she never tested positive on a blood test for Celiac, she still chooses to stay gluten-free.
“My doctor, an internist and allergist, listened to my symptoms and the fact that I was already feeling better, and suggested I keep going,” she said.
Though she is no longer sick, eating gluten-free is difficult, Brightwell said. She misses the taste of baklava, phyllo dough and Krispy Kreme donuts.
“I miss the ease of not being afraid of my food,” she said. “Like, can I go to a party where everyone else is having dinner and eat it or if I go to a wedding do I have to bring my own food or risk being sick?”
On the bright side, the cost of living a gluten-free lifestyle has gone down in recent years, Brightwell says. Now, she orders gluten-free flours at a bulk discount rate on Amazon.com and local stores and restaurants have started to offer more gluten-free alternatives.
Winn-Dixie, Publix, the Immanuel Oriental Market and Walmart all carry gluten-free products, and local restaurants like Garfrerick’s Cafe, the Peerless Saloon and Grille, Artisanal Baked Goods and even pizza joint Mellow Mushroom have menu choices that are made without gluten ingredients. The Chocolate Thunder Downunder at Outback Steakhouse and the cheesecake at Garfrerick’s are two of Brightwell’s favorite dishes.
The general manager of the Mellow Mushroom in Oxford, Terry Phillis Sr., said his restaurant offers gluten-free pizza dough, salad dressings and even beer because of the requests they were getting from customers with Celiac.
“We started serving gluten-free about two years ago,” he said.
Phillis says he still remembers the week the restaurant first started serving gluten-free pizza, recalling his experience serving two customers, a grandson and grandfather, both with Celiac.
“The grandpa hadn’t had pizza for 44 years and the grandson was 14 and had never had pizza before. It was so exciting to be able to make pizza for both of those people. They were so excited about it,” Phillis said.
People should take precautions before starting any special diet, according to Anniston licensed registered dietitian Natalie Maniscalco. Maniscalco says people who think they might have Celiac should be properly diagnosed before they start making any dietary restrictions because they could be eliminating key nutrients.
Maniscalco says even people with Celiac need whole grains in their diet. The list of what people can eat is shorter because gluten is found in grains other than wheat, like barley and rye, but it’s not nonexistent.
“You can’t just eliminate bread and say, ‘I’m not going to eat gluten.’ It’s more strict than that,” Maniscalco said. “We really do need whole grain in our diet. If you truly have Celiac you have to know it. People shouldn’t go on a gluten-restricted diet until they’ve been tested.”
It is possible to include whole grains in a gluten-free diet, Brightwell points out.
“Rice, corn, sorghum, quinoa are gluten free,” she said. “Whole continents have traditional diets based on grains and tubers that do not contain wheat. Until modern times Asia, Africa, South and North America had no wheat or very little wheat. There is absolutely no reason why a gluten-free diet is necessarily unhealthy.”
Staff Writer Madasyn Czebiniak: 256-235-3553. On Twitter: @Mczebiniak_Star