A spider bite and gluten intolerance would appear to be worlds apart, but in my life, at least, there was a peculiar connection. Spider bite first:
Spiders and bugs do not easily startle me. I remember holding tarantulas as a child growing up in southern New Mexico, and playing with daddy long-legs. I found them cute.
When I noticed the spider in 2010 in my hotel room in Paris, I didn’t give it much thought, other than it was — well — big. My family and I were taking a vacation together to Europe after my husband’s deployment to the Middle East, and looking back, I probably thought that the spiders hanging around were entertaining, adding a touch of nostalgia to this trip.
The spider bit me as I slept. At first, I didn’t think much about it. A couple days later, I became exhausted, but I attributed it to our three-week journey. The diarrhea and nausea didn’t last long. However, the bite itself made an impression because I had my husband take a picture of the multiple spider-bites on my back (faint scars still remain). I used a topical antibiotic ointment, and I forgot about it. Yes, I was becoming more exhausted into the trip, but we were on a whirl-wind journey and there was the time change and lots to see and do.
Fast forward Several Months
As a health-conscious individual, I could not believe how blind I was to my health’s decline. I was riding my bike regularly, I ate well and yet my body ached with exhaustion. We started to do remodeling projects around our house and I figured that’s why I was tired. However, the yard work I loved doing became more of a challenge. I’d pull a few weeds and my fingers would swell. I couldn’t wear my rings. I felt sick all the time. I couldn’t jog anymore without extreme exhaustion.
A Couple More Years Passed
The specialist I went to, after my family doctor had no idea what was going on, told me I had chronic fatigue, and that there was nothing she could do about it. She said she saw it all the time, and prescribed Zoloft — an antidepressant. I pulled out the spider-bite photos. She shrugged her shoulders. I asked her about Lyme disease. She said it wasn’t possible. I left her office angry and tossed the prescription.
Then Came A Detour
I was 48 years old, living in beautiful New Mexico, just south of Santa Fe. Sunsets here light up the evening sky like fire, and sunrises are just as beautiful. Roadrunners perch on Russian Olive Trees, and come September, neighborhoods fill with the enchanting aroma of roasting chili. In the midst of New Mexico’s beauty, my life-force was sucked out of me. I was merely existing.
I went to an Oriental medicine practitioner for acupuncture. When I saw Carla for the first time, she looked at me and shook her head. “You’re gluten intolerant.” She referred me to her business partner, Edie, a nurse practitioner. Edie identified the spider bites coming from either a black widow or a brown recluse.
After Edie heard my story, she said it was a miracle that I had not developed encephalitis — inflammation of the brain — caused by infection or an allergic reaction. Blood tests were performed, and eating “healthy” was the goal. I laughed, because I already ate healthy, or so I thought.
“You’ve got to get off gluten,” Edie told me. “Gluten causes an inflammatory response in your body. The poison from the spider is still in your system, even though it’s been three years. It’s going to take awhile to get healed.”
Gluten intolerance is oftentimes triggered by inflammation. In my case, the spider bite caused an inflammatory response that ricocheted throughout my body. Because I was gluten intolerant prior to the spider bite, the spider’s poison made the gluten intolerance worse.
The spider bite captured my attention.
I was determined to get well, at whatever the cost. I found someone who believed in natural healing; who agreed with me that the spider bite made me ill and who didn’t try to mask the problem with antidepressants. However, I wasn’t prepared for the work it was going to take getting rid of gluten. I didn’t realize how much better I would actually feel after purging gluten from my life. It was hard work. It was worth it. I was about to find a new life, because I was saying farewell to gluten.
The New Normal
Gluten is a general name for certain proteins found in wheat, including rye, barley and many other foods. Gluten (think “glue”) helps hold food together, such as bread or cookies made with wheat, for example.
For certain individuals, gluten harms. People who are gluten-intolerant or sensitive produce an abnormal response to their immune system when breaking down gluten.
Abnormal responses to gluten can include diarrhea, constipation, and swelling in body tissues such as the hands, feet, and other areas. Some people develop fatigue, anemia, bloating, joint pain, or foggy thinking — and this is only a small list of symptoms. The immune system basically attacks the body when exposed to gluten.
I educated myself on gluten. I read everything there was to read, and I learned the different names it had, such as kamut, malt vinegar, rye bread, and semolina (to name a few). I ransacked my kitchen shelves, and gave almost everything to my mother-in-law (I felt guilty, as if I was giving her poison, but she didn’t see it that way). I stood in the grocery store aisles for over three hours during my first shopping trip after deciding to go gluten-free. Tears welled in my eyes. This was going to be impossible. I read nearly every label I could. I was pretty sure the only thing I was able to eat was fruit and meat. Untreated fruit and meat, I might add.
Then, The Miracle
It is not an exaggeration to state that three days after cutting gluten from my diet, my body began to heal.
Swelling decreased not only in my hands and legs, but everywhere in my body. Everywhere. My energy returned. I could jog again without extreme fatigue and pain.
The spider bite occurred in 2010, and it was not until 2013 that I sought help. It’s now been a little over three years that I have been gluten-free.
Well-meaning friends had suggested that it was all in my mind. Some asked me if I miss “real food.” Real food nourishes the body. The answer was no, I did not miss “real food,” because I now consumed “real food.” I have not only learned to cook very well without gluten, I have learned to create desserts and all sorts of wonderful things.
Gluten was and is poison to my body. I suspect it was poison to my body before the spider bite occurred, but it took something drastic to change my life, and in this strange way, I owe my life to that Parisian spider.
It is not a false statement to say that I do not crave gluten … it’s kind of like Pavlovian conditioning. As a dog salivates when it sees food, I am turned-off to anything that I know contains gluten. Gluten is best described as my personal poison.
I have chosen not to be tested for Celiac disease because of what I would have to go through to do so (such as eating gluten for a couple of weeks). Because I have made the choice to be gluten-free, I see no point in any sort of diagnosis.
According to a Gallop poll, approximately 17 percent Americans are gluten-free. Gluten-free means one excludes all forms of gluten from their diet, such as wheat flour. Choosing to live gluten-free is not always an easy task. A gluten-free lifestyle can be hard to conform to, and many people would rather feel sick and eat foods they enjoy, largely because it takes work to become gluten-free. Others I know who have Celiac disease continue eating gluten because they state they feel the same “on or off gluten.”
While my health is not perfect, it is better than it used to be. I can hike, bike, work in my yard, and to celebrate my 50th birthday nearly two years ago — I went sky diving.
Our bodies are wonderfully-made, complex, and intricate. I am taking care of this body for as long as I can.
Strange, how a spider’s bite changed my life for the better.
Katherine Darlington has had an interest in writing since childhood. Her stories, poetry, and articles have appeared in Grit, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Kota Press, History’s Women, five poetry anthologies and other publications. A native New Mexican, Katherine has been a massage therapist for over 19 years. Katherine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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