Gluten-free and relieved

Maureen Wild and Coyla Shepard shop at the Star Store in Bayview for gluten-free products. Both women help to manage the Gluten Intolerant Group of Whidbey Island, which holds meetings and events monthly.   - Patricia Duff / The Record
Maureen Wild and Coyla Shepard shop at the Star Store in Bayview for gluten-free products. Both women help to manage the Gluten Intolerant Group of Whidbey Island, which holds meetings and events monthly.
— image credit: Patricia Duff / The Record

Islander Maureen Wild was living a life of excruciating pain.

She was overweight and had chronic pain in her neck, shoulder and right arm. It rendered her virtually incapable of doing anything with her right hand.

So she taught herself to use her computer mouse with her left hand. She also tried physical therapy, chiropractic and acupuncture. Still, for years, she remained in pain.

Finally, she sought the advice of a naturopath who tested her blood and told her she was allergic to certain foods, including those that contained wheat, and that they were affecting her immune system, leaving her body inflamed. The culprit was gluten, the substance found in cereal grains, especially wheat, that is responsible for the elastic texture of dough.

Wild went gluten-free and cut out all the foods the doctor had suggested. Within two to three weeks she had no more pain. She lost weight, too.

Wild learned that because she was allergic to wheat she was only partially digesting it. That meant certain compounds were leaking out of her intestinal lining into her bloodstream and finally to her tissues, where they were causing irritation and inflammation.

Her body tried to reduce the irritation by retaining water, which dilutes the concentration of the offending material but causes weight gain.

Her friend had been through a similar ordeal.

Whidbey resident Coyla Shepard had symptoms of nausea and migraine headaches that persisted for 20 years. She also had a constant sore throat and welts on her knees and elbows that were unduly sensitive to all clothing.

In the final three years before her diagnosis, Shepherd suffered from a distended stomach that was so sensitive that the waistbands of her skirts and pants made her ache.

For years, doctors told Shepard her problems stemmed from menopause.

One day she saw a television program featuring a doctor who spoke about gluten intolerance and celiac disease, both spurred on by eating products that contain wheat.

Within three weeks after starting a gluten-free diet, Shepard’s swollen waistline deflated and she went from a size 12 to a size 2. Her throat cleared, her skin lesions healed and she had no more nausea or migraines.

Indeed, many of the people who participate in the Gluten Intolerance Group of Whidbey Island tell stories of misdiagnosis and the long road of living with ailments before finally gaining relief from a gluten-free diet.

Wild and Shepard, who both help manage the group, said their main goal is to educate people who may be suffering and don’t know why.

“Maureen was so taken with the gluten-intolerance group that she left a high-paying job as a data analyst to start her own nutrition consulting business,” Shepard said.

Wild began “Quality of Life Nutrition” after receiving her certification for nutrition consultation.

The tag line on her business card reads, “Eat well, live well, be well.”

Those are words that have become a lot easier to live by for the rising gluten-intolerant population in America.

Others have taken notice, however. The gluten-free food industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.

Packaged Facts, the leading publisher of market research in the food and beverage industry, estimates that sales of gluten-free products will reach $2.6 billion by 2012, up from $1.56 billion in 2008. The company estimates there are about 3 million gluten-intolerant Americans, or about 1 percent of the country’s population.

Gluten Intolerance Group of Whidbey Island formed in September 2007 with 12 people. Based in Freeland, the group currently serves about 102 people from Clinton to Oak Harbor and holds monthly meetings featuring occasional guest speakers and informal gatherings to share information and concerns.

For example, many people may not know that you don’t have to have celiac disease to be gluten-intolerant.

The group recently invited speaker Dr. Stephen Wangen, Seattle author of “Healthier Without Wheat: A New Understanding of Wheat Allergies, Celiac Disease, and Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance.” The group had its biggest crowd ever.

“There are so many people out there with chronic pain and illness that I want to help,” Shepard said. “I know how much I suffered unnecessarily for so long, and I want people to know that gluten may be the thing that is making them sick.”

Wild and Shepard said that although there are more choices available for the gluten-free diet, people such as themselves must be careful about what they eat. That includes being careful at restaurants that may use the same equipment to cook food that contains gluten and meals that don’t.

“Having worked in the food industry, I realized that cross contamination still exists, which is scary for someone like me, because I not only have gluten issues, but food allergy issues as well. So going out to eat is a scary situation,” Wild said.

Although not many restaurants have a dedicated facility for gluten-free foods, Wild said the group is working with several island restaurants who try to accommodate a gluten-intolerant eater if they can.

Several food stores offer specialty gluten-free foods, including PayLess in Freeland, Living Green and the Star Store in Langley, the Red Apple at Ken’s Korner and the Clinton FoodMart.

Gayle Torgerson of Coupeville suffered for 10 years having been misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and given a daily gluten-based medication. When her symptoms of weight loss and severe anemia were too apparent to ignore, she was finally diagnosed properly.

Torgerson was so impressed with her quick recovery on a gluten-free diet that she left a nursing career to start her own gluten-free baked goods company. Alternative Grains, Inc. offers gluten-free breads, muffins and cookies and can be found at PayLess, and at Miriam’s Cafe and the Local Grown Cafe, both in Coupeville.

To find out more about the GIG of Whidbey Island e-mail or call Shepard at 321-4083. For info about Wild’s services e-mail her at or call 360-929-4959.

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