My Gluten-Free Year, and Why We Need Science

by Scott Crabtree

Why do we need science? Because even smart, skeptical people like me and you can be fooled pretty easily by circumstances.

My health is generally great, but I’ve had issues with my skin (eczema) most of my life, and more recently was having some “gut troubles” that I’ll certainly spare you the details about! I decided to see a nutritionist, who after hearing about my issues said that for most people, the most likely culprits in their diet are dairy and gluten. She suggested I eliminate both for two weeks and see what happened.

I was lucky enough to be going to Hawaii on vacation at the time, and thought this would be a great time to try altering my diet. In the first week alone, my skin and my guts seemed to be better! In the second week I went to a Korean restaurant, and got some spicy food and in a moment of forgetfulness, ate lots of yummy, gluten-coated tempura! Later my guts were not very happy. I reported back to my nutritionist, who said it seemed pretty likely I had issues with gluten and should try being gluten free.

So I was (almost completely) gluten free for about a year. While I was fond of saying “there’s got to be no better time nor place in modern human history to be gluten free than Portland, Oregon now”, I did miss pizza and beer, for starters. Our daughter Zinnia had some skin issues, and therefore we had been feeding her a gluten free diet as well.

My wife mentioned reading an article about a study that suggested most people who believe they have skin issues caused by gluten in fact were not affected by it.  We asked our pediatrician about it. She told us that if there is a connection between gluten and skin issues, science hasn’t found it yet. We tried feeding Zinnia gluten, and there didn’t seem to be any adverse effects.

I had a visit scheduled with my dermatologist, and asked him about gluten and my skin issues. He said besides one quite rare condition that I did not have, if there’s a connection between gluten and skin issues, science hadn’t found it.

Given my love of science, I decided to put my faith in science and start eating gluten again. My skin and my guts were fine. I ate some spicy food. My guts were not fine.

Only then, over a year later, did I put the pieces together. Trying an experiment while altering every major aspect of your life by going to Hawaii at the same time is definitely NOT a controlled experiment! At the same time I took gluten out of my diet, I was also relaxing on vacation, eating different foods, and staying in a warmer, more humid climate. (My skin is always better in the summer, when there is more humidity.) When I ate gluten, I also ate spicy food, which turns out to be the real cause of my unhappy guts.

My story illustrates the power and pitfalls of association. Just because two things happen near each other in time, does not mean that one thing caused the other. Trust good science with controlled variables–whether done by yourself or scientists–to sort out cause from coincidence.

Scott Crabtree

As the Founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Happy Brain Science, Scott Crabtree empowers individuals and organizations to apply findings from cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology to boost productivity and happiness at work.


3 thoughts on “My Gluten-Free Year, and Why We Need Science

  1. There is one link between skin issues and gluten: dermatitis herpetiformis, which is frequently related to celiac disease. Not necessarily related to your issues, but a proven link nonetheless. It’s a chronic itchy rash with bumps and sometimes blisters. Pretty nasty, and autoimmune related.

  2. Sometimes I think it makes people more happy and feel virtuous (and better than other people) when they deny themselves things. As you’ve mentioned, if you are happy you feel better and tend to be healthier. Hence gluten free. You can achieve being “special” and “healthy” and yet be a part of a group.

    1. Thanks for your comment, interesting points Leigh! As always, I recommend experimenting with your own life and doing what works for you; we are all different and what works for the average person in a study won’t necessarily work for any unique individual. And science supports your notion that when we practice discpline in one area (diet, for example) we seem to have better willpower in other areas (saving money or smoking, for example).

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