Using Food as Medicine

As a child, I got sick often. Strep throat, colds, influenza, and even a case of scarlet fever. Lucky for me, my mom had healing powers. Any time I had a sore throat, she heated up some water with a couple teaspoons of lemon juice and about a teaspoon of honey. The lemon and honey worked wonders in calming coughs and coating sore throats. (In fact, I’m down with a cold and sore throat today and made my own lemon and honey drink.) When I had a stomach ache, she made chamomile tea and gave me real ginger ale. Chicken pox? Oatmeal and vinegar baths. This is not to say we did not go to the doctor and get medications when needed; we certainly did. However, it was never the only line of defense my mother used to combat illness in our home.

Since the beginning of time, man has used herbs and food items to aid in healing and management of illness. In my pursuit of learning the best ways to manage my narcolepsy symptoms, I started to consider how diet may impact my symptoms. My doctor and I chatted briefly about this in my November visit. He mentioned not eating heavy meals during the day and cutting down on stimulating substances like caffeine and sugar. I also spoke with a registered dietician about low-carb diets, which she cautioned me against because the body needs carbohydrates for energy. Removing them from my diet would most likely decrease my energy levels even further. During my research, I came across some literature containing information about using a gluten free diet to help with narcolepsy symptoms, as well as several message boards and Facebook groups of people who have had success with reducing symptoms with a gluten free diet. Remember, narcolepsy is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. Many people with one autoimmune disorder have other autoimmune disorders. Common among the list of other disorders people with narcolepsy report is Celiac disease, which is treated by a gluten free diet. For people with Celiac disease, food IS medicine. Given my personal history with acid reflux and other GI issues along with a family history of Chron’s disease and gluten intolerance, I decided to go gluten free for a month to see if I had any noticeable improvements.

This is the part where I add a disclaimer and say that I am not a doctor and you should not take this post as medical advice. I’m simply sharing information that I have found as well as my personal experiences. In the interest of full disclosure, I doubt I’d give it a shot if I did not also have stomach issues in addition to narcolepsy.

I started my gluten free journey the day after Easter. In order to make it a little easier on myself, I signed up for a meal planning service that offers gluten free plans. It’s called The Fresh 20. The idea is to take 20 fresh ingredients and create five budget friendly meals for a family of four with new plans being posted each week. So far, my husband and I have been pleased with everything I’ve cooked. Some of our favorite meals so far have been the vegetable quinoa and the quiche. You should have seen me making that quiche. It was my first experience with gluten free flour, and its properties are a little different. It was so thin that I was sure it was going to be a soggy mess. Thankfully, it turned out great!

Because we did not have gluten free pantry items like salad dressings, condiments, pasta, and flour, I have not found the plans to be budget friendly yet. The first week, I spent $168, which is about $50 more than I usually spend a week. The second week, we did a little bit better and spent around $130. The good news is that I managed to dine out only once last week. Taking that into consideration, I may have still come out ahead. The best part is that I haven’t felt deprived of anything. Hubby even found some delectable gluten free chocolate muffins to splurge on.

I feel good about what I’m eating because with a gluten free diet, you’re forced to really watch what you put into your mouth. I can still have rice, potatoes, and quinoa, so I’m getting necessary carbohydrates for my body to use as energy, particularly when I start running more. I have not been gluten free long enough to report any changes in symptoms, but I feel rather optimistic. Even if being gluten free doesn’t alleviate my symptoms, I think the process of learning about how to use food as it is intended – to provide nourishment to promote health – will still pay off.

With the media’s constant reports or our country being in a “health crisis,” a shift has started to occur. More people are going back to fresh foods and looking for “all natural” or organic products. We’re learning even more about how foods help us flourish and recover from illness. After all, what’s the old adage? Oh, yeah, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Do you keep a food journal? Do you notice an increase in sleepiness and cataplexy episodes with certain foods? If you’re on a gluten free diet, how’s it working? Do you have any recipes to share?


  1. ursula says:

    I have been eating a gluten free diet for 3 years. ( I am also narcoleptic and also 28 :) Before going gluten free I had terrible stomach pains on a daily basis. My doctor tested me for Celiac’s Disease, though the results came back negative. I feel remarkably better not eating gluten. Once you get over the initial hurdle you don’t even think about eating food containing gluten. And it’s really not that hard to find foods to eat that are gluten free. A word of caution: Read labels carefully. You will be surprised what they sneak gluten into.
    Good luck!!!

    • Heather says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience! I also had stomach pain on a daily basis, but I have noticed some steady improvement over the last few days. The only thing I have changed is my diet!

  2. Carolyn says:

    I’m 25 years old, found out I had narcolepsy last year. I’ve heard so many doctors say that the whole ‘gluten-free’ thing is just a fad, but I’ve noticed a lot of improvement since trying to cut gluten from my diet. Good luck! =)

  3. Sarah P says:

    I have N and feel much better gluten free. I think it’s silly what the nutritionist told you about carbs. You can live a perfectly healthy life on almost zero carbs. In fact a low carb diet helps many with N. I don’t think the nutritionist was well versed in biochemistry. The body can make energy out of protein and fats, and the brain runs more smoothly on ketones, while carbs are like a roller coaster to our bodies. In fact low-carb is an effective treatment for epilepsy. My 3 year old actually was on 10 carbs a day for his epilepsy and he grew several inches and thrived on the diet. Low-carb is also the diet of choice for many body builders and other athletes.


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