We Let Our Kids Eat Gluten, and It Wasn’t Pretty

Homemade gluten-free cupcakes with dairy-free frosting for my kids to take to birthday parties.

This past weekend, my family had a rockin’ full schedule. Hannah, our 4-year-old, had a graduation ceremony to participate in at her lovely preschool, and we had two birthday parties to attend on Saturday. One party was at Chuck E Cheese (the 4-year-old’s reaction later was, “I walked in there, and I was like ‘whoa!”) and the other at a friend’s house. Ample opportunities for sweets, treats, and sugar and industrial-oil coated gluten products of all kinds!

So, conscientious mother that I am, I got busy in the kitchen baking homemade gluten-free, dairy-free, low-sugar cupcakes and pizza for my kiddoes to take to the parties.

My 7-year-old, Ethan, has been gluten-free and dairy-free since his 5th birthday, to great effect. Back-to-back ear and sinus infections, chronic congestion, crankiness, fatigue, heartburn, stomach aches, and bed-wetting all resolved after the change. Hannah has been gluten-free since she turned four in March and we have seen her seasonal allergies get much better.

Whenever they are invited to events where there will be foods with gluten, I just whip up a GF substitute and we take it along with us. It’s never been a problem, other than it is a bit of work for me. I minimize the work by batch baking cupcakes and storing them in the freezer. On party day, I simply pull one out, whip up a bit of dairy-free frosting (melted butter, powdered sugar, and coconut milk plus either vanilla extract or cocoa powder), and pack it up in my handy (and very cute) cupcake carrier (see the picture accompanying this story). My kids are thrilled, the hosts never mind, and we are good to go.

On Friday morning, though, as I was baking a fresh batch of cupcakes, I was moaning to my husband about how tempting these rich, velvety, chocolaty cupcakes were going to be for me later in the afternoon, and how much more tempting the ooey-gooey homemade frosting would be.

You see, I totally eat Fit4God. Don’t get me wrong. I do it cheerfully, happily, and willingly because I know my life as I know it pretty much depends on it. I’m not too excited about the prospect of having a line in my arm for 5 days so that I can do daily 4-hour infusions of insanely strong steroids, nor am I excited about the idea of resuming daily injections to manage my Multiple Sclerosis (MS). So I pretty much eat on the straight and narrow.

But, and this is a BIG “but,” I am a sugar addict. I have probably been addicted to sugar since I was a little girl, and just like an alcoholic, I am an addict and I will always be an addict. The sight and smell of fresh chocolate cupcakes without a hint of gluten and dripping with chocolate-flavored sugar called frosting is a tough one for me to resist. So, I ranted and raved to my dear husband about how much I did NOT want to eat this poison later in the day when the witching hour hit and my defenses broke down.

My husband listened compassionately, and then made a suggestion. What if, rather than ruining my health by baking and frosting these darn cupcakes, we just let the kids eat the gluten cupcakes offered at the parties? It’s not like there are birthday parties every weekend, so their exposure would be limited. They are not as gluten intolerant as I am and maybe their bodies could handle a dose of it every once in a while. I reminded him that we had tried allowing Ethan to have some gluten when we travel and have to eat at restaurants, but after his crankiness and fatigue shot up, we decided never to do that again. Dear husband argued that those instances involved exposures that spanned several days, and this would be one single dose. Plus, it would be much easier for me, and minimize my temptation. The man spoke reason, so I agreed to try it.

That night (Friday), we let the kids have some wheat-based brownies at the preschool graduation party. I had the GF cupcakes ready to go for the next day, so this could be their sole dose of gluten for the weekend if we so chose.

Hannah seemed to do fine with it. But, holy smokes and land sakes alive…did Ethan ever have a reaction!!! The child got high as a kite! He literally bounced off the walls for the next 90 minutes or so. He chattered on and on like a maniac in a high pitched voice, he rolled around, jumped around, laughed like a hyena, put stuff on his head….it was crazy.  A little funny, but still, the only word for it was “high” and we sure didn’t want THAT happening all the time!

So, what caused this little high of his? It wasn’t the sugar or the chocolate (his GF cupcakes are just as sugary and chocolaty). I believe it was the natural opioids in the milk and wheat that made up the frosted brownie. Remember, gluten and dairy both contain opioids which bind to the opioid receptors in our brains. When you hear the word “opioid” you probably think of opium…and that is exactly right. Opium is an opioid that is similar to the opioids found in gluten and dairy. Opioids are known to be effective at producing pain relief….and, drum roll please…euphoria.

Poor little Ethan, who had not been exposed to opioids in two whole years, was experiencing euphoria brought on by the gluten and dairy he had just consumed. Hannah, who was accustomed to gluten and dairy (she had only been GF for about 3 months), did not experience the same euphoria. She was sensitized to the opioids, accustomed to having them in her brain.

Think about it: any of us who regularly consume dairy or wheat are consistently getting doses of opioids that bind to our opioid receptors and make us feel really good. Is it any wonder that dairy and wheat based foods are the ones we most often crave? That make us feel better when we are down? That make us feel a kind of irresistible pull toward them?

After Ethan’s high wore off, he finally went to bed. He woke up about two hours later, upset and cranky and needing to urinate. Remember that night wetting was a near daily problem for him before he went GF two years ago. I guess I’m not surprised that on the night he finally ate some gluten he needed to get up in the night to pee. Thank goodness he didn’t wet the bed. Ethan also suffered from a recurrence of the heartburn that used to plague him every day from the time he was 3 years old until about 6 months after he went GF and DF. The heartburn lasted for about 4 or 5 days, and one morning he even threw up from it. We were all relieved when the heartburn finally went away on about Thursday.

Anyway, long story short, we let Ethan have the gluten and it wasn’t pretty. We won’t be doing that again.

As for Hannah, how did she fare? She had no problems with the brownie she ate on Friday at the preschool graduation party. I took GF pizza and cupcakes with us to the birthday parties on Saturday, but at the last minute, we decided to let her have the Chuck E Cheese pizza and cake that was being served. Let’s push it a little further and see how she does, we thought. She’d never seemed to be as gluten-intolerant as Ethan. She had the gluten pizza and cupcake at that party, the she had a GF cupcake at the next party. (Ethan stayed GF all that day.)

By Saturday night, poor Hannah was back to the same terrible allergy symptoms she’d been having when we decided to make her gluten-free. Her eyes were red, watering, and itching, and her nose was running and sneezing. Poor girl. She’d already had her Zyrtec for the day, so all I could do was give her a bath and put her to bed to let her sleep it off.

She’d been having terrible allergies just like that right before we made her gluten-free. She’d been mostly gluten-free since she was about 3 years old, but she did have peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread about two or three times a week, usually in her lunch at preschool. I wasn’t crazy about it, but she hadn’t shown signs of intolerance and I didn’t want to be hyper-restrictive.

But her seasonal allergies were getting pretty bad, even with the daily dose of Zyrtec. On her 4th birthday, we served hot dogs at her party and had a bunch of wheat hot dog buns left over. I decided to use them up by making them the bread base for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her lunches. And I did this every day for almost two weeks. Crazy, huh? I fed my poor child gluten every day.

Well, her allergies got progressively worse during that time, culminating in her being brought to me during Sunday School because her eyes were so watery and itchy after some playground time, and our having to leave an exhibit at the Dallas World Aquarium because her eyes got so bad.

I wondered if the increasing allergies were related to the gluten, so we took her off gluten 100% on her 4th birthday, and her allergies improved. Still present, but controllable. Then she had three doses of gluten over this past weekend and BAM! Allergies going crazy, eyes and nose a mess.

Again, long story short, Hannah won’t be having gluten again!

So, what’s the moral of the story? I know very well that some people can tolerate a lot of gluten, some people can tolerate a little bit of gluten, and some people can’t tolerate any at all. Most people who believe they can tolerate gluten are probably experiencing some symptoms of gluten intolerance without realizing it. Research suggests that perhaps as many as 80% of people experience gut inflammation after eating gluten. Many people’s bodies have become used to the side effects of gluten and take it for granted that they have aches and pains, tummy troubles, or other symptoms. They often chalk it up to aging.

We had hoped that our kids could tolerate a bit of gluten in the cupcakes at the occasional birthday party, but it apparently is not meant to be. I don’t have any intention of feeding food to my kids that results in an opioid high, night peeing, irritability, fatigue, itchy eyes, sneezing, and nasal congestion.

So, what about you? I write this story to alert people to the fact that gluten intolerance can manifest itself in many different ways. The signs may be somewhat subtle, and if you didn’t know how gluten worked, you might not put two and two together. It would be easy to chalk up Ethan’s “high” to sugar or chocolate, or to chalk up Hannah’s allergies to pollens in the air. But when you see a pattern of symptoms consistently covarying with a particular food, it is incumbent upon us as parents to pay attention and protect our children.

For a full list of symptoms that can occur as a result of gluten, click here.

Be healthy, be strong, be Fit4God!

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  1. Have you ever looked into fermented foods?? They can be very healing and support the immune system. Fermented foods are the best way to deliver probiotics down to the gut. Check out this website, http://www.bodyecology.com Enjoyed this article. I wished my daughter and family would get interested in eating differently. My grandson must be intolerant to a food because his behavior is extreme and I’ve always suspected that he must have some kind of food allergy. I agree the best way to find out is to put them on an elimination diet and then add them back and watch for reactions;). Thanks.


  1. [...] (In case you were wondering, we have a variety of reactions. Gluten gives me MS fatigue, and dairy makes my nose congested and gives me heartburn. Gluten makes my son cranky, tired, and makes him wet the bed and have stomach aches and heartburn. Dairy makes his nose congested and gives him heartburn. Gluten makes my daughter get hay fever type of symptoms such as itchy eyes and runny nose. She appears to be lactose intolerant, as dairy gives her tummy aches, diarrhea and vomiting. (Read here what happened when we tried to go with the flow and let them have gluten – it wasn… [...]