Wrong Since 1998: It Was Lactose Intolerance, Not Gluten

Note: This is a personal blog entry that is off topic for the blog, but I'm posting it here so it's public and searchable by others who might have had similar issues.

I've had a sensitive digestive system my whole life, and back in 1998 it got so bad that I went to my doctor about it. He gave me a sort of prescription strength Immodium, and not happy with treating the symptom and not the problem, I went to a different doctor, went through a bunch of blood tests and an elimination diet, and ended up cutting out gluten (long before doing so was trendy). I definitely had less issues and lost some weight, but things were still never quite right, and I would occasionally have serious problems (although less frequently than before). In recent years, cutting out gluten has gotten trendy, and a lot more quality gluten free options have become available, and I started availing myself of them--and had even more problems. I would occasionally binge on excellent gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, or local gluten-free cup cakes, or fresh cooked gluten-free pizza, and in each case I would have terrible digestive problems the next day. So late last year, I decided to followup with a gastroenterologist. He did more tests, didn't find anything physical and suggested that I take a probiotic and keep a food diary. Things got a little better, and I actually started eating gluten again, but I still got occasional problems which seemed pretty mysterious.

After a month of eating gluten again, things seemed better but still not 100%. So I went back through the food diary, and found that the day before any problem day, I had eaten food with lactose (not all of which was immediately obvious, see below). I had long suspected that lactose intolerance might have been my real problem, but in most of my online research I always turned up things that  said, "symptoms usually begin 30 minutes to 2 hours", where my problems almost always are the day after I eat a problem food--typically 12-24 hours later.  

In addition to digestive problems, I had long had what I thought was an allergic reaction to some (typically greasy) foods--I'd get post nasal drip, and would have to clear my throat for half an hour or so after eating. So with all this information I went to see an allergist who specialized in food issues. It turned out that he himself is lactose intolerant and also had the long reaction time, and he suspected that lactose was my issue too.  But being a good diagnostician, he gave me some more info and suggested that I continue my detailed food diary with this in mind and come back in a few weeks. He also did a bank of food allergy skin tests, and I came up completely clear, and that the throat clearing/post nasal drip was actually "silent reflux".

After being wrong for so many years I was a bit hesitant about jumping on the lactose intolerance bandwagon, but carefully avoiding lactose, further food diary recording and a followup visit with the allergist had me pretty convinced that it was lactose all along, and a few things recently have supported the lactose intolerance hypothesis pretty strongly. First, it turns out that some breads are made with butter and some are not.  So by cutting out bread all those years I cut out a source of lactose. In addition, by cutting out things like bagels (which are generally not made with dairy products) I was really cutting out the problematic cream cheese; by cutting out the pizza I was really cutting out the mysterious pizza cheese blend. I love cheese and this was another source of confusion--lactose is the sugar in milk and while some cheeses have a lot of it, aged cheeses (like cheddar, parmesan and swiss--not likely coincidentally my favorites) and processed cheeses have very small amounts of lactose and I seem to be OK with them.

So for the last couple months I've been judiciously reading food labels and cutting out as much lactose as possible.  But that's not easy to do on the road. So on my recent storm chasing trip (writeup here), I was careful about what I would eat--or at least I thought I was. I was doing fine, and one frantic day (storm chasing can mean eating a lot of crappy foods) I ate a couple candy bars (my only dinner while on a storm) that I thought didn't have dairy, and I ended up with horrible problems.  I went back and more carefully read the label, and sure enough it had a milk ingredient in it--I had just missed it.  As an experiment, the next day I tried the same candy bar but took some Lactaid, a digestive enzyme that you take with the first bite of food.  And the next day I had no problems. So for the rest of the trip, with every meal that I didn't cook (which was all of them) I took Lactaid and had no problems.  And when I got home I tried one last experiment--I ordered a regular, gluten-containing pizza, and took Lactaid as I started eating and when I finished, and had no problems the next day.  Last night I was at a party and ate some likely butter-containing bread, but forgot to bring the lactaid, and sure enough, had problems today.  It seems pretty likely to me that the lactose intolerance hypothesis is correct.

So after these experiments and continuing to study food labels, I'm avoiding lactose whenever possible, but it's great, after so many years, to have a better handle on the situation, and with the Lactaid I have a solution for travel, which I love to do and has long been problematic. I'm going to focus the food diary now onto figuring out the foods that cause the silent reflux.  

And why the picture of Double Stuf Oreos?  Oreos, it turns out, don't contain milk and therefore also don't contain lactose (just don't eat them with milk).  My biggest problem after avoiding these kind of foods for 17 years or so is now to restrain myself from making up for lost time and overdosing on Oreos.

Storm Chase-cation 2015

For the last few years (here's last year's writeup), I've headed out storm chasing (explanations here and here) on the Great Plains as soon as my classes end, which is also generally also the end of peak chasing season in the southern plains.  This year I flew into Dallas (best flight/car rental pricing), and then headed up to Wichita Falls, Texas. This time last year, Wichita Falls was under an epic drought; this year, they got years' worth of rain just in the month of May.  I've got before and after photos of Lake Arrowhead here.  And from there, I ended up doing 3500 miles in a couple giant loops of north Texas and southern Oklahoma, with a brief jaunt into eastern New Mexico.

The first part of the trip there wasn't a whole lot going on weather wise, and I missed some of the few big storms that happened, but I did see flooding in Wichita Falls, a severe-warned gust front gust front, and then more flooding, the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, and even a wild boar.  I saw him jump across a little gap in a field and then he was washed away and had a long swim.  After that, I got on the north side of a crazy tornado-warned blob of hail, and it ended up chasing me into suburban Wichita Falls, TX, where I rode the storm out in a car wash (there was big hail in this storm).

Click on any photo for a larger version:

On May 27, I picked a target of Shamrock, TX, which put me in a great position to get on the amazing (and well documented by 100's of chasers) Canadian, Texas storm.  This storm moved slowly and erratically, and I was one of only a handful of chasers to end up on the back (West) side of the main tornado, as you can see in the photos below.  This storm moved slowly and dropped at least four tornadoes if not more.

After that storm, things got spotty again, and I drifted back to Amarillo (and the Cadillac ranch) and then onto Lubbock where I set up for the arrival of a huge severe-warned gust front.  I didn't get great photos because I got road raged by a redneck in the first town I set up in, then eaten alive by mosquitoes in several other spots because of the severe and widespread flooding.  I ended up in a bank drive through west of Lubbock and held down the tripod through 30-50 MPH winds and many technical problems to get a few lightning shots.

The weather then moved too far north for me to get to and make it back in time to Dallas for my flight, so I met some old friends in Fort Worth and saw a couple great bands (photos here) thanks to the recommendation from another friend.  I also saw some of the Trinity River flooding.

All in all, it was a great trip, and I hope to be back out there again next year...

The Water Woes of Wichita Falls, Texas

Last year when I was out storm chasing (highlights here), I stayed in Wichita Falls, Texas, which has been under a multi-year, extreme drought. On May 28 last year, I took photos of Lake Arrowhead, which is part of Wichita Falls' drinking water supply.  After the extreme rains of the last month, I stopped by there yesterday, and the change is dramatic.  Here's some before and after photos:

A couple more from last year:

Of course, all that rain, while so beneficial to drinking water supplies, has caused some serious flooding problems as well.

Chasing Mountains in the Sky

Mount Everest is a little over 29,000 feet tall.  The supercell thunderstorms I’m chasing for the next 10 days in the great plains can be almost twice as tall. Seeing one of these things from a distance can be amazing and even beautiful--the secrets of the atmosphere are revealed, especially if you have studied the science of the clouds. But getting closer to one of these storms, as I wrote last year in my blog entry, “Out Here in the Middle”, can be truly awe inspiring, or even scary--especially when the storm is producing a tornado. I’ve done a lot of things with a lot of potential risk, but I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I’m happiest when I manage the edge can rather than plunging over it.

Storm chasing is an expensive and sometimes tedious undertaking; you have to figure out where and when storms are going to be, drive (typically 100’s of miles a day--last year I drove about 6000 miles in 9 days) to get in position in time, wait for storms to fire, race and towards the storms as fast as possible down roads you’ve never seen before.  If you’re lucky enough to get on a storm you have to keep on top of the storm's dynamics, monitor the positions and activities of other chasers (not all of whom exhibit good judgement), and try and shoot photos while maintaining a workable escape route at all times in a location to which you’ve never been before.  And then you have to find a place to sleep, and start thinking about what tomorrow will bring.  Chasers nomadically live by the rhythm of nature, and chasing through the wide open spaces of the plains the beauty and silence of the sky is clearly evident.   

This endeavor is also incredibly engrossing, and when on the hunt, I'm typically in a constant state of "flow".  In one of my first-ever Midwest chases, I got in front of a beast of a (non-tornadic) storm, and shot the photo above. By sunset, I was really exhausted and and then eventually got stuck in a bad location with sideways rain (and fortunately no hail). I realized at that point my thinking was kind of cloudy because I hadn’t eaten anything in about 8 hours.  Anyone who knows me knows that that is a rare occurrence for me.

Another really satisfying part of chasing for me has been learning the sky. With these tiny (by global standards) storms, even the best forecast just gets you in the general area where storms might initiate--after that you're on your own with the sky (and the radar), because weather science is pretty good at telling us that the sky is going to boil with storms but it’s not good enough yet to predict where the first bubble will be.  I spotted the storm that produced the storm below before it even showed up on radar, and then stayed on it for several hours.

After this crazy school year I'm burned out and ready for a break in the routine, and looking forward to the next week.  

I'll be posting updates from "out there" on Instagram/Twitter.