Monday, July 28, 2014

On Gluten and Grain Intolerance

Back in 2006, after battling with allergies, skin problems and recurrent ear infections for seven years, we took our Griff, Baxter, off of ALL grain. He lived another six happy, healthy years without a single skin allergy problem or ear infection. Not one.

So we started our little dog, Kirby, on grain-free dog food the day we rescued him from the shelter; and our Griff Remy, now 2 months shy of 2 years old, has been grain-free from the day we brought him home as well. Remy has never shown any signs of allergy to anything, and we don't know if the grain-free food has anything to do with it, but we're not taking any chances. He's a healthy pup.

When Dr. Pema (the holistic vet) explained to me that dogs didn't evolve to be able to digest grain effectively, it made perfect sense. I even wrote an article about it for The Polishing Stone, a wonderful (but sadly now out-of-print) magazine. Sure, dogs are omnivores who seem to be able to eat just about anything, but they're primarily meat eaters and historically they got their grain pre-digested in the guts of the animals they ate. Industrially-processed food didn't enter into the equation until fairly recently, and grain makes a great (and cheap) filler.

So, after all this, I'm not sure why I didn't really give much thought to grain's effects on people. That is, not until recently, as more and more of my friends and colleagues started going "gluten free." Yes, I live in Portland, and the gluten-free craze has risen to the level of being a Portlandia send up. I fully admit I was one of those people who believed that a certain percentage of those "gluten-free" people had real problems and the rest were just jumping on the bandwagon. The fad would soon be over and everyone would find some other food to vilify. But the more I read about gluten and grain issues in people, the more I'm realizing there actually is a lot more to it. The thing is, when people get off wheat and other gluten grains, many, if not most, of them feel better. There are multiple reasons for this. But, nonetheless, I thought I'd try it and see what happened.

It DID make a significant difference in a number of ways. I'll spare you the details, but let it suffice to say I feel a lot better. This article by Dr. Mark Hyman explains a lot about why grains -- particularly wheat -- are making many of us unwell and we don't even realize to what extent. Most importantly, the wheat we (and our dogs) are eating today is NOT the wheat of our ancestors.

"This is not the wheat your great-grandmother used to bake her bread.  It is FrankenWheat – a scientifically engineered food product developed in the last 50 years...Not only does this dwarf, FrankenWheat, contain the super starch, but it also contains super gluten which is much more likely to create inflammation in the body. And in addition to a host of inflammatory and chronic diseases caused by gluten, it causes obesity and diabetes."
 I wish I hadn't noticed significant things when I got off gluten. I LOVE bread. I love many, many things that involve flour (which, in our culture, is just about everything). I wish it were all in my head or that I was just on some fad diet. But the truth is, I, like Baxter, seem to have some pretty obvious allergic reactions when I eat gluten-y, wheat-y foods and all of those reactions go away when I stop eating them.

I would cry. But it's hard to get too bummed out when I feel so much better. I will, for a while, lament the loss of wheat and some of my other favorite grains. I may try to have it narrowed down a bit to see if maybe, just maybe, I can eat some rye or barley or other good grains that make those micro-brews I love.

For now, though, I just have one more thing in common with the dogs...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Kirby Likes Gromit

Last night we dug out our DVD of Wallace & Gromit for a little light entertainment. Remy and Kirby were doing their usual evening ritual -- a little wrestling, then settling down with their chew toys. Suddenly, when Gromit (who, in case you aren't familiar with the British claymation-style animated series, is the dog) appeared on the screen, Kirby stopped what he was doing and ran up to the television. He sat in front of the TV and barked whenever Gromit appeared on the screen (this is what he does when he sees real dogs on television -- he totally ignores the people, but the second a dog comes on screen he runs over and starts barking at it).

I think what surprised me about this is that Gromit is a very stylized dog. He doesn't have a lot of the features of a real dog. He doesn't bark. He reads the newspaper and walks on two legs (sometimes) and expresses himself mostly through his eyebrows. Yet Kirby unmistakeably recognized this clay figure as a dog. He didn't bark at the clay people. He didn't bark at any of the other animals. Just Gromit.

This got me to thinking about dog facial recognition. What makes a dog a dog to another dog? I always figured it was a combination of how they look and how they smell and sound. Most dogs we see on television are barking or panting or otherwise making noise. In this case the only clues were the face and ear shape, big humanlike eyes and a round black nose.

Gromit may act like a person, but, according to Kirby, he is most definitely a dog.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Happy 8th Birthday, Kirby!

I can't believe our scruffy little guy is eight years old!

He's spent his life around Wirehaired Pointing Griffons and despite being 1/3 the size, I believe he thinks he is one. (He even points.) As a pup he relentlessly pestered our adult Griff, Baxter; was crushed (as we all were) when Bax passed away; then got the other end of the golden rule/dog karma when we introduced our Griff puppy, Remy, to the household a year and a half ago. Despite his diminutive size, he manages to hold his own with the big dogs. We love you, Kirby!

Monday, July 07, 2014

People and Pedigree

We have a purebred dog...Remy, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon of excellent pedigree. We also have Kirby, a little shelter dog of much less fancy and much more diverse lineage. Is one dog better than the other? No. They're just different. We mostly knew what we were in for when we brought Remy into our home. He is intelligent, athletic, obsessed with birds and is an absolute clown. He has wiry hair that doesn't shed much, never requires combing and repels burrs like teflon. He is devoted and affectionate and doesn't want to be far from his poeple. He has his own unique personality that is certainly different from our first Griff, Baxter, but he still has these characteristics that are just part of how Griffs are.

With Kirby it has been an ever-unfolding mystery. He pounces on his toys and gives them the "terrier death shake" with aplomb. He is little, but he defends our house with the ferocity of a Rottweiler. He also herds us down the beach as well as any collie and he points at birds (granted, he might have learned the latter from living with a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon most of his life). Kirby is a sort of Renaissance dog with a little Napoleon thrown in.

When it comes to genetics, I am a bit of a mutt within the broad category of Western Europeans. When my ancestors came to seek their fortunes in America (most in the 1600s and 1700s), they had unique cultural and ethnic identities. For a few generations they stayed within their cultures. But by the time my great-grandparents came along, it must have been a lot more accepted to marry outside one's community. An Irishman married a Pennsylvania Dutch German. An Englishman married a French-Canadienne. That's my mom's side. My dad's side stuck a little closer to the "British" ethnic home with marriages among English, Welsh and Scots-Irish. Mind you, my older relatives on the Scots-Irish side were certain to emphasize the "Scots" portion of Scots-Irish -- they were fierce Protestants with a disdain for Catholics. I'm not sure they even knew why, at that point, having lived in Illinois and Iowa for generations, but somehow the old rivalries managed to get carried on along with the stubborn Scottish DNA.

I don't look like I have a pedigree of any certain origin. In North Iowa I grew up with a lot of people who were pure-blood Norwegians and Swedes (think "A Prairie Home Companion: South of the Border Edition"). Many of my friends had blue eyes, blonde hair and names that ended in -son and -sen. I was fascinated by their family traditions and foods like krumkake and lefse. The closest thing we had to a family food tradition was my mother's use of herbs and garlic (French) and my father's British range of food preferences (from brown to white).

So when I got my DNA test back from, I was a little surprised to learn that despite having no known heritage suggesting Nordic ancestry, my DNA tells another story. It says I'm 12% Scandinavian. At first I thought the DNA test must be wrong. Then I got to thinking about where the Vikings landed and my Scottish and English ancestors...(and probably a few Norman ancestors as well). Somehow, that Viking blood managed to make its way through so many generations it landed in me with absolutely no discernible Scandinavian family names as far back as I can trace my family history. How many of those fierce Campbells of Scotland (my tribe of human terriers) got some of that ferocity from the Vikings who landed there? Probably more than a few.

But does DNA matter, really?  Not unless you have some sort of family gene that indicates a susceptibility to a certain disease, and even then, as the science of epigenetics is revealing, even that is not a blueprint, as you can turn on and turn off genes through your environment, your lifestyle and the food you eat, among other things. And those genes can be passed down as well. What your father or grandfather had to eat during his lifetime might have as much or more influence on whether you get diabetes or cancer than the presence of a particular gene would indicate.

In any case, the search for DNA markers that indicate ethnic heritage is an interesting line of study, I think. It's fascinating to me that someone might have, say, an Italian last name, but no measurable amount of DNA markers associated with Italian people. The family name was carried down through the fathers, but the "Italian genes" that went with it got diluted or simply not passed along somewhere in the process of marrying out to a few non-Italians down the line.

This happened with me. Another puzzle in my DNA results was the lack of Irish DNA. My great-grandfather on my mother's side came to the US from Tipperary, Ireland. This we know. We have the records. He is my most recent connection to an old country of any kind. So you'd expect that DNA to be pretty significant in me. We had my mother's DNA tested and she came out 28% Irish. According to the DNA test results, Irish people have a pretty strong set of DNA markers -- a native Irish person has a score of 95% (some others, like English, are more admixed with other ethnicities that have overrun the country at various times...(Vikings, Normans, Romans, etc.) But Irish is one of the most pure ones in terms of recognizable DNA markers. For Mom, whose grandfather came from Ireland, a DNA match of 28% seems pretty expected.

You'd think mine would then be at least 12 to 14%, right?  Nope. 3% Irish. I have more "Iberian Peninsula" (5%) and Italian (4%) than I do Irish, and I have no known heritage from either of those regions. Apparently those Scots-Irish Campbells were so stubborn, even their DNA kicked out the Irishman in my inheritance.

I don't care. I'm still wearing a green shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day, just like Grandpa told me to.