Does running cause intestinal bleeding?

Kathleen posted this enlightening comment to a recent Wheat Belly Blog post.

Her story highlights some of the incredible ways that the adverse health effects of wheat consumption are misdiagnosed and mislabeled.

My husband and I are long time, very fit, avid trail runners and cyclists in our mid 40’s. Neither of us have ever had a weight problem. We always have eaten a ‘healthy’ diet. Ahem. My cholesterol tended to just over the high normal range but my doc wasn’t concerned as the good cholesterol was high and the rest was attributed to ‘hereditary’.

Long story short – I started developing some intestinal issues – the typical – gas, bloating, cramping, etc. One added concern was blood in my stool. Not all the time but it became too frequent. I have had 2 colonoscopies, 1 endoscopy with biopsies, blood tests, stool samples, urine tests, the whole gamut. Nothing came back conclusive (thankfully) other than a bit of intestinal inflammation. No Celiac, either. The docs scratched their heads and said ‘Maybe your running is causing the bleeding.’ Problem is, the bleeding happened when I rode my bike, too.

So, after my last colonoscopy 18 months ago, I started experimenting with diet – beginning with eliminating most gluten. I called it a ‘gluten light’ diet. The docs (gastro and primary care) cautioned me about going ‘gluten light’ because I would become more sensitive when I did ingest gluten. My definition of gluten light was avoiding most/all gluten/wheat products when possible but I would allow myself a ‘spurge’ now and then – the Lemon Loaf at Starbucks post long trail run was a “treat” occasionally! Gradually, my symptoms improved, for the most part, to the point where I didn’t think about the cramping and blood because it didn’t happen anymore. I was still running and biking as hard as I ever had. And continued limiting my gluten/wheat.

Then, then in February of 2011, I was diagnosed with Graves Disease. There is absolutely no family history of thyroid disease. Dealing with the Graves, as an athlete, has been a challenge but am confident we are close to finally getting it well managed. BTW – when they did the bloodwork prior to the Graves dx – my total cholesterol came back down 75 points – way down in the lower normal range. My doc was impressed. The Graves may have had some affect on it but I think it has more to do with the gluten/wheat elimination. The Graves does affect intestinal function, as well, so that makes it a bit more difficult too.

Then your book came out. Wow. It just seemed to support everything we had been slowly discovering on our own but couldn’t really put a ‘label’ on. After reading it, my husband and I have gone completely Gluten Free! No ‘cheat’ days (good bye Lemon Loaf!). Actually, those days aren’t really cheat days as I’ve discovered I just don’t feel well for a few days afterward (emotional stuff, intestinal cramping, gurgling, etc) and a little blood in the stool returns. It’s almost like the gluten/wheat acts like a scouring pad on my intestines and inflicts physical damage. Have you heard any one else having that problem?

After my husband joined me on the gluten free diet, he ended up dropping about 7 pounds from around his middle – he was never able to drop those few pounds despite running and riding for 20 years and “eating healthfully.” He has always been trim but now he is lean – he dropped his cholesterol 40 points (he was never high – always well within the normal range) when he had his annual physical a month ago. The doc was impressed. Doc told him he doesn’t usually see a 45 year old man trim his waist and drop his cholesterol – usually it goes in the opposite direction. Hubby told him we had gone Gluten Free and the doc said “Well, if it works…..”

“Wheat Belly” finally gave us an ‘identity’ as to the journey we were traveling on but didn’t know what to call it. We do have a big family problem though – our brother-in-law and his dad and brother are WHEAT farmers!!!

Too many people refuse to believe that the angel of diet–the wheat of “healthy whole grains”–could be the culprit for something like intestinal bleeding. But it’s hard to dispute the on again, off again pattern of recurrence that we witness.

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Gary M

    Wow, what a story! Kathleen, I’d just be delicate with your wheat farming relatives. Just ask them gently to grow something that doesn’t kill people! LOL. Congratulations to your discovery and continued luck with your journey!

    • Boundless

      Do what I did with the farmer that plants our [ former ] wheat ground.

      Show them the book (or give them a copy), and tell them that due to economic risk they need to seriously consider crops other than dwarf hybrid wheat and related gluten-bearing grains.

      It almost doesn’t matter if the WB book is not 100% correct. If enough people think it is correct, the market for technowheat is going to collapse. If the book is largely correct, that collapse will be permanent.

      Don’t get stuck holding elevator tickets for a worthless crop.

  2. Jeanine

    Interesting story! I started a running program over the summer, and started having bleeding problems as well. But when I started running, I also started eating yogurt parfaits for breakfast every day (with granola I made myself with wheat germ).

    Several years ago I had light bleeding and after an expensive colonoscopy, discovered I had hemmroids. But this time it was worse, and not painful. I really didn’t want to have to go to the doctor if I didn’t have to because I would probably get the “take two pills and call me in the morning” treatment. My first thought was maybe I needed to stop eating yogurt. But I also wondered if running played a part, because I could eat plain yogurt without running and not have issues.

    I read about going dairy-free, and that’s how I first learned about the Paleo diet. The bleeding stopped after I stopped eating my yogurt parfaits, but I decided I didn’t want to go completely dairy-free because I love cheese. I also stopped running as much because I ended up gaining 4 pounds over the summer and I only started running to LOSE weight. I found Wheat Belly a couple of months after that, and now I’ve lost 20 pounds! With no exercise except a little extra walk every day and being grain-free! I still have cheat days every now and again, but I don’t mind the consequences because they’re not as bad as they were this summer!

      • Jeanine

        I just had to add that my husband gave me a priceless comment this morning. I keep my husband regularly updated with my weight loss because I don’t expect him to really notice because sometimes I can’t tell the difference either. But this morning as I was leaving for work, he gave me a hug around the waist and said, “You *are* thinner!” and put his arms where he thought my old frame would have been. Then he went on to say that my waist is now “concave” and I asked if he meant hour-glass shape. He said he wasn’t sure if the term hour-glass was a compliment or not (I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t).

        Since I reached my first of three milestones last night, I took and “after” picture and compared to the one I took before I started my running program. I really can see the weight loss AND the hour-glass shape, which I hadn’t really noticed until today. My “spare tire” isn’t completely gone yet, but it’s a start!

        • Very nice, Jeanine, and especially nice that your husband noticed!

          Please feel free to share you photos . . . We need more bold ladies willing to show off!

  3. “The docs (gastro and primary care) cautioned me about going ‘gluten light’ because I would become more sensitive when I did ingest gluten.”

    Those doctors should be ashamed of themselves. What food do you need to acclimate to? That’s a clear sign of toxicity.

    Anyone who gets more sensitive when they cut down on wheat ingestion would be better off avoiding wheat entirely, IMHO.

    • I know right!! Im sure theyre just spouting the conventional party line and havent yet listened to the words coming out of their mouths and put two-and-two together.

      In my experience, I never had IBS or intestinal issues before going wheat free (paleo, actually, so all-grains free) but boy have I developed a reaction to wheat since. This holiday season I had a couple bites of homemade baked goods and every time, my intestines have had gurgles, gas, and sharp pains for a couple days afterwards. Even after just one cookie. Keeps me honest, I guess, but it gets awkward when someone comes around the office offering homemade stuff and I have to pass. Im sure they think im being elitist.

      • Boundless

        cTo: > … awkward when someone comes around the office offering
        > homemade stuff and I have to pass. Im sure they think im being elitist.

        Here’s the standardized response:
        “No thank you. I have a wheat sensitivity, confirmed by challenge testing.”

        You can make that “acute … sensitivity” or “gluten” as needed.

        Optional closer:
        “As it happens, everyone has a wheat sensitivity. It’s just a matter of degree and decades.”

    • You know, Dora, to the credit of some farmers, I’ve received questions about what they should be growing.

      I’m no farmer or agricultural expert, but I was truly impressed that they at least were willing to consider it.

  4. Anthony

    FWIW, when in my early 40’s I did this stupid activity (though you couldn’t at the time have told me that and expected me to listen), I completed between 1977 and 1985 over 20 marathons and 8 ultra-marathons. More specific to your trail running, I made 3 attempts at the Old Dominion 100 Mile, first two of which were held at the same time horses were competing. You know I’m sure the kind of distance training required to do those efforts.

    i bled up a storm!! I had several sigmoidoscopies, and three colonoscopies (had a sadist for a GI doc who didn’t believe in Valium sedation – “your tough” LOL). All negative for anything save a prolapsed hemorrhoid, surgically removed in 1983. Didn’t matter. Still bled! My diet in those days was Biblical Pritikin. Hell I even baked my own bread – you name the kind? I baked it. Ran a 50 miler on the Chicago Lake Front in 1981. Did a PR of 7:42 or thereabouts. Had six chocolate eclairs from the local Dunkin’ doughnuts just before start time.

    those were the days of “carb loading” Hell, Tom Basselar, MD noted running doc of the time was advocating the active drinking of beer as a primary carb and nutrient source while actually running an ultra. In 81 or maybe it was 80, don’t recall, at the end of each 10 mile segment of the 50 miler (5 out, 5 back), I saw him sitting on a blanket with his family, slugging beer down; he had it available to him at the aid (sic) stations as well, as I recall.
    I don’t recall if he finished or not :D

    Sure wish I had known in those days of the carb stupidity I was such a prominent part of. May have saved me a whole bunch of hurt

  5. Anthony

    Indeed, Dr. Davis, Indeed!! I don’t regret for a second the collegiality of the community of which I, and my son – who at 15 set a single age category world record for the 50 mile distance – were such an integral part. What we didn’t know was the cost it incurred. Kurt Harris’ recent commentary posted on Psychology Today about the invidious damage to heart muscle caused by long-distance efforts, and the associated training requirements, well, IMHO, it should give everyone who engages in this activity good reason to pause and rethink it: this from an addicted trail runner! though, no longer :)

  6. Anya

    Even though I know this was not the point of your post and I agree your GI was wrong to say that running caused bleeding, I actually have been doing research on the dangers of hard exercise and running is one of the worst culprits. If you are into the paleo community, there is a huge talk about “chronic cardio” and what dangers it does to the body both internally and externally. In addition, the cardio does nothing for weight loss and actually causes weight gain.

    I also have read (online and in books) that hard impact cardio like running can really upset the gastrointestinal system as the incessant pounding causes irritation and can trigger a flare. I know for me, having colitis, I have been abstaining from hard cardio while going grain free and benefited greatly and I had bleeding for over a year .

    Again, I know this was not the point of your post, but in some aspect, your doc was a little bit right, I think,

    • Steve T.

      I have to disagree. I dropped 20 pounds when I started trail running ten years ago, partly by my body craving better quality food. I don’t understand this repeated cardio bashing.

      FYI, since going Paleo five months ago I’ve dropped an additional 15 pounds.

      Trail running + Paleo = Winning!

      • Anthony

        Steve, with all due respect, sir, check out to see how much of that weight loss was muscle. Hell, I weighed in at 142 and 7.6% BF in 1982 prior to doing the Nickel City 50 in Buffalo. I was sarcopoenic!!! And that was eating Pritikin!!! Doing training runs on trails of 20 to 35 miles, blah blah.
        But hey, if you enjoy it, go for it. What would life be without risk, eh? :)

    • Kathleen

      Hi Anya! Thank you for your input. First of all, I didn’t start running to lose weight. I have always been lean. I started out as a cyclist and morphed into a trail runner after using it for cross training during the winter. No, I am not Paleo. I have always adhered to “everything in moderation”. You are correct in that high intensity running has been associated with ischemia. The problem, for me, as I have discovered over a course of years, is that the intestinal bleeding happened not only after hard, highly intensive runs, but also after easy runs, after bike rides, and on days where I did absolutely nothing.
      That is why I highly doubt, in my own case, that the bleeding is from running. My gastro doc did, too. He scratched his head and commented that, “Humans have been running since the beginning of time – whether to run down their dinner or to escape a predator wanting to eat a human for dinner…..”. He doubted that the running was the cause but didn’t know what else to recommend. Because of my own experimentation over the years (because the docs could give me no true direction), I truly wonder whether ischemia related to running is more a result of a diet that scours the intestines – ie: wheat. Food for thought……..

  7. Dr Davis is really awesome. Best book I have ever read. I want to read as many books as possible about health. I have read all the paleo books and let me know if you guys have any other suggestions?????

    I feel completely as a different person without the wheat. Dropped from 197 pounds to 183. Feel super energetic and lean. I dont know how to describe it but I just feel really healthy.

    I enjoy Tennis, running and surfing. I also love running but I dont run hard. I just run at a very low pace for relaxation and enjoy the scenery. It’s more like a breathing exercise and I stretch along the way.

    I bought those Nike free runs 3.0 and they are super light. It’s like wearing a sock. Exercise is also really good for you but always keep in mind to do something enjoyable and doesnt feel like work.

  8. Thanks, Amine.

    You make a crucial point that I also stress to patients: Exercise should be fun. It shouldn’t be onerous, painful, or a chore. It should be fun, much as your running just to see things and explore. That is a wonderful idea!

  9. Mariana

    What’s with doctors and their continually dismissive atitude? This is something I’ve come across time and again with people who have made changes to their diet that have measurably improved their health: they shrug their shoulders in an adult version of “whatever” and say “Well, if it works for you”, seeming to imply that it’s like a cosmic coincidence that could not be repeated systematically on anyone else; or like the patient is lying; or even worse, that ultimately it doesn’t matter, not to the doctor at least.

    How can it not matter? Surely doctors don’t think they know all there is to know? I remember this interview I once read with a surgeon who in his off-time continues to educate himself by reading medicine magazines, etc. One of his relatives said “Why don’t you, in your off time read about other subjects, like poetry or something, make yourself a more well rounded person?” He replied: “If I were YOUR surgeon, and your life depended on me, would you like me to read about flowers in my off time, or would you rather I spent my off time educating myself to be an even better doctor?” There must be some reason why he was considered the best in his field.

    There’s no shame in admitting that there’s always more to know. So why do doctors have this consistent dismissive attitude, that can only result in people doubting themselves and giving up on a diet that makes them healthy? :(

  10. Kathleen

    I am sorry but I was out of town a few days and missed this post and subsequent posts. I need to catch up!
    When my hubby and I originally read Wheat Belly several months ago, we had checked it from the local library on the recommendation of an ultra trail running coach (many of our friends our ultra trail runners – i.e. running and racing distances of 50 miles, to 100 miles, etc.). We had to read it quickly as it had a ‘hold’ on it and we couldn’t renew!!! Our local bookstore was out of it so we just received our VERY OWN copy this past week so we are re-reading it – taking our time absorbing the info. I guess I had missed, Dr. Davis, that your wife is a triathlete and coach. We like that! :-) I wanted to clarify that my docs were caring and concerned following all of my testing but really didn’t know what to do with me, specifically in regard to the blood in the stool. Although I had a slight bit of intestinal inflammation, there was nothing else that showed up conclusively, ie – celiac – and thankfully no cancer. My gastro doc WAS expecting a celiac dx, but again, nothing came back conclusively. The only thing he could point to was possible ischemia related to the impact from running (and was doubtful as it happened on ‘off’ days and cycling days) but he even questioned that, saying – “Humans have run since the beginning of time, chasing down there food, etc…..”. He was at a loss based on the conventional medical wisdom.

    Because Graves Disease is an auto-immune disorder, and, based on my history of intestinal problems, am wondering whether a gluten intolerance and the Graves are related. I am choosing to eat and live like one who IS celiac. I have been completely clean, as far as I know, for two weeks. No cheat days. No ‘gluten light’. Absolutely no wheat/gluten. I happened across a short article (Digestive Diseases and Sciences) that indicated a higher percentage of Graves patients are also celiac than that of the normal population. Untreated celiac patients produce organ specific auto-antibodies (in this case, thyroid). Hmmmm……. The article also indicated that many of those celiac Graves patients experienced marked improvement or ‘remission’ of their Graves symptoms and auto-antibodies when following a celiac diet from 3 to 6 months. At this point, I have nothing to lose – in my overall health or my Graves. Regardless of whether or not it helps with my Graves, we are absolutely convinced that wheat/gluten free is the healthy way to go. The bonus CERTAINLY would be a marked improvement or resolution of the Graves. If that happens, I would hope to be able to give you a great BIG hug, Dr. Davis! :-) I see a new endocrinologist, who is on staff at a teaching hospital with a fine reputation, at the end of January. I will be grilling her with regard to this subject! :-)

    BTW – two hard trail runs this weekend – no cramping and no blood – and absolutely no wheat! I will continue to diligently monitor but I see and am expecting a trend……… of healing.

    Sorry for arriving so late to the discussion!

    • Hi, Kathleen–

      Agreed that acting like you have celiac is the best policy. I have seen even life-threatening wheat intolerance with negative celiac markers and biopsies. The tests are simply too flawed to be reliable (unless positive).