Sound Sensitivity and Sensory Integration

Too much to process —
too much to THINK through

©Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
All Rights Reserved
Sensory Defensiveness Series – Part 1

Sound Sensitivity and Sensory Integration: Too much to process – too much to THINK through

“I have been talking and writing about sensory problems for over 20 years, and am still perplexed by many people who do not acknowledge sensory issues and the pain and discomfort they can cause. 

A person doesn’t have to be on the autism spectrum to be affected by sensory issues.”
Dr. Temple Grandin, The Way I See It

OURSELVES, growing older

My father “Brandy” was an amazingly healthy man for most of his 90+ years on earth. His mind stayed sharp right up to the end, but his body grew weary as the years went by — little betrayals and injustices to a man who was once strong and active. His once keen eyesight was the first to fade.

When I was just an undergrad, I remember his telling me that “his arms were no longer long enough.”  Now that I am older than the age he was then, I know just what he means: focal length. Presbyopia, they call it.

As the eyes grow older, the cornea becomes less flexible. It can no longer “squeeze down” enough to sharpen close-up focus.

  • I don’t think he ever really made friends with his reading glasses, though I’m sure he was grateful for anything that allowed him to continue to read.
  • I know I am – although I miss the days when I had the sharpest eyesight of anyone anyone knew, near or far.
  • I had no idea of the extent to which my cognition was linked to that sharp eyesight, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As my father grew older, the world became louder – to everyone around him.

As he aged his hearing began to fade as well, so everything he listened to was LOUD — television, talk-radio, music – anything, really.  Although certainly understandable, it was also certainly annoying to those of us with normal hearing.  The volume he could tolerate hurt my ears, sometimes – even through the phone.

Have you ever been around someone with hearing challenges?

  • If you have, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, go turn on the TV or radio right now — and turn it w-a-y UP.
  • NOW try to concentrate on reading this article.
  • Keep reading, and give it at least a full minute before you turn it off or down to the level of background music.
  • Whew!  That WAS annoying, wasn’t it?  How much do you recall of what you read?

Wouldn’t it be awful if, for some reason, you were unable to turn the sound back down?  How long do you think you would be able to tolerate it calmly?

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Sound Sensitivity

That’s what the world is like for people with sound sensitivities. EVERYTHING is already too loud, almost all the time. What the rest of us consider sudden “loud” noises are frighteningly jarring — actually painful for some. Being constantly startled by volume variation makes them grumpy.

And their world gets smaller.

They want to avoid places where those loud noises are likely to occur: fireworks displays, of course – but also things like parties, sports events, grocery stores, even the large family gatherings that tend to occur on holidays.

What most people don’t understand is that sound sensitivity is often a result of faulty brain-wiring: a sensory integration issue. In addition to many individuals born with autistic-spectrum and attentional challenges, sound sensitivity is frequently a consequence of brain damage [TBI], and often accompanies PTSD.

Many people, even professionals who work with PTSD, misunderstand the loud noise/startle response.  It may well have a psychologically-based component that triggers a flashback but, at base, it’s frequently a neurological issue.  The sensory integration pathways have been scrambled and must be healed or reconstructed.

“What if you’re receiving the same sensory information as everyone else, but your brain is interpreting it differently? Then your experience of the world around you will be radically different from everyone else, maybe even painfully so.” ~ Temple Grandin, Autistic Brain

©Creative Commons - tanakawho

©Creative Commons – click  for SOURCE

Born Sensitive

Children who are born with sound sensitivity seem to cry incessantly.  Their parents are frequently encouraged to blame “colic,” told that it will eventually pass.

Unless their brains somehow learn to integrate essential “sensory awareness neuro-filters” as they grow older, many of those children are still, in essence, crying incessantly.  It just looks different.

Passing through childhood, they don’t seem to want to play with other children, go to school, to the playground or the movies – even visit loving grandparents, where something is almost always too darned loud. They balk.

Things are simply too NOISY for comfort in those environments. These children can’t focus through all that racket – they must feel as if they can barely breathe.

Since they’ve never known anything but sound sensitivity, they are unable to explain why they want to avoid those “auditorily boisterous” environments.  They just know they hate them.

Many haven’t connected the dots between the decibel level and what they don’t like, so few can let you know that IT IS SIMPLY TOO UNPLEASANTLY NOISY THERE!!!

  • Many parents chalk it up to willfulness and force them to go anyway – sometimes with raised voices that appear to “encourage” compliance.  They have no idea that they are putting their beloved child in a situation of “pick your poison.”
  • When the children “misbehave” in those environments, they are punished rather than comforted.
  • So the sensory integration issues are never identified, and the brains of most of these children never learn how to cope.  Learning challenges, psychological issues and sometimes drug abuse domino from there.

Other senses, other problems

Sensory Integration issues and sensitivity problems aren’t confined to the sense of hearing, however.  People can be highly sensitive to smells, tastes, visual stimulation, temperature – any of the sensory pathways can be affected.

And, as Temple Grandin so accurately points out, sensory defensiveness is not confined to the autistic spectrum.

  • MANY ADDers – and others with Executive Functioning dysregulations – have sensory defensiveness as part of their symptom profile – although not generally to the same degree as those who would warrant a Sensory Integration diagnosis.
  • Most of us don’t even think about our little quirks and preferences as part of a profile at all.

Examples of Sensory Sensitivities

Illustration by Philip Martin

Illustration by Philip Martin, artist/educator

Taste & Texture

Children who are extremely picky eaters may be unable to tolerate certain tastes or smells, or may find certain textures “creepy.” It’s not the same for them as it is for most of us, where taste and texture are primarily an issue of preference.

Science doesn’t fully understand the source of these individual preferences, but it’s a darned good bet that the same food tastes or feels different to each of us.

Professional chefs are well aware of the importance of “mouth-feel” to the enjoyment of a dish.  And there have been many food science studies on the impact of smell to our experience of taste.

The impact of odor

One simply has to take a quick glance at the perfume counter in any large department store to be made aware of the fact that human beings prefer a great many different kinds of smells.

The existence of “lighter” and “heavier” fragrances alone underscores the importance of the dynamic of smell saturation.  Marketing and advertising aside, why else are many women (and men) likely to change their scent in the summer?

In addition to how we like to smell, most of us have odors we love and those we don’t – including those that are almost universally repulsive. Science believes that those “disgust” reactions to smell are what they refer to as a “hard-wired,” part of our evolutionary development designed to keep us healthy.  If it smells bad, we won’t eat it!

An unfortunate few of us cannot tolerate odors of any kind, but more than a few can’t STAND certain smells that most people tolerate easily, or actually like.

Have you ever been in a crowded elevator packed with fashionistas – especially in the summer?  The assault of the mix of perfumes is almost overwhelming, isn’t it?

It seems to be easier to tolerate when one of the scents, at least, is one that is extremely pleasing to us.  When we can’t stand any of them we usually exit at the next floor and wait for the next elevator car, more than a little disgruntled at the inconvenience.

Expand that idea and it becomes easier to understand those picky eaters, as well as strong negative reactions to room fresheners and incense, laundry products, and many of the other smells associated with the items and circumstances we run into every day.

I can’t stand the smell of a certain product many people use to cover up litter-box odors – and the smell of moth-balls makes me literally gag.

I could have murdered an ex-beau who, trying to be helpful, sprinkled moth crystals in the bottom of all my Christmas totes that were going into the garage! He never understood why that little stunt RUINED Christmas for me that year.

But at least I was aware of why it was unpleasant to have that smell mingled with the pine.  Sensory defensive kids usually pitch a fit or have a melt-down when faced with smells that are noxious to them.

Temperature Sensitivities

I can’t deal with heat.  Not only am I extremely uncomfortable, I seem to lose the ability to think.  My brain wilts.

Others can’t tolerate cold environments – they absolutely HATE being cold. I suspect that the reason they don’t simply layer on more clothing has to do with the presence of some additional sensitivities that we’ll get to next.

Tactile Stimulation

Some people have no problem wearing almost anything. Others can’t stand certain textures against their skin, and many are driven crazy by the tags that are affixed to clothing by law. They simply have to cut them out.

Men have reported feeling strangled when forced to wear a tie – and not just as a metaphor. Some women feel the same way about turtlenecks, neck scarves – or hats (or even gloves!)

Some folks can’t abide clothing that restricts movement, even when there is a great deal of Lycra in the mix. Others find tight, close-fitting clothes oddly comforting – as long as there is enough “stretch” to the fabric that they can move around freely.

I facilitated a live support group once where a mother and her teen-aged son were in attendance. They were both amazed to finally have a reason to explain the stretchy, long-sleeved, skin-tight turtlenecks the son insisted on wearing, even in the summer.

Lucky for him he didn’t have my heat-sensitivity problem as well!

He was also extremely fortunate that his mother understood the wisdom of picking her battles. She chose not to make a huge deal out of what her son chose to wear on his own body – but she always wondered about what seemed to her an oddball preference.

Excellent article for more about proprioception sensitivities:
Tight Fitting Clothing: A Sensory Mystery Unravelled

Many folks have a similar problem to a lesser degree — they don’t want their clothes to “move around by themselves.” They find flowy clothing or clothing that slips around on the body annoyingly distracting.

Other folks have the opposite problem — they find clothing that “hugs the body” distractingly confining.  An aversion to turtlenecks is one of the more common manifestations of this processing style.

Many who prefer sleeping in the nude – or kids who insist on sleeping in their underwear – do so because of similar tactile sensitivities, whether they are aware of it or not.  In that case, of course, bedding becomes an increasingly important focus when there’s nothing between you and the sheets!

Sound Sensitivity and Sensory Integration: Too much to process – too much to THINK throughSpeaking of sleep — and sheets

Many who have trouble with sleep might be surprised to discover that it is tied directly to an element of sensory defensiveness.  They tend to be picky about what they are willing to sleep in – as well as what they are willing to sleep under – and on.

Most of us have similarly strong bedding preferences actually, just not to the same degree as a tactile-defensive.  As a result, we frequently allow another factor – availability or cost, perhaps – to become more important than making sure we sleep in, on or under our first choices.

Some of us know what we like, but we’ve never taken the time to figure out what it is, exactly, that we like about it.

Oddly enough, many of us can’t easily and quickly drift off to sleep when the blankets are too light-weight. Those who can say why tend to admit that they feel too vulnerable without a calming, comforting weight tucking them in. (More about weight and pressure coming up in a future article in this Series)

I’ll bet somebody reading this article sleeps under blankets in the summer – perhaps with the air conditioning going full-blast (or tolerates that behavior in a loved-one).  Now you may find it easier to understand why.

Others can’t get to sleep unless the covers are light weight. They feel too confined – almost smothered. Those who have reported that they are also cold-defensive have found down comforters to be a life-altering experience. (There are now, fortunately, light-weight warmth alternatives for those who are allergic to feathers).

Down on Down

I longed for a particular, quite expensive down comforter for many years before I finally felt that I could afford the splurge.  It was quickly relegated to the role of feather-bed.  I simply couldn’t get to sleep under that thing — way too light (and way too hot)!

I turned out to be someone who needed more weight on top, so it now goes under me (but only in the winter).  Who knew?

Check out: A Natural Approach: Weighted Blankets For Anxiety & Depression

Sheet preference

Your choice of bed linen is another area to consider where high-quality sleep is an issue.  Different strokes for different folks – it matters more than we realize.

While Egyptian Cotton is considered the ultimate in luxury, some people need a bit of anti-wrinkle insurance in the fabric (unless they are eager to saddle themselves with an additional ironing chore).  For many of these folks, a wrinkle-resistant, machine wash-and-dry-friendly polyester/cotton blend is a far better choice.

Then there are those individuals who grumble through ironing every single sheet.  Few of them realize that what helps them drift off to sleep best is the crispness of freshly ironed bedding.

Not surprisingly, they also insist on changing their sheets more often than the rest of us. Many complain about THAT chore too, but they are loathe to stop, for “some reason” they can’t explain.  (They can get more than a bit testy with anyone who tries to encourage them to give up the fight, so don’t even try.)

I’m not particularly tactile-defensive, but I am extremely vulnerable to distractions. I wasted a great deal of money on a set of pricey flannel sheets one year.  They seemed like a great idea for winter, especially since I love the cozy warmth of my flannel pjs when the weather gets chilly.

The flannel wrinkles surrounding my entire being really bugged me, and it felt almost like sleeping on soft Velcro™ – I stuck to them, or so it seemed.  They also pilled slightly in the wash. Creepy to sleep on!

I also found satin sheets far too “slithery” for me.  Others swear by them – especially satin pillow cases. Even hair slithers right off those things, which is a pretty good idea for most people with longer hair – less breakage.  It’s even claimed that sleeping on a satin pillowcase reduces face wrinkling.

I wouldn’t know about that – I couldn’t STAND the darned things!

Apparently, what we can tolerate when we’re up and moving is greater than what we need to be able to navigate the transition into sleep.


click image for source (opens in a new window/tab)

Those of you who are parents of kids who simply won’t stay in bed might want to give some additional consideration to the sheets you buy for them.  The latest fad sheets might LOOK great to your child, but the child probably won’t be aware enough to tell you that those way-cool sheets don’t feel so great when they’re trying to drift off to dreamland.

Likewise, pay attention to when the out-of-bed problem tends to occur most often.  Could the smell of certain fabrics (or your laundry detergent) be part of the problem?

If your kids also lean toward avoiding certain fabric blends in their clothing, insist on wearing “dirty” clothing, or don’t like it when you change their sheets, it almost certainly is.

Don’t ask them directly – they won’t know how to answer the question.  Play a “which smells the best/which feels the best?” game instead.  Wash their “best feeling” jammies and bedding in the detergent with the smell they chose to see if that makes a difference before you conclude that there is something else behind their behavior.

Visual over-stimulation

Most of us have difficulty functioning in a cluttered environment, but some of us simply can’t DO it.

Above a certain level of visual stimulation, our eyes seem to have difficulty picking out individual objects. We spend way too much time looking for things that are “right there.”

What’s going on is that our brain circuits are too “overwhelmed” by all that visual racket to let us know what our eyes are, in actuality, seeing just fine.

Color sensitivity is common.

Those “bright pops of color” most decorators are in love with are bright pops of distraction to many of us with sensitivities in the visual arena – almost annoying.

Some of us don’t like the distraction of patterns and prints — we prefer to dress and decorate in solid colors.

Others – and not only those of us who spent a lot of time in New York or Paris – tend to prefer dressing in somber tones, almost like someone on the way to a funeral, except perhaps for the visual relief of a trendy scarf or “statement necklace.”

Blue Willow DishwareIllustrating Color Sensitity on Sound Sensitivity and Sensory Integration - my intro article introducing this concept throughout ALL of the senses (with examples) - opens in a new window/tabMost of us have strong color preferences – favorite colors – as well as colors we don’t like AT ALL.

I’ve been told that I’m in the clear minority but, except for dark navy, I’ve rarely liked to live with any other shade of blue (meaning in my fabrics or on my walls.)

It just bugs me. I avoid blue whenever I can. Except that I have always loved my Blue Willow dishware.  Go figure!

Since becoming a bit of a neuro-geek, I have come to believe that the sheen quite possibly changes the way the color hits my eyes – or the way in which my brain interprets the color in a manner that changes my perception and my preferences.

Just don’t suggest that little exception is an indication that there might be a shade of blue I’d want to wear (or use to decorate my living space otherwise).  NOPE.

Light sensitivity

Many visual-defensives are disabled by things the rest of us don’t even notice.

Florescent lights flicker, for example – even before they are about to roll over and die.  Most of us can’t tell – we simply cannot see that flicker.  It can drive a sensitive visual-defensive to drink!  In extreme cases, seizures have resulted from over-exposure to florescent lighting – sometimes with short-term exposure as well.

In addition to the cognitive challenges presented by the spectral qualities of the light emitted from those florescent bulbs, for more than a few visual-defensives, working by florescent light is more like it would be for the rest of us to attempt to get anything done under a strobe light.

And yet, because they are a cost-effective source of lighting, most schools use florescent lights exclusively. Think about THAT when Johnny can’t read!

(CLICK HERE for more information about light-bulbs and cognition – scroll DOWN for it)

By the way, a cap with a brim to shield the eyes from overhead flicker can sometimes work miracles – but most schools have a dress code that forbids caps.

Since most kids hate to be different, even an exception made as part of an Individualized Education Program [IEP] is of little use if the child leaves the cap in his or her backpack!

If you have a child who prefers to play outside only with the arrival of dusk, it is almost as likely to be to avoid the glare and brightness of the light as much as summer‘s omnipresent heat.

Degrees of difference

Not everyone with sensory sensitivities is challenged to the degree experienced by those with Sensory Integration Disorder, of course.  But it’s worth being aware of sensory processing sensitivities if you – or someone you love – appears to have “issues,” especially those that seem to come and go (or are environment-specific).

Future articles in this Series will take a closer look at Sensory Integration, Sensory Processing Disorder [SPD], as well as sensory-defensiveness — including Irlen Syndrome, a particular category of Visual Integration challenges. We also don’t want to leave Auditory Processing Disorder out of the mix.

So stay tuned. (There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others – get it here while it’s still free for the taking!)

Meanwhile, you might be interested in a few books on the topic.
Below are three that are often recommended:

• Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, by Sharon Heller (Dec 2, 2003)

• The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz and Lucy Jane Miller (Apr 4, 2006)

• Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child
with Sensory Processing Issues
by Lindsey Biel and Nancy Peske (Aug 25, 2009)

There are also a great many books on the topic written especially for children.

For comprehensive information on sensory issues check out Sensory World, or the Sensory Processing Disorder Resource Center (both include sections with products designed to help)

Be sure to scroll down to the Related Content references below – a smattering of the best of the web.

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

30 Responses to Sound Sensitivity and Sensory Integration

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  7. A fascinating post, Madelyn. I think you have really unpacked some of the difficulties experienced by children suffering from a sensory disorder in a very helpful way. Your comments around sleep and tactile sensitivity was extremely interesting to me. I cannot sleep a wink unless I am covered up. It is sometimes 40 degrees Celsius in SA and I still need a cover a night. I can’t sleep without one and I also can’t sleep with a ceiling fan blowing on me. My hubbie can’t sleep properly in a strange bed and sleeps best with Egyptian cotton. My goodness, no wonder Michael has a processing problem… Shared on my Facebook page @SirChocolateBooks and to one of my sister’s who has a child with a sensory disorder.


    • Thanks so much for reading – and especially for sharing, Robbie.

      LOL re: “no wonder” – we all have different ways of processing – and most of us have sensitivities (not all at a diagnostic level like Michael, of course, and many which we tend to think of as merely quirks or “preferences”). It’s surprising to me how little most folks know about sensory processing. Maybe they need to read our blogs – 🙂

      I’m with you on the covers – even tho’ I am extremely heat sensitive I can’t ever get to sleep uncovered – even if it’s just a sheet. But I actually sleep better with a ceiling fan, which, unfortunately is missing in my current digs (rented – the overhead light is missing totally!). I find fans blowing straight at me on my level extremely annoying and even if I could make friends with window A/C in every single room, I’d blow all the fuses!

      Must be tough for your husband to travel. As long as the strange bed is comfortable and the rest is in place, I sleep like the dead (once I GET to sleep, that is). 🙂

      The amazing diversity of the human brain – endlessly fascinating.


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  20. dentistry says:

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    your blog on my iphone during lunch break.

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    • Well, I can’t tell whether you are a spammer or NOT, Mark, but I so appreciate your comment I’m approving it anyway – live link and all.

      I once did a show (Cowboy) with a great tune by the late-great composer Dick Riddle from Missoula, Montana (Colorado My Home Sweet Home – the Charles Russell character sings it as he paints). Thanks for that memory — haven’t revisited THAT in a while.


    • PS – when you get the time to read this article, think “fear of dentists” and why so many refuse to go for cleanings, etc. The genesis of a blog post for YOU, perhaps? (I already have way too many in draft so it won’t make it to the top of my own list for some time yet — you write it and I’ll link to it or guest-post it — your choice.


  21. busydarling says:

    I’ve got tactile oversensitivity, including textures in food, and to some extent to sound.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve noticed that MOST of us are somewhat “over” sensitive (relative to the so-called norm) in one or more of the modalities — even those who don’t really notice it themselves.

      That’s why I started this series with such a generalist look at the topic. I didn’t want folks deciding it didn’t apply to them until they’d taken a look FIRST at what “over-sensitivity” looks like in a life.

      As the Series continues, I’ll “drill down.” VERY interesting stuff, and seriously under-reported.

      Thanks for reading – and taking the time to comment.


  22. janesherwin says:

    Reblogged this on Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome an autism spectrum disorder and commented:
    A really informative and well written post about sensory processing disorder. Many people with ASD will have sensory processing issues on one level or another and so it is a really important area to educate yourself on if you care for an individual who may be experiencing sensory processing disorder.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the reblog, Jane. As I’m sure YOU noticed, this introduction to the topic was written at a very basic level.

      I wanted to offer information to readers who aren’t diagnostic for Sensory Integration – or who aren’t actually sensory-defensive – to be able to understand that they may still have over-sensitivities in one or more sensory arenas. Making a few simple changes can really help focus and follow-through.

      I will cover things in greater depth as the Series moves forward.

      Thanks for helping me get the word out.


  23. Pingback: The Female Profile and PDA, could this be the missing link? | Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome an autism spectrum disorder

  24. janetkwest says:

    I was that child that was sensitive to clothes. I still am. Cotton is good for me. My sons had the same problem, but at least I could help them. Thanks for the helpful information. Give me a yell (whisper) about the vegan information. -Janet

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wasn’t fond of scratchy petticoats that went with many of the little-girl dresses back in the day – but then I wasn’t all that fond of many of the little-girl dresses back in the day!

      Once my mother developed the expertise to be my tailor, I didn’t have to deal with tags. Now that she’s gone I remove most of the tags that come (by law) on purchased clothing, carefully wielding a seam-ripper (WHAT a pain!)

      AS far as that yell/whisper is concerned: If you are talking about the gluten sensitivity info, I’m drafing an article (may turn into more) with the hi-lights of the Summit.

      I still do not know what changes I will make in MY life and diet – and won’t until I jump through some testing hoops with the guidance of colleague Dr. Charlie Parker — who’s been following the link between diet/gut/brain/meds response & functioning throughout his lengthy career.

      ME? Give up gluten? Darlin’ if it would make a difference in my chronos so that I could have a real LIFE, I’d give up sex!

      But until and unless it can be demonstrated to be problematic in my very own body, the jury’s still out.

      Thanks always for taking the time to ring in and “like.”
      UPDATE FOR ALL (10/’16): I did give up gluten – and it did help. Another plus — once those particular gluten proteins recently found to be the meanies stopped pin-pricking my gut lining, the fat that started to accumulate around my middle stopped what I had believed was “middle-age creep.”


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