Why All the Talk about Gluten?
And why “Gluten Free” is not necessarily a life sentence.
woman with gluten stomach pain
There’s a lot of talk about gluten these days. At any gathering including food, you’re likely to encounter someone who is eating gluten free and gluten-free labels are becoming commonplace on grocery store shelves. But why? How is it that gluten free is suddenly a “thing”?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. The word actually comes from the Latin word for glue. Its binding properties are what helps to hold breads and cakes together. Over time, continued exposure to gluten can cause damage to the GI tract interfering with your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. This can lead to a host of other, more serious medical issues.
Gluten intolerance exists on a spectrum. For some, the reaction is a mild insensitivity. For others, consuming gluten causes a severe immune reaction known as Celiac Disease.
Is Gluten Sensitivity New?
As medicine evolves, we’re learning more about genetic predispositions for disease. In the case of Celiac Disease, you either have the gene for that disorder, or you don’t. However, it’s not just the mere presence of the gene that brings on the disease. Environmental factors both inside and outside the body influence whether or not the condition will manifest itself.
So why the uptick in gluten issues? Do more people have the gene today than had it 50 years ago? Some of it could be the fact that we better understand the condition and know how to identify it. But, the bigger reason for the increase is believed to be the mitigating environmental factors that trigger the disease. And, when viewed on the timeline of the evolution of man, these factors are certainly considered new.
Causes of Gluten Intolerance
First, let’s start with diet. Over time, grains have become much more prevalent in the human diet. Simply put, we eat a lot more breads, cereals, pastas, and other grain-based foods than the generations before us. Also, gluten is a common additive to many processed foods and may or may not be easy to identify on a food label. Gluten can also find its way into our diets when the same machinery is used to process both gluten and non-gluten foods.
Secondly, the grains we eat today are not the same grains consumed by our parents and grandparents. The vast majority of wheat consumed by Americans today is genetically modified, and GMO wheat contains more gluten than conventional wheat.
It cannot go without mention that the risks of GMO foods are unknown and thought by many to be responsible for a wide range of food sensitivities and health concerns. We are putting foods into our bodies that we have never been exposed to in the evolution of man. GMO foods have simply not been around long enough to have been thoroughly researched to understand their true impact on our health. And, much of the research that does exist was funded and conducted by the same companies who produce (and profit from) GMO foods.
Thirdly, we have to look at the chemicals that are sprayed onto the foods we eat. Pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, and other POPs (persistent organic pollutants), have been proven to do damage to our GI tract and immune system. In this case, it may make you more sensitive to gluten that your body might otherwise have been strong enough to handle.
Combine a genetic predisposition to the disease, with genetic modifications to the grain, increased consumption, and weakened immune systems and, viola, you have skyrocketing cases of gluten intolerances and Celiac Disease.
The Difference between Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease
I mentioned earlier that reactions to gluten exist on a spectrum. This is a relatively new understanding within the medical community. As little as 30 years ago, some doctors didn’t believe that gluten issues were real. Although that is no longer the case today, misunderstanding and misdiagnosis still exist when it comes to the spectrum of gluten-related conditions.
Celiac Disease is diagnosed by testing blood samples for certain group of antibodies that are present when your body is exposed to gluten. This group of antibodies is known as the IgA antibodies. If test results indicate Celiac Disease, a biopsy may also be performed to assess damage to the small intestine. Its estimated that 1 in 133 Americans has Celiac Disease.
But there are many, many cases in which patients test negative for Celiac Disease but still have gluten-related issues. This condition is known as nonceliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). NCGS does not show up in Celiac screenings because the body is reacting to different components of wheat and therefore isn’t producing IgA antibodies. Instead, the body will produce a different class of antibody known as an IgG antibody. Unfortunately, most medical offices do not test for IgG antibodies.
This is further complicated by the fact that reactions to different components of wheat manifest themselves in many different ways. Often they are not the classic digestive symptoms that we associate with gluten reactions. These other reactions include eczema, psoriasis, depression, peripheral neuropathy, or ADHD, to name a few.
As a result of the varying reactions combined with different forms of testing, some patients don’t know to test for a gluten reaction, while others are told that they don’t have a gluten problem. These people may continue to eat gluten and put themselves at risk for serious illnesses including multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune disorders, neurological problems, osteoporosis, and certain cancers. Some estimate that gluten intolerances affect 6 to 10 times more people than Celiac Disease.
Treating Celiac Disease
Today, there is no cure for Celiac Disease. While it’s not a problem that can be fixed, there are certainly ways to help manage the illness. First and foremost, dietary adjustments are made to eliminate all sources of gluten to avoid further damage to the GI tract. Additionally, it’s important to work to heal the GI tract through other dietary changes, lifestyle modifications, and, in some case, use of supplements.
Treating Gluten Sensitivities
The good news is that gluten intolerances or sensitivities, that are not deemed to be Celiac Disease, are treatable and can often be fixed.
First, lab analysis will be done to identify all of the foods that you are sensitive to, as invariably, there will be more than just gluten.
Once problematic foods are identified, a specific dietary regimen will be designed to help you rotate through foods that are known to not cause a reaction for you. Supplements may also be recommended during this time. The combination of diet and supplements will allow your GI tract to heal over time. Once you normalize the barrier between your food and your immune system, the IgG antibodies that were causing issues will breakdown and eventually be recycled back into the body.
Slowly, we will reintroduce certain foods back into your diet to see if they still cause issues in your now healthy GI tract.
These dietary regimens have been studied and tested over many years. It’s been my experience that after completing treatment, patients can go back to eating the vast majority of foods that before had caused problems – even gluten.
If you have unexplained or unresolved GI issues, you may be dealing with a sensitivity or intolerance that may or may not be gluten related. I invite you to my office for a no-cost Functional Medicine consultation.
The science of Functional Medicine and clinical nutrition offer a drug-free alternative to people suffering from chronic disease. This biological approach uncovers and corrects the core clinical imbalances underlying many chronic conditions including: GI disturbances, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.