Gluten is a hard-to-digest protein found in many whole grains and cereals – and is often hidden in processed foods as binders, starch and fillers. A 2009 study from Gastroenterology comparing the blood of 10,000 people from 50 years ago to 10,000 people today found that the incidences of full-blown celiac disease increased by 400 percent during that time period.
Read some fascinating research by Alex Swanson on the history of wheat, and how people with celiac may be able to eat a certain type of wheat bread.
What is Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that 2 million people in the US (or 1 in 133 people) have celiac disease, possibly more due to underdiagnosis.
Celiac disease (also called celiac sprue) is an autoimmune disease that results in the body attacking its own small intestine whenever you eat products containing gluten (e.g., wheat, rye and barley). According to Columbia University Medical Center, there are two main causes for celiac disease:
- Wheat. Eating wheat has been found to cause celiac disease. Further research isolated the protein gluten and even smaller proteins called gliadins, which can precipitate celiac disease in previously asymptomatic celiacs. Such proteins are also found in barley, rye and oats.
- Genetics. Research has found that celiac disease runs in families, although first degree relatives may or may not have symptoms. In our practice, we have seen a trend of Caucasian, northern European heritage being the most sensitive.
While there is no test to conclusively diagnose celiac disease, there are antibodies, which can be characteristic (though not specific to) to celiac disease. Additionally, due to the wide range of symptoms which can mimic other illnesses, celiac disease can be difficult to diagnose.
Gluten sensitivity occurs in individuals (particularly first degree family members of those with celiac disease) who have circulating antibodies characteristic of celiac disease, but could be asymptomatic or have fewer symptoms of celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity is a less extreme reaction to gluten, but can occur at any age and has a wide range of connections to different health-issues. Many people have trouble digesting wheat. Gluten damages the tissue that lines the digestive tract, affecting nutrition absorption.
Do you find yourself getting brain fog? In gluten sensitive individuals, gluten can actually shut down blood flow in to the frontal and prefrontal cortex, the part responsible for focus, managing emotional states, planning, organizing, consequences of actions, and our short term memory. This process is called “hypoperfusion” and is strongly associated with ADHD, depression and anxiety.
- Abdominal pain
- Low immunity
- Hair loss
- Itchy skin
- Tingling or numbness in hands and feet
Celiac Disease increases the risk of the following:
- Autoimmune health-issues
- Addison’s disease
- Intestinal cancer
- Intestinal lymphoma
- Type 1 diabetes
- Thyroid health-issues
- Dairy allergies
A recent large study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with diagnosed, undiagnosed, and “latent” celiac disease or gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death, mostly from heart disease and cancer. The study found a a 39 percent increased risk of death in those with celiac disease, 72 percent increased risk in those with gut inflammation related to gluten, and 35 percent increased risk in those with gluten sensitivity but no celiac disease.
The mucosal walls of a healthy digestive tract are lined with tiny fingerlike protrusions called villi, which facilitate the absorption of nutrients from food. Gluten causes degenerative changes in the villi, impairing their function. Once damaged, the villi are less able to absorb nutrients from food, which leads to assorted problems, including fatigue, abdominal bloating and water retention. This slows the metabolism, causing sluggish digestion and accumulation of waste. Over time, this can lead to “leaky gut syndrome,” in which intestinal walls deteriorate and become more permeable, allowing waste, toxins, bacteria and partially digested food particles to escape into circulation and cause inflammatory damage elsewhere in the body.
Our genetics are still 99.9% hunter-gatherer, with grains and dairy only entering the food supply roughly 10,000 years ago; a blink of an eye in terms of human history when it’s estimated we have been hunter gatherers for 2.7 million years. This helps explain that the two most common allergies/sensitivities connected to the majority of health-issues is wheat and dairy. We have repeatedly seen that removing gluten from the diet will alleviate current symptoms.
Here are three reasons we have seen such a dramatic increase in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity:
- Ubiquitous amount of wheat in the diet: We went from “our daily bread” to our daily bagel, sandwich, cracker, pasta, cookie, muffin and any condiment that often has gluten.
- Hybrid Wheat: Wheat has been modified to have higher gluten levels so that bread can rise faster for mass production. Gluten-sensitive individuals who visit Europe often report that they do not react to the bread or pastries.
- Degeneration Effects: People around the age of 30 and older do not recall going to a birthday party and witnessing children unable to eat the pizza or cake because of gluten. Today, celiac disease and gluten sensitivity have become very common and are more likely to occur if gluten intolerance runs in the family.
If you do not have celiac or a gluten sensitivity and are simply trying to cut down on gluten, we recommend eating it once every three days. It takes about 72 hours for the lining of an average person’s intestine to turn over, exposing a new layer of healthy mucosa and a new set of healthy villi, which are ready to deal with a new onslaught of gluten. Otherwise, following the list below will help your transition to a gluten-free diet.
Most cereals, grains, pastas, breads, cookies, muffins and processed foods contain some type of gluten unless they are specifically made to be gluten-free. There are many options for those on a gluten-free diet, but always read labels carefully; gluten can be hidden in many foods. Avoid anything with the following words: stabilizer, starch, flavoring, emulsifier, hydrolyzed plant protein.
The following terms found on food labels may mean that gluten is in the product.
- Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, unless made from soy or corn
- Flour or Cereal products, unless made with rice flour, corn flour, potato flour, or garbanzo bean flour
- Vegetable Protein, unless made from soy or corn
- Malt or Malt Favoring
- Modified Food Starch unless arrowroot, corn, potato, tapioca or maize
- Vegetable Gum, unless carob bean gum, locust bean gum, cellulose gum, guar gum, gum Arabic, gum aracia, gum tragacanth, xanthan gum or vegetable starch
- Soy Sauce, unless Tamari (wheat-free soy sauce)
- Alcohol – beer (gluten free can be found), gin, vodka (unless potato), scotch
- Flavored tea and coffee
- Artificial coffee creamer
- Imitation seafood products
- Malt vinegar and white vinegar
- Starch, binders and fillers
- Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
- Garlic salt, onion salt and some mustard powders
Gluten-Free Grains and Flours
- Brown Rice
- Wild Rice
- Nut and Seed
- Sweet potato
Some Favorite Gluten-Free Brands
Find some great gluten free options in the SHC Grocery Store.
Restaurants that currently offer Gluten-Free Menu items
- P.F. Chang’s
- Z Pizza
- Claim Jumper
- Outback Steak House
1. Rubio-Tapia A, Kyle RA, Kaplan EL, Johnson DR, Page W, Erdtmann F, Brantner TL, Kim WR, Phelps TK, Lahr BD, Zinsmeister AR, Melton LJ 3rd, Murray JA. Increased prevalence and mortality in undiagnosed celiac disease. Gastroenterology. 2009 Jul;137(1):88-93
2. Ludvigsson JF, Montgomery SM, Ekbom A, Brandt L, Granath F. Small-intestinal histopathology and mortality risk in celiac disease. JAMA. 2009 Sep 16;302(11):1171-8.
3. Fallon, Sally and Enig, Mary. Be Kind To Your Grains. Weston A. Price Foundation. Excerpt from Nourishing Traditions. http://www.westonaprice.org/moderndiseases/gluten-intolerance.html
4. Celiac Disease. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.
5. Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity. Columbia University Medical Center.
7. Andrew Rubman, ND, medical director, Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines, Southbury, Connecticut,www.naturopath.org.
9. Well Being Journal. The Grim Side of Grains. May/June 2012.