Gluten: Why Has Become Such a Problem - Part 1

What is Gluten Intolerance?

Gluten sensitivity is a seemingly more common condition with symptoms seen clinically practically every day. Its most commonly associated with Celiac disease, a genetic-based autoimmune condition in which the intestinal tract becomes more inflamed when gluten-containing foods are consumed. Over time, the absorptive capacity of the small intestine is greatly reduced leading to nutritional deficiencies. As a result, an industry of gluten-free products has grown as an alternative for those people who cannot tolerate gluten.

So what’s the big deal with gluten? Is it the scourge of the 21st century, or is it yet another health fad? Celiac disease is definitely on the rise, but is a disease that is increasing or just better detected? Also, are there other health conditions that benefit from being gluten-free? Let’s take a closer look gluten sensitivity, and if it’s wise for you to avoid gluten.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein commonly found in wheat, but also present in a number of other common grains such as barley, rye, and spelt. It increases both the elasticity and strength of wheat flour as a baking ingredient. It provides pliability helps create the air cells to form in bread and keeps baked goods from crumbling.

Likewise, it is also used extensively by major food manufacturers as a binder, thickener, and filler in prepared foods. Surprisingly, gluten can be found in everything from ice cream to candy, chewing gum to non-dairy creamer, and fruit filling to root beer. It is also very popular with many fast foods chains in which it is mixed in with meat products to cut costs.

Yet another source of this protein is found in food additives which can be the most difficult part of maintaining a gluten-free diet. These include brewer’s yeast, hydrolyzed vegetable (or plant) protein, modified food starch, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Ultimately, gluten finds its way into many foods, condiments, and seasonings. It takes a keen eye and research to find products that are truly gluten-free. As a rule, the cheaper the food, the more likely it is to contain gluten.

Interestingly enough, there are those who are gluten sensitive (but not with celiac disease) who find that they can eat wheat without reaction while traveling in Europe. Why is that? Research has found that in the U.S. the agriculture industry has selectively bred grains to be more glutinous. This may be a cause of the higher incidence of gluten sensitivity in the U.S. than in other parts of the world.

Why Are People so Reactive?

So, are people becoming sensitized to gluten? The answer is yes! Admittedly, the tests that screen for celiac disease and gluten reactivity have become more sensitive. Additionally, health care providers are also increasingly aware of both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity in their patient populations. That said, there have been several studies that have found evidence in an increase in gluten sensitivity.

One such study tested stored blood samples taken by military members during the 1950s and compared reactivity to gluten of modern gender-matched subjects and found a startling increase the rate of celiac disease. The findings revealed that celiac disease went from 1 in 700 people to 1 in 100! More alarming, researchers located those who tested positive from the blood samples in the 1950s and found a 4-fold increase in the risk of death by stroke or heart attack!

Gluten-Related Health Conditions

So far, I’ve thrown around a few gluten-related conditions. Let’s discuss them in greater detail. Really, there are two main health conditions associated with gluten intolerance: celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Both of which can have mild to severe symptoms and can result in increased risk of disease and death!

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition associated with genetic variants to the HLA-DQ2 or DQ8 genes. Patients with severe IBS-like symptoms are typically tested for celiac disease and the diagnosis is established with a positive test.

Interestingly enough research has found that when testing the general population than among those who test positive for Celiac Disease that only 12.5% had the classic digestive symptoms associated with the disease. The remaining 87.5% testing positive had non-GI symptoms and conditions including migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disorders, obesity, type-1 diabetes, ADHD in children, and mental illness in adults.

Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity is typically thought of as an allergic reaction to gluten which contains the two commonly reactive proteins gliadin and glutenin. These proteins are problematic for people with either gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. It’s my opinion that research will show that gluten sensitivity will be a much bigger health issue than we realize.

Most lab tests only look for immune reactions to gliadin. This results in many people having “false negative” results to these tests. Their practitioner tells them that gluten isn’t their problem and they are left to struggle with what ultimately is, in fact, gluten intolerance via glutenin. So, for anyone who has tested negative for gluten sensitivity, it’s worthwhile to revisit testing with more sensitive testing (discussed later in the article).

That said, there are four subtypes of gliadin: alpha, beta, gamma, and omega; unfortunately, only the alpha-gliadin test is offered by the larger national labs that provide service to most health plans. Additionally, research has found compelling evidence that there are several components of wheat that can trigger an immune response beyond gluten itself. These other reactive proteins found in wheat fall outside of the diagnosis of celiac disease if found positive during testing.

In part 2, we’ll look closer at the symptoms of gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance testing, and other recommended resources to learn more about how gluten affects your health!




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