Most Americans realize by now that a steady diet of cheeseburgers and soda will lead to heart disease and diabetes. What they don’t know is there is another offender in the typical American diet that most people would never suspect to be causing them a problem. That silent villain is gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, kamut, spelt, and oats. Gluten is a major component of most breads, pastas, flour tortillas, and the majority of processed foods like crackers and cookies. Gluten is the part of these foods that makes the dough light and fluffy yet still stick together.
For years it was thought that only people with Celiac disease had difficulty digesting gluten. There is recent evidence however that there is a spectrum of gluten intolerance throughout our population that ranges from the mildly gluten sensitive to completely allergic (Celiac disease). Current estimates are that six out of ten people are now gluten sensitive and would benefit from cutting gluten out of their diet.
Why is gluten such a problem?
The most likely reason is that the human digestive tract has not evolved to digest grasses yet, especially the new “super-gluten” molecule that has now taken over the majority of American wheat. The term “super-gluten” applies to American wheat strains which have a much higher gluten content than their European counterparts. It is how we are able to produce such giant bagels, fluffy biscuits, and pliable pastas. In fact, many people who suffer from Celiac disease here in the States are able to eat bread products over in Europe without the health consequences.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect to gluten is that the majority of people who are gluten sensitive do not even suspect it to be a problem. For those who are sensitive, gluten can be the hidden culprit in a multitude of problems. Inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, depression, muscle and joint pain, neuropathy, osteoporosis, canker sores, migraines, autism, auto-immune disease, chronic fatigue, and rheumatoid arthritis are just a few of the health problems with evidence to show gluten sensitivity is a common cause.
For pretty much anyone suffering from a chronic condition it is worth investigating whether or not gluten sensitivity is a contributing factor. If gluten is the underlying problem the good news is it is 100% curable! Just cut gluten containing products out of your diet. If that seems like too daunting of a task there are a few other options.
There are many diagnostic tests available to help you determine whether or not you may be sensitive to gluten. Some of the most common blood tests are: IgA or IgG anti-gliadin antibodies, IgA anti-endomysial antibodies, Tissue Transglutaminase antibody, Total Secretory IgA, and HLA DQ2 and DQ8 genotyping for celiac disease. There are also stool and salivary testing options which tend to have similar sensitivity and specificity percentages to the above blood tests. Intestinal biopsy is the conventional standard for diagnosing celiac disease but there has to be significant damage to the intestinal wall for this to come back positive. In truth, none of these test are 100% accurate. They can provide an initial screening to help people decide if they should do a gluten-free trial but the gold standard for determining if you have a gluten sensitivity is to completely cut gluten out of your diet for six weeks and see how you feel. Then slowly add gluten back into your diet and see if your symptoms return. Not only is this method the most accurate in determining gluten sensitivity but it is also the cheapest.
Gluten sensitivity is an under diagnosed cause of many chronic medical conditions. For anyone who is suffering from fatigue, chronic muscle or joint pain, digestive problems, skin issues, any of the other conditions mentioned earlier in this article, or anyone who is simply interested in improving their health and wellness it is highly worth doing a six-week trial period of cutting gluten out of your diet to see how you feel. It is important to remember that going gluten-free does not mean turning to the multitude of processed and packaged gluten-free foods available. We recommend a strong focus on a whole foods diet including plenty of whole grains, healthy proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables. Remember a short term elimination of gluten may have a profound effect on your health and you can always go back to eating that fluffy delicious slice of good ole American bread product.
Dr. Ryan Sweeney
Naturopathic Physician at Root Natural Health, Flagstaff, Arizona