By now I'm sure everyone has heard of gluten. Most people either know someone who is gluten free or maybe have even tried it themselves. It's estimated that Americans will spend over $7 billion on GF labeled foods this year, so there must be something to this little protein. Let's take a deeper look.
Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, and rye. It's a unique protein that allows the flours in these grains to get stretchy. Have you ever kneaded dough? Without gluten you could not bend and stretch it and the dough would just fall apart. It also helps to trap the gas from yeast gobbling up the starch in the flour to puff up the dough and allow it to rise. So what? This all sounds great right? Where's the problem and why do so many people avoid gluten like the plague?
Well, the problem does not lie in the gluten so much as it does in the body's reaction to it. Gluten, among many other things, can be a pretty severe allergen, meaning that it can trigger an allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to it. Along with soy and dairy it is in the top ranking food allergens. The most serious reaction results in celiac disease. With celiac the body's reaction to gluten is so severe that it causes serious damage and destruction in the intestines. This damage then compromises the gut's ability to absorb nutrition from food in general, and untreated celiac folks often wind up very malnourished and with severe vitamin deficiencies even though they are eating a completely balanced diet. If the damage is not too far along eliminating gluten from the diet can often completely reverse the damage, but unchecked celiac can lead to many very unhappy consequences. Approximately 1.8 million Americans are currently diagnosed with celiac disease, with another estimated 1.4 million undiagnosed. There are additionally an estimated 1.6 million Americans who buy gluten free foods without having received any kind of gluten related diagnosis, but do it for their own reasons or comfort.
Many other diseases besides celiac may have a gluten related component. Autoimmune and inflammatory diseases can often be triggered or exacerbated by food allergies, and gluten is no exception. Gluten "sensitivity" is the label given to people who have a secondary condition which seems to benefit from eliminating gluten. Often this is attributed to antibodies that the body makes against gluten in the gut which then travel to other parts of the body and can react against other tissues. In my own case I have been diagnosed with autoimmune thyroiditis (Hashimoto's) which basically means my body creates antibodies against my thyroid gland and is slowly destroying it. Antibodies against gluten have been identified as being cross reactive against thyroid too, basically amplifying the destruction that is already happening. When I stay off gluten my thyroid levels are much more balanced and it has probably allowed me to stay on lower doses of thyroid medication then what I would need if I was still eating gluten like I used to (I am a self-admitted pastry nut). My dad was told by his neurologist in 1974 when he was first diagnosed with MS that he should avoid gluten (based on research at the Mayo Clinic about gluten and autoimmune disease even back then). He tried and failed as at that point there was no such thing as gluten free labeling and it was almost impossible to avoid. When he tried again last year (after testing very positive for a real gluten allergy) it was a million times easier and he has been successful this time! Many people also find that eliminating gluten leads to weight loss, whether it be from a eliminating an underlying inflammatory reaction or simply cutting down on refined carbs, it's hard to know, but this is another reason people often seek out gluten free foods.
So why the rise in gluten intolerance? I recently was discussing this with my doctor. She said that many doctors are completely puzzled and astounded by the number of patients they are seeing who, after eliminating gluten, report feeling remarkably better from any number of ailments. In fact, it's often joked about in naturopathic circles that the first thing any naturopath will do is tell you to cut gluten out of your diet. Of course, this isn't true as naturopaths take every case on an individual basis, but it is true that the rates of gluten sensitivity are rising. Like I mentioned above, even conventional gastroenterologists will tell you that they are seeing far more celiac patients than they were twenty years ago. So why are more and more people reacting to something that we, as a species, have been consuming for literally thousands of years?
My hubby loves those shows like "How it's Made" and recently put one on that was all about wheat. At first, it seemed like torture developed by pro-wheat propaganda (for those of us who don't tolerate wheat well), but the more we watched the more I was fascinated by the information it contained. It gave a long history of agricultural use of wheat and then went into great detail about how many things in our modern world are made using this amazing grain (did you know that it is a common component of fire-resistant furniture?). It also gave a run-down of the top six varieties of wheat that are grown in modern agriculture. Here is where the light bulb popped on in my head and I had to stop and rewind it several times. There are six major varieties of wheat grown in large scale agriculture. The top two varieties of wheat grown in the United States have purposefully been bred over the last fifty years to have high gluten contents to allow them the largest range of uses! The same fabulous agricultural breeding that brought us gorgeous strawberries with no taste (maybe a future blog there) and tomatoes that have fish genes to survive cold also have designed a wheat that is incredibly good looking, hardy, and produces plump grains, but is also much higher in gluten content than other varieties of wheat. Not only has the gluten content gone up, but wheat and wheat based gluten are found in an amazing array of foods that you would not ever suspect to contain them until you start reading labels! Since allergies are often related to high levels of exposure it makes perfect sense that this abundance of gluten in our modern American diet is directly related to the increasing rates of gluten intolerance. I did a little searching after finishing the show and, of course, I was not the first one to think of this link. In fact it is one of the current hypothesis behind the rising rates of celiac disease. Darn, well so much for my fabulous medical discovery, but it was nice validation and gave me some good food for thought (no pun intended!).
If you suspect that you may have a gluten intolerance I highly recommend talking with your naturopath about it (it seems hit or miss on conventional docs being highly knowledgeable about it at this point although gastroenterologists see enough of it they should be). It isn't easy to avoid gluten, but the options are a million times better now than they were twenty, or even ten years ago and if it helps what ails you it is incredible motivation to stay away from those pesky grains. There is always more to learn, but I hope this provides you with a better understanding of why gluten free is all the current rage. Happy eating!
Here is an article I found that talks about a lot of the research in regards to rising rates of celiac (where I got my stats) and the breeding of higher gluten wheat: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-57483789-10391704/gluten-free-diet-fad-are-celiac-disease-rates-actually-rising/