I had the privilege of speaking about food allergies and sensitivities on a health panel at a women’s event recently. There were many great questions, including why problems with gluten are becoming more prevalent in our society. I answered partially in the short time I had, but realized later that the issue of gluten sensitivity is far more complex than a surface glance. I wanted to it justice by gathering the theories of experts, as well as my thoughts all in one post. Though there may be more, we we’ll look at six reasons here.
So, why is gluten sensitivity on the rise?
There is no doubt about this fact. If you are not experiencing improvement on a gluten-free diet, then you probably know someone that is. It seems everyone and their uncle has discovered they are gluten intolerant!
What is the difference between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity?
First, let me explain the difference between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. They are two distinct conditions, but both have similar and sometimes debilitating symptoms, such as bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, as well as non-gastric symptoms like fatigue, headaches, joint pain, congestion, dizziness, and neuropathy.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects approximately 1 in 133 people. The body attacks it’s own tissues when exposed to gluten. It’s very serious and can lead to food malabsorption and further life-threatening conditions, such as diabetes and cancer. It can be diagnosed by a simple blood test. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a recently recognized condition where sufferers endure similar symptoms, but with no standard diagnostic testing to confirm its presence. However, Cyrex Labs, in Phoenix, Arizona has recently developed a wheat/gluten reactivity test (Array 3) that measures 24 proteins found in wheat, not just the gliadin protein in the typical celiac blood test. Conservative estimates indicate that 6% of the population has gluten sensitivity, but some researchers believe it could be as high as 30%.
Both my husband and I fall in the gluten sensitivity category. I have severe digestive symptoms, as well as fatigue when exposed gluten, and he has joint pain and stomach upset when he is exposed to gluten. Originally, however, Jim did not have digestive issues. He only knew that his knee pain disappeared when he avoided eating gluten. Now that he has been away from gluten long enough, though, his stomach also gives clues when he consumes it.
1) Wheat is NOT what it used to be!
The first, and probably, most significant theory of why gluten intolerance is on the rise is that wheat, the foremost consumed gluten grain, is highly hybridized and vastly different than its ancient forerunners. Modern wheat has 50 percent more gluten than original strains. It also contains 42 chromosomes, compared to 14 in Einkorn wheat, one of the strains cultivated during Bible times. Major modification of wheat began in the 1970s, as researchers wanted to help farmers “feed the world” by increasing yield. A noble goal – however, their efforts may have caused unintended consequences. Today’s wheat is shorter, thicker, faster growing, and bears little resemblance to former varieties. In his book Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, preventative cardiologist Dr. William Davis, states…
“Triticum wheat of today is the product of breeding to generate greater yield and characteristics such as disease, drought, and heat resistance. In fact, wheat has been modified by humans to such a degree that modern strains are unable to survive in the wild without human support such as nitrate fertilization and pest control…despite dramatic changes in the genetic makeup of wheat and other crops, no animal or human safety testing was conducted on the new genetic strains that were created…Wheat gluten proteins in particular, undergo considerable structural change with hybridization. In one hybridization experiment, fourteen new gluten proteins were identified in the offspring that were not present in either parent wheat plant. Moreover, when compared to century-old strains of wheat, modern strains of Triticum aestivum express a higher quantity of genes for gluten proteins that are associated with celiac disease. Multiply these alterations by the tens of thousands of hybridization to which wheat has been subjected and you have the potential for dramatic shifts in genetically determined traits such as gluten structure.”
In other words…
The wheat we are eating now is NOT what our great-grandmothers ate.
2) Chronic stress shuts down digestion.
Our daily life is full of stress! You know it and I know it. Chronic stress was probably the lead cause in the development of my intestinal permeability (Read My Gut is Leaking!) and gluten sensitivity. (I do not recommend working 60-70 hour weeks without a social life!) When your body is in constant “fight or flight” mode, it continually produces cortisol, the stress hormone that shuts down digestion.
Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, a New York physician known for nutritional-based treatment of cancer, states,
“The job of the sympathetic nervous system is to help your body deal with stress. It diverts the blood to the brain and the muscles, so in a time of stress you can think quickly and your muscles can react quickly as well, and it shuts down the entire digestive system. Every minor or major stress you have signals the sympathetic system to divert energy, whether it’s a job interview or a project you have to finish.”
When digestion shuts down, stomach acid (HCL) levels drop, leaving undigested food moving through the intestine. The colon can also develop blockages during times of high stress, resulting in constipation and a congested liver, our main organ for flushing out toxins.
Have you read the average packaged food label these days? Many contain multi-syllabic, hard-to-pronounce names masking as synthetic chemicals, preservatives, and even plastics, which the body cannot recognize or break down for absorption. Instead of nourishing the body, processed food overloads the body with toxic material. Processed foods also have an overabundance of starches and refined sugar that breakdown of the lining of the small intestine, leading to a life of multiple food intolerances, especially to gluten.
Inflammation, some practitioners believe, is the basis for all disease. And refined sugar is one of the most inflammatory foods consumed in the Standard American Diet. Sugar has no redeeming nutritional value and when overeaten, can cause far more harm than taste buds receive pleasure. Refined sugar suppresses the immune system, rots teeth, contributes to Candida or yeast overgrowth, and plays a major role in the development of obesity and diabetes. During the digestive process, sugar feeds pathogenic bacteria, causing an imbalance of gut flora or dysbiosis. These bad bacteria promote inflammation and intestinal permeability, which can lead to all sorts of digestive conditions and food allergies, like gluten sensitivity. In her fascinating book called Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet, Elaine Gottschall reviews several studies on the correlation between refined sugar consumption and inflammatory bowel disease.
“Two of three studies on the dietary habits of ulcerative colitis patients showed a high consumption of bread and potatoes along with a high intake of refined sugar (sucrose)…the results of seventeen studies dealing with Crohn’s disease were reported, and all studies found sucrose intake to be higher in Crohn’s patients than in people without Crohn’s disease.”
5) Genetically modified foods (GMOs) may lead to more food allergies.
Corn, soybeans, and canola, are major staples in the diet of American families. Did you know that 90 percent of these crops are genetically engineered? The FDA has labeled GMOs in the generally recognized as safe (or GRAS) category. But some researchers believe that GMO crops could be causing the skyrocketing rates of food allergies, including gluten sensitivity. GMO foods were born in the mid 1990s when scientists began inserting pest-resistant genes into crops. The main effect of Bt toxin in GMO corn is to destroy the gut lining of bugs that eat it. What is it doing to my gut lining when I eat corn? In this interview, Jeffrey Smith gives convincing evidence linking GMOs and gluten intolerance.
GMO foods are also heavy sprayed with glyphosate, the main ingredient in Round Up and the most commonly used herbicide on the market. Stephanie Seneff, a brilliant researcher at MIT, published a study on the devastating effects of glyphosate in spring of 2013, of which gut dysbiosis and inflammatory bowel disease are included. Until long-term studies demonstrate the safety of GMO consumption for humans, I believe it’s wise to stay as far away from genetically engineered foods as possible.
Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, and yet some doctors still give them unnecessarily at the request of their patients. When overprescribed, antibiotics destroy all bacteria, good and bad, and wreak havoc on gut microbiome. This delicate balance between friendly and harmful bacteria can determine much of our health, since 70 percent of our immune cells reside in the gut wall. When pathogenic bacteria take over, the normally tight barrier of the intestine breaks down, resulting in permeability and food allergies. (Read more about leaky gut syndrome at SCD Lifestyle.)
Other medications can have disastrous side effects, as well. For example, proton-pump inhibitors like Nexium and Prilosec lower HCL levels necessary for proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients. I am fully convinced that my leaky gut and food sensitivities are far worse because I took Nexium for several years. I wish my gastroenterologist would have suggested a gluten-free diet, instead of drugs to mask my digestive ailments!
How do I learn more about gluten-related conditions?
If you want to learn more about the effects of gluten, I highly recommend you order the lectures from the online Gluten Summit. Dr. Tom O’Bryan interviews 29 of the world’s leading experts in the field of gluten-associated conditions.
Lastly, if you believe you have symptoms related to gluten intolerance, I want you to know there is hope! I can relate. My personal experience mirrors the stories of many women. Consult with your doctor and then try a gluten-free diet for at least one month. When you are ready to take the plunge, read my post, Beginner’s Guide to Going Gluten Free. Once you realize your health struggle may stem from gluten, then you have the power to change your circumstance, outlook, and overall health.
This is good news indeed.