Why Do I Keep Hearing About Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, including wheat, barley, rye and spelt.

Gluten has been getting a lot of press lately, and for good reason.  The rate of gluten-related illness has been increasing much faster than expected in the last 20 years.  The rate of increase is faster in developed countries.  There are many theories why this may be happening, but research indicates that it is not just because we are looking more closely for the symptoms.  This is also occurring too quickly to be explained by genetics alone.  If it were only genetic, it would take several generations to see this type of shifts in frequency.  That means that the environment is also likely playing a role.  The leading ideas about the causes for this increased incidence include that it could be related to agricultural chemical application, increased frequency of other GI illnesses that create a vulnerability or over-use of antibiotics and antiseptics that keep our environment ‘too clean’ for immune tolerance to fully develop.  This last idea is known as the hygiene hypothesis and stemmed from the observation that countries with high use of antiseptic cleaning products have a higher incidence of auto-immune illness. 

There are two groups of patients who develop symptoms related to eating gluten.  The first is a group with true celiac disease.  The second group is a group with either wheat allergy or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.  Both groups can have widespread symptoms throughout the body including digestive symptoms, skin rashes, mental illness, fatigue, anemia, other autoimmune illnesses and muscle or joint pain.   Together, these two groups are estimated to include 20-30% of the population.   Many patients with chronic digestive symptoms have not been accurately diagnosed. 

Medical research indicates that the gluten protein causes the space between the cells of the small intestines to widen.  This opening is referred to as ‘leaky gut’ or increased intestinal permeability.  Leaky gut is one of the necessary pieces of a puzzle to set the stage for any autoimmune illness.  The other pieces of the puzzle include genetic susceptibility and a triggering event such as a gastrointestinal infection, stress, lack of nutrition or exposure to a toxin.  Since autoimmune illnesses such as Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, MS, colitis and others are increasing at a rapid rate, taking a closer look at the role that gluten is playing in that puzzle is a logical conclusion. 

The diagnosis of celiac disease is confirmed with a biopsy taken from the small intestine.  Blood testing can be used in some cases, but the results can be tricky to interpret, and the testing is only reliable when gluten is regularly eaten.  Genetic tests can also be helpful, but they only help us to determine if you are susceptible to celiac disease, not if you have the disease.  The gold standard for diagnosing gluten-sensitivity is to follow an elimination diet.  This means that gluten would be removed from your diet completely for 4-6 weeks and then re-introduced.  When the gluten is returned to your diet, you are asked to pay close attention for any return of symptoms.  If symptoms occur, your body has just answered the question that you are indeed gluten sensitive. 

At Root Function Wellness we help patients with all autoimmune illnesses to not only understand your symptoms, but also to empower you back to health.  Each treatment plan includes recommendations about managing your foods, your sleep, your stress, your exercise and any medications or supplements that may be beneficial to your individual needs.  If you have symptoms that are caused by your immune system attacking your own body, we examine why your immune system is off track and in many cases, we are successful retraining your immune system to settle down the attack and return you to a state of well-being.