Is Gluten Getting You Down?
Julian Whitaker, MD
Scott had abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea and was diagnosed in turn with ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, kidney disease, and cancer. Diana had iron-deficiency anemia along with extreme fatigue and diffuse pain, symptoms she was told were all in her head. Laura had chronic itchy rashes that were identified as dermatitis. And 12-year-old Sarah was plagued with hallucinations and given antipsychotic drugs.
All of these individuals spent many miserable years wasting thousands of dollars on physicians and testing, trying to get to the bottom of their problems. Yet in the end, each of them discovered—often through their own research—that what they actually had was gluten intolerance, or celiac disease. And all it took to clear up their symptoms and get their health back on track were simple, inexpensive diet changes.
A Chameleon of a Disease
Gluten intolerance is an inherited autoimmune disorder characterized by sensitivity to gluten, a protein found primarily in wheat, rye, and barley. (Oats used to be considered a culprit, but no longer are.) When people with this condition eat gluten, their immune systems are activated and the resulting inflammatory response damages or destroys the villi that line the small intestines and allow nutrients to be absorbed.
Incidence of gluten intolerance is widespread. Upwards of 15 percent of Americans suffer with this condition. And, as I learned at a medical conference I recently attended, only about five percent of these people have been diagnosed and treated. According to experts at the University of Chicago Medical Center, it takes an average of 11 years to identify gluten intolerance, and the typical child sees eight pediatricians before getting an accurate diagnosis.
Although many patients, especially children, have bloating, abdominal pain, canker sores, diarrhea, or constipation, others have no gastrointestinal (GI) issues. Instead, they may experience seemingly unrelated weight loss, stunted growth, iron-deficiency anemia, bone pain, fatigue, thinning hair, or itchy skin. But all of these are signs of nutritional deficiencies brought on by malabsorption due to damaged villi.
Affected individuals may also have neurological problems such as numbness, depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism, even seizures, dementia, and psychotic episodes. Some theorize that these are caused by poorly digested proteins that, due to damage to the intestines (leaky gut), pass into the bloodstream. They are then able to cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to opioid receptors, where they wreak neurological havoc. Whatever the reason, patients who get off gluten often have remarkable improvements.
Rule Out Gluten Intolerance
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important that you rule out gluten intolerance at once, for the longer it goes untreated, the more serious the damage to your intestines and your overall health. Celiac disease dramatically increases your likelihood of developing autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes and autoimmune hepatitis and thyroid disease. It raises risk of osteoporosis, lymphoma, and cancer of the gastrointestinal tract. And, thanks to ongoing nutrient deprivation, it places you at risk for virtually all degenerative diseases.
Don’t wait for your doctor to recommend testing. Most of them are so focused on symptoms that they don’t even consider anything as “unimportant” as diet. Ask for a blood test for antigliadin antibodies and endomysium antibodies. If either test comes back positive, request a celiac panel to confirm the diagnosis. (Although intestinal biopsies are considered the gold standard of testing, these blood tests are pretty accurate.) You can also take matters into your own hands and try an elimination diet. Simply stop eating all wheat, rye, and barley for four weeks, then slowly add each of them back into your diet. If you feel better off gluten, and symptoms return as you reintroduce it, bingo!
A Sure Cure
The good news is that gluten intolerance is one of the few medical conditions for which we have a cure that is 100 percent effective for 100 percent of affected patients. All you have to do is eliminate gluten from your life. This is the only thing that will allow the villi to recover and regenerate.
Wheat, in particular, can be challenging for most Americans because breads, cereals, crackers, and the like have become dietary staples. Beyond the obvious sources, gluten is also present in many sauces, flavorings, and prepared foods, including soy sauce, beer, and frozen French fries.
You do have options. For example, you can buy flour and baked goods made of brown rice, almonds, potatoes, quinoa, and other gluten-free grains. And thanks to increasing awareness, many products are now carrying gluten-free labels. Furthermore, this way of eating is healthier overall. The things you’ll be eliminating—breads, pastries, pastas, etc.—should be off limits to everyone dealing with weight or blood sugar issues, whether they’re gluten-sensitive or not.
Because this condition is a recipe for nutritional deficiency, it’s imperative that you also take a good daily multivitamin and mineral supplement, along with extra vitamin D, B-complex vitamins, and probiotics.
Should You Go Gluten-Free?
At Whitaker Wellness, we test our patients with suspicious symptoms and, if indicated, counsel them in appropriate diet changes. Sure, a gluten-free diet can be inconvenient and a challenge to stick with, but it’s absolutely worth it. Studies show that affected people who eliminate this protein eventually recover completely.
- If you have suspicious symptoms or a family history of celiac disease, talk to your doctor about appropriate testing. To self-test, completely eliminate foods that contain gluten from your diet for at least four weeks, then, as you slowly reintroduce them, observe how you feel. For treatment of celiac or other GI disorders at the Whitaker Wellness Institute, call (866) 944-8253.
- Take a potent daily multivitamin, along with additional vitamin D, folic acid, B6, B12, and a probiotic supplement.
- Collado MC, et al. Imbalances in faecal and duodenal Bifidobacterium species composition in active and non-active coeliac disease. BMC Microbiol. Published online 2008 Dec 22. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2635381/?tool=pubmed.
- Hallert C, et al. Clinical trial: B vitamins improve health in patients with coeliac disease living on a gluten-free diet. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2009 Apr 15;29(8):811–816. E-pub 2008 Jan 20.
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