Far Reaching Effects of Gluten Sensitivity
Gluten is the main protein found in wheat. In many people the body reacts to gluten as if it was a virus and attacks it and the surrounding tissue. This immune response damages surrounding tissue and has the potential to set off, or exacerbate, MANY other health problems throughout your body, which is why gluten can have such a devastating effect on your overall health. Gluten sensitivity seems to exist on a spectrum from full blown Celiac Disease, which affects one in 133 Americans, to subclinical sensitivity. Even the most severe Celiac Disease is frequently misdiagnosed, and many of those with Celiac Disease don’t have the classic GI symptoms of abdominal bloating, gas and cramping diarrhea. However the effects of gluten sensitivity range far beyond the gut and include low energy, fatigue, brain fog, skin rashes, numbness in the extremities, fibromyalgia, muscle and joint pain — even problems with coordination. The long term consequences of having a gluten allergy can be devastating.
What exactly is gluten sensitivity? Gluten sensitivity occurs when your body tries to digest gluten and instead ends up fighting the gluten particle as if it were a foreign invader like a virus or bacteria. Scientists have found that this is caused by cell surface markers. Without getting real technical it means that your body produces a sign to others cells that says come attack me, when the sign should say come digest me. This leads to inflammation in the small intestine which causes the release of several inflammatory mediators and cytokines into the body. The longer that the gluten sensitivity is untreated the more inflammation occurs in the body. In addition the microvilli in the small intestine which are responsible for nutrient absorption are flattened, leading to a decreased ability of the small intestine to absorb.
Here is where it gets interesting. Gluten sensitivity is not just a disease of the gut. It is a multi organ, multi symptom disease. These antibodies can cause a lot of harm by increasing inflammation and autoimmune reactions. Autoimmune disorders shown to be adversely affected by gluten include insulin dependent diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel and hypothyroidism. In fact it has recently been clearly shown that gluten causes autoimmune antibodies to be made that latch onto thyroid tissue leading to thyroid tissue damage. 9 months after the cessation of gluten in the diet no more antithyroid antibodies could be found.
When you eat a food that you’re sensitive to it causes a series of negative biochemical reactions in your body, especially in your digestive tract and immune system, as I described earlier. However, it also decreases your serotonin levels, which can have a marked negative impact on your mood, and can cause you to turn to simple sugars and carbohydrates for relief. That is one reason food allergies, like gluten and casein, can have a negative effect on mood and also is why food allergies often lead to weight gain.
Women with osteoporosis have a much higher tendency to have gluten allergies and even full blown Celiac Disease. And in a recent study it was found that in eight patients who maintained a gluten free diet for a year six significantly improved their bone densities. This was also true for children with Celiac Disease where a gluten free diet quickly reversed low bone density.
There are several ways to diagnose this condition. Testing for serum blood transglutaminase can start the search for celiac, which is only confirmed after a small intestine biopsy. However gluten sensitivity seems to exist on a spectrum from full blown Celiac Disease to subclinical sensitivity. Since gliadins are the main inflammatory component testing for antigliadin antibodies in the saliva is a relatively simple, and many believe, the most accurate way to go. Another method, which is free, is to simply stop eating gluten for several weeks. Then have a couple of freshly baked bagels or slices of pizza. If you start to feel bloated, gassy tired or foggy you most likely have gluten sensitivity.
On rare occasions an individual may experience significant improvement within weeks of eliminating gluten from their diet. However, most people don’t feel better immediately after eliminating gluten from their diets as it may take 30 to 60 days for the inflammation to subside, and up to 9 to 12 months for the lining of your small intestine to heal. For most people with gluten intolerance, by around 6 to 9 months of being gluten free, noticeable physical and mental/emotional changes will have taken place.
Admittedly eliminating gluten from the diet is difficult for most people. The list of substances containing gluten is overwhelming, including even lipsticks and envelopes. However it can be done, and as more and more people discover their allergy to gluten it even starts to become almost easy. Substitute rice and potatoes for bread. There is excellent gluten free pasta available. Pamela’s products including her gluten free bread mix are tasty and convenient. Increasing vegetables and protein in the diet is great advice for anyone and will occur naturally as you decrease processed grains. There is even gluten free flour available for making gravies! My best advice from years trying to do this is to not let anyone bring the bread basket to the table when eating out. The combination of hunger and an alluring comfort food is pretty hard to resist.
However, for anyone suffering from depression, chronic fatigue, hypothyroidism, digestive problems or osteoarthritis it is well worth the effort to find out if you are sensitive, either through saliva testing or by trying an elimination diet for two weeks. Knowing that you are indeed sensitive and acting on it can help you prevent damage to your intestine from repeated gluten exposure, as well as negative effects elsewhere in the body.
GLUTEN FREE RESOURCES
- GLUTEN FREE RECIPES
- LIST OF GLUTEN FREE MEDICATIONS
- GLUTEN FREE TRAVEL TIPS (traveling can be especially difficult)
- GLUTEN FREE RESTAURANTS IN TUCSON
Mary Ackerley MD, MD(H), ABIHM is a board certified psychiatrist specializing in hormone replacement, depression, anxiety and natural weight loss.
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