When you think of gluten, you probably only associate it with one health issue: celiac disease. This connection dates back to the 1940s when Willem Karel Dicke discovered that gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley and rye—was causing the gastrointestinal symptoms in his young celiac patients. He pioneered the gluten-free diet, which saved his patients, and ever since then, gluten and celiac disease have been joined at the hip. In recent years, however, gluten sensitivity (or gluten intolerance) has emerged as a completely separate condition from celiac, complete with its own set of varying symptoms. And it seems that it is even more common. Research suggests that celiac disease plagues about 1 out of every 100 people, while gluten sensitivity could be as common as 1 out of every 20. According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, medical director at Harvard’s Center for Celiac Research, gluten sensitivity may affect 6% to 7% of the population, while celiac disease is estimated at only 1%.
Even still, the lack of knowledge in traditional doctors allows most cases of gluten sensitivity to go undiagnosed for years. If patients don’t test positive for celiac, they are usually told that they can continue to eat as much gluten as they’d like, leaving them to suffer in silence with a body riddled with severe symptoms that can lead to autoimmune diseases, and ultimately, premature death.
The Difference Between Celiac Disease & Gluten Sensitivity
Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disease in which the immune system attacks the small intestine when gluten is ingested. Over time, this immunological reaction damages the villi; the fingerlike projections in the intestinal lining that are responsible for absorbing nutrients. While healthy villi will resemble a shag carpet, the villi in the intestine of a celiac patient will be flattened like a Berber carpet. Initial symptoms include bloating, diarrhea and cramping, and left untreated, celiac disease can lead to malabsorption and other serious issues.
We’ve known about celiac disease for decades, but the medical community is still learning about gluten sensitivity. There haven’t been any long-term studies— most likely because a pharmaceutical company has yet to create a drug warranting such a study—so we don’t have a clear picture of what it is.
What we do know is that gluten sensitivity acts in a completely different manner than celiac disease, setting off a reaction in the intestines and immune system. In the August 2010 American Journal of Medicine, Dr. Fasano stated, “For the first time, we have scientific evidence that indeed, Gluten Sensitivity not only exists, but is very different from Celiac Disease.”
The reaction in gluten sensitive patients is sometimes referred to as a neuroendocrine-gut-autoimmune-linked disorder. When gluten is ingested, an immunological response is set off, but instead of attacking the intestinal wall, it targets and attacks gluten as if it were a toxin. This starts a war within the body. And thanks to cellular mimicry, the immune system is likely to attack other parts of the body that share even small similarities with gluten in their molecular makeup, such as the joints, skin or brain. This explains why people with gluten sensitivity may not have diarrhea and malnutrition like a celiac patient, but could have seemingly unrelated issues, like arthritis, psoriasis or depression; conditions that most doctors are not trained to link to gluten.
Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity
People who suffer from gluten sensitivity are much harder to diagnose because there is no standard test or defined set of symptoms. Instead, symptoms can manifest in many different ways, depending on each patient’s genetic makeup and lifestyle. Here are just some of the symptoms that can inflict those with gluten sensitivity:
• Headaches and migraines • Neurological issues (cognitive impairment, brain fog, epilepsy, dementia) • Fatigue & chronic fatigue syndrome • Fibromyalgia • Thyroid disease • Adrenal fatigue • Autoimmune diseases • Cancer • Food allergies • Skin problems (eczema, psoriasis, etc.) • Emotional issues, such as chronic irritability and mood swings • Mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression • Hormonal imbalances, including polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis • Gastrointestinal issues: (gas, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, etc.)
The Rise in Celiac Disease & Gluten Sensitivity
Recent studies have indicated that the rate of celiac disease has been rising for at least the past 60 years. A survey at the Mayo Clinic found that celiac disease increased from about 0.2% in the early 1950s to approximately 1% only 45 years later. In Finland, it doubled from 1% to 2% between 1979 and 2000. And the Rochester Epidemiology Project found that the reported rate of celiac disease increased from 0.9 per 100,000 from 1950 to 1989, to 3.3 per 100,000 in the 1990s, and then jumped again to 9.1 per 100,000 in 2000 and 2001.
It’s far more difficult to assign a number to cases of gluten sensitivity, in large because there is no clear definition for the condition. A few research reports indicate that more people are being diagnosed with gluten sensitivity issues, but there have been no large-scale studies. Some research estimates that for every person who has celiac disease, there are at least six or seven with some degree of gluten sensitivity.
There is, however, some empirical evidence that the rate of gluten sensitivity is rising in the expanding market for gluten-free foods. According to the Institute for Supply Management, food-manufacturing jobs have soared in July of 2013 with a 6% increase after renewed customer interest in gluten-free foods. In fact, the gluten-free foods industry had an annual growth rate of 28% between 2008 to 2012. Globally, gluten-free products approached $2.5 billion in sales in 2010. With demand this high, gluten-free foods are no longer only sold at specialty stores. Now even Wal-Mart has an extensive gluten-free section.
While some professionals wave this off as a fad, anecdotal evidence is always the first step in recognizing an emerging issue in the medical community. Going gluten free is difficult. It requires informed, strict buyers, who are willing to extensively scour labels, shell out the extra cash, forego their favorite foods, and risk being ostracized by friends and family. Who would go to all of this trouble for a fad if it weren’t helping them feel better?
There is no cure for celiac disease, and the only form of treatment is complete dietary change. That is, adopting a strict gluten-free diet. The same goes for gluten sensitivity. But for the latter, you’d be hard-pressed to find a traditional doctor who will recommend this type of treatment.
As researchers struggle with the question of why adults are suddenly reacting badly to foods they’ve eaten all their lives, doctors are merely focusing on the best ways to alleviate the symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity. The mainstream approach is to prescribe medications for each symptom the patient may have, treating them as separate ills, instead of simply eliminating the one common cause: gluten.
For example, a patient suffering with gluten sensitivity may be prescribed medications for arthritis, fibromyalgia, depression and hormonal imbalances— each of which is accompanied by its own list of side effects—while continuing to consume the typical American diet loaded with gluten. So the symptoms are only masked as they progress until the tipping point—the moment the patient develops something even more severe, like cancer, or a full-blown autoimmune disease.
Repairing the Damage Caused by Gluten
At the DaSilva Institute, we first and foremost recommend gluten-free diets to stop the fire that is ravaging through the patient’s system. But then it is crucial that we go back and repair the damage that gluten has caused throughout the body. We do this through natural treatments like bio-identical hormone replacement, thyroid balancing, adrenal repair, gastrointestinal repair and neurotransmitter balancing. By removing gluten and repairing the damage, I have seen diseases reversed that range from arthritis and fibromyalgia to schizophrenia to ulcerative colitis.
If you feel you may have gluten sensitivity, a cheap, easy test is going on a gluten elimination diet for 90 days. Eliminate all sources of gluten, which includes wheat, barley, rye, and other grains like oats and spelt that have high cross contamination rates, as well as reading all labels for hidden sources of gluten. Keep a journal of your symptoms before and after to see which symptoms have disappeared. Of course, eliminating gluten will prevent further damage, but it will not fix the damage that’s already been done.
To return your body back to optimal health, call the DaSilva Institute of Anti- Aging, Regenerative & Functional Medicine at 888-832-7458 to schedule a consultation. Even with gluten sensitivity, you can still Discover Health Without Limits.