The Link Between Gluten and Modern Disease

June 17th, 2009

Gluten and DiseaseGluten sensitivity is estimated to potentially affect nearly half of the population. Although this is a vague estimate, it’s clear that gluten poses a risk to the health of many people and can even cause many of today’s most serious diseases.

Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease result from the inability to completely digest the gluten proteins found in most grain based foods. Unfortunately, celiac disease often takes years to be diagnosed and gluten sensitivity is rarely even diagnosed at all. Because grains are such a significant part of the modern diet, many people who unknowingly don’t digest gluten well are consuming it on a regular basis and are destroying their health and inviting disease in the process.

Gluten’s Role in Modern Disease

Over the coarse of a lifetime, the chronic immune reactions, inflammation, and tissue damage associated with the incomplete digestion of gluten proteins is often the root cause of conditions such as cancer, autoimmune disease, and neurological disease. As such, undiagnosed cases of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity often lead to a significantly compromised life and even premature death. Problems with gluten digestion are also associated with osteoporosis, epilepsy, learning disorders, infertility, miscarriages, liver disease and a wide variety of other conditions. Despite the compelling evidence, gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are rarely considered as possible causes of these problems.

Cancer

Cancer is either rare or non existent in primitive cultures that follow diets consisting of natural and traditional whole foods such as meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables. History shows that the introduction of grain based foods to such cultures is paralleled by an increase in the prevalence of cancer. As obvious as this connection may seem, it’s been ignored for far too long.

While gluten certainly isn’t the cause of all cancer, many terminally ill cancer patients have experienced dramatic improvements from following a gluten free diet. Despite this, many medical professionals are unwilling to embrace this possibility and claim that a gluten free diet will result in nutritional deficiency and be too compromising to a cancer patient’s quality of life. This couldn’t be any further from the truth. The potential damage caused by improperly digested gluten is much more likely to cause nutritional deficiency than the absence of grain based foods, especially when they’re replaced by highly nutritious whole foods such as meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables. Furthermore, the challenges of following a gluten free diet are nothing in comparison to the horrendous side effects of most modern cancer treatments.

Even in good health, we all produce mutated cells that have the potential to become cancerous. However, a strong immune system can regulate and destroy these cells without a problem. It’s when immunity is compromised or inhibited that these cells are more likely to reproduce and cause cancer. Gluten contains opioid mimicking peptides called exorphins that have been found to cause such a state. These peptides can increase the risk of cancer by preventing the immune system’s natural killer cells from detecting and destroying cancerous cells. Exorphins can also facilitate the progression of cancer by increasing insulin production which has the effect of feeding cancer cells and assisting their growth.

Autoimmune Disease

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 20 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease and the number is growing. I personally know quite a few people who suffer from autoimmune disease and it saddens me to see such a simple and promising solution to such a debilitating disease be so easily dismissed.

Autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissue. Although there are many forms of autoimmune disease, the most common forms include arthritis, insulin dependent diabetes, thyroid disease, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, lupus, fibromyalgia, and cirrhosis. In many cases, it’s the consistent presence of incompletely digested food molecules in the blood stream that leads to autoimmunity. This is especially the case with gluten because it contains peptides that closely resemble human tissue and provokes the creation of antibodies that attack organs, glands, joints and other important areas of the body.

Instead of considering a gluten free diet as a potential or even partial solution, most conventional treatments are based on potent medications that inhibit the immune system and create additional susceptibility to infection and illness. Although gluten is not always the cause of autoimmune disease, people who suffer from it have a lot to gain and little to lose by trying a gluten free diet.

Osteoporosis

Although it would be easy to assume that gluten sensitivity can influence the development of osteoporosis by interfering with calcium absorption, this isn’t entirely the case. In addition to calcium, other nutrients such as magnesium, boron, zinc, and vitamins A, D, and K are also essential for proper bone development and maintenance. However, the absorption of these nutrients is often impaired by the intestinal damage that’s characteristic of gluten sensitivity and especially celiac disease. The multiple nutrient deficiencies that are likely to result will significantly increase the risk of osteoporosis.

Even without celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, the consumption of grain based foods are still a risk factor for osteoporosis. This is because grains contain a substance called phytic acid that can bind to the important minerals needed for bone maintenance and prevent their absorption. Fortunately, you can eliminate this problem by soaking grains in water to deactivate the phytic acid. Nuts and seeds should be soaked as well.

Brain Disorders

Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are often associated with autism, memory loss, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and neurotransmitter deficiencies that can lead to depression, anxiety, and irritability. In more extreme cases, gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are also associated with seizures, schizophrenia, impaired ability to walk and talk, and visual and auditory hallucinations. It’s believed that undigested gluten proteins can cause these disorders by affecting blood flow in the brain or by causing irreversible damage to brain tissue.

Another problem with grains is that they’re highly susceptible to mold growth. One of the molds that commonly grows on them is called ergot and happens to be what the hallucinogenic drug LSD is derived from. Although it’s rare for moldy grains to make their way into the foods we eat, the toxins produced by this mold have the potential to cause neurological disorders.

Intestinal Disorders

The intestines are where the problems associated with gluten sensitivity and celiac disease first start. As such, it should be no surprise that gluten is often involved in the cause of various bowel disorders. Gluten has a strong association with irritable bowel syndrome in particular. Approximately 80% of people who suffer from it experience improvement from following a gluten free diet. In addition, research has shown that 60% of people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome are sensitive to wheat, and that’s only one of the many grains that contain gluten.

In addition to irritable bowel syndrome, the intestinal immune response that’s often provoked by undigested gluten can cause autoimmunity and ultimately lead to Chrohn’s disease. Furthermore, the inflammation and damage associated with this immune response can also cause colitis and increase susceptibility to intestinal infections.

Knowing Your Risk

Based on the wide range of serious diseases and disorders that gluten can cause, the potential risks of eating it should be taken seriously, especially considering how common grain based foods are in the modern diet. If you have a family history of gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, any of the conditions described above, or any other reason to suspect a problem with gluten, it would be a good idea to either follow a gluten free diet or have yourself tested for gluten sensitivity and celiac disease. You can read my previous article about the danger of grains to learn more about the testing options that are available and the basics of a gluten free diet. You can also read Dangerous Grains by James Braly MD and Ron Hoggan MA.

This article is a part of Real Food Wednesdays.

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