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Best of 2014: Is our Gluttony for Gluten Compromising our Health?

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Penny Saridakis
Penny Saridakis
Penny Saridakis was formerly Vice President, Global Marketing at MasterCard International in New York and has a BA in Economics from Boston College and an MBA from Columbia University. After having four children - a son and then triplets - her world has increasingly focused on quality of life issues; health, in particular. She recently graduated from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and plans to continue studies in this field. Penny volunteers her time locally and currently serves as a Trustee with Christiana Care Health System and as a member of the board of directors of the Delaware Theatre Company. Penny is a past member of the board of the Grand Opera House and is past Chair of the Friends of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute.

As we bid adieu to 2014, Town Square Delaware has made it an annual tradition to share some of the previous year’s best features with our readers. Cheers to both a new year and new contributions in 2015!

The gluten-free diet seems to be all the rage these days; gluten-free foods increasingly line the shelves in all types of food stores and are featured on menus in more and more restaurants. This article will touch on the definitions and risks of gluten consumption, but really, it is the story of our family’s journey in solving our personal health issues. We have experienced first-hand that gluten can wreak havoc on the body in many ways. After embracing and thriving in a gluten-free world, I now view my own health, as well as that of my family and the community around me through a new lens, and what I have seen has been life changing!

glutenFree“Give us this day, our daily bread”

Since our youth, we have been indoctrinated that bread is the stuff of life, and that whole grains hold the key to good health and longevity. However, in a sea change, many are shedding these beliefs, due to the effects of gluten. What exactly is gluten? Aptly named after the Latin word for “glue,” it is made up of proteins that hold flour together and provide elasticity and structure in bread products, baked goods and pizza dough. Gluten seems to be everywhere! It is found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut and bulgur. It is also used as an additive in processed foods: in certain stabilizers, starches, flavorings, emulsifiers and hydrolyzed proteins. Because we live in a society that eats far too many processed foods, we are ingesting more gluten than we realize. Gluten is also contained in personal care products, including lotions, toothpaste, soaps and lip products.

While gluten may have positive textural properties, the human body does not have the enzymes to properly digest it.(1)  For most, it goes through the digestive tract without incident, but for others, it causes widespread problems.  The main issue is that today’s wheat bares almost no resemblance to what it was fifty years ago. In the 1950s, scientists began cross-breeding wheat to make it hardier, shorter, and better-growing. While this work earned U.S. plant scientist Norman Borlaug the Nobel Prize, it introduced some compounds to wheat that aren’t human friendly.(2)  According to Dr. Mark Hyman, a family physician, best-selling author and international leader in the field of functional medicine, this new wheat is sometimes called “FrankenWheat.” It contains much higher amounts of starch and gluten as compared to original strains of wheat, and is responsible for a host of problems.(3)

Gluten can adversely affect people in different ways

There are various types and degrees of gluten-related issues, often leading to confusion. There appears to be a continuum of reasons for folks going gluten-free; from those who abstain for wellness ideals, to those who suffer from a wheat allergy, to those with gluten sensitivity, all the way to those suffering from celiac, a serious autoimmune disease. Despite their differences, in the three categories below, avoidance of gluten is paramount. For celiac in particular, it is required.

A wheat allergy is an allergic reaction that quickly brings on hives, congestion, nausea or potentially fatal anaphylaxis. Less than 1% of children suffer from the allergy and most outgrow it by age five. A small number of adults have similar symptoms if they exercise shortly after eating wheat.(4) 

Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is present in about 18 million Americans, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano, Director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Mass General Hospital for Children.(5) It can bring on a number of symptoms, though usually not intestinal damage caused by celiac.

I have numerous friends who have gone to a restaurant and eaten pizza, pasta or bread, and felt bloated and/or nauseous the next morning – this can be a sign of gluten sensitivity. Furthermore, parents of autistic children, including personal friends, whose children are on a gluten-free (and casein-free) regimen, have reported increased calmness and alertness, also suggesting the possibility of gluten intolerance.

Celiac Sprue, commonly known as Celiac, is a genetically-linked disease whose incidence has quadrupled over the past fifty years to 1 in 133 Americans. It is believed that many undiagnosed cases exist.(6)  Celiac can be diagnosed with a blood test, but an intestinal biopsy is needed to be sure.(7)

As gluten enters the digestive tract of those with celiac, it is regarded as an invader. Antibodies are then triggered to fight against it, and mistakenly attack the body’s own tissue. These antibodies flatten the villi, which are the tiny fingers in the small intestine that soak up nutrients from food. The damaged villi lead to what is known as “leaky gut syndrome.” Bacteria and their toxins, as well as incompletely digested proteins and fats and waste not normally absorbed, may “leak” from the damaged intestines into the blood stream. This triggers an autoimmune reaction, which can lead to gastrointestinal problems such as abdominal bloating, diarrhea, similar to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), excessive gas and cramps, fatigue, food sensitivities, joint pain, skin rashes. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, a renowned specialist in holistic health who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1997 and 2005, leaky gut is not always recognized by conventional physicians, but evidence is growing that it is indeed a real condition.(8)

As Hippocrates, the father of medicine, stated over 2,000 years ago, “All diseases begin in the gut.”  Long-term complications from leaky gut certainly support this statement, as inflammation, numerous vitamin deficiencies, and malnutrition will ultimately lead to additional and more serious health problems.

celiac-disease-symptoms-500
Click image for list of symptoms

This eye-opening chart is from Glutendude.com.(9)  One hundred thirty people living with celiac disease were asked to report their symptoms. Only symptoms listed more than once were included and those that were reported most often are listed in red. When reviewing the list for myself, I discovered that I have suffered from almost two dozen of these symptoms at some point in my 40 years before going gluten-free! Although not specifically mentioned in the chart, I had leaky gut, too. I am thrilled to report that today most have been reversed by gluten avoidance. Under a doctor’s ongoing supervision, I have increased certain vitamins and probiotics, to successfully resolve these symptoms, as well as the malabsorption and the leaky gut issues.

55 diseases can be caused by a reaction to eating gluten!

While I was aware that gluten was the root of a variety of health concerns, I was disturbed by findings in a 2002 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine.(10) It lists a staggering 55 diseases that result from reactions to gluten. Some major ones are listed below, as well as others from additional sources.(11-15)

These may be brought on as a result of celiac or simply from gluten sensitivity:

  • Addison’s Disease
  • Iron-deficient anemia
  • Alopecia
  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Bell’s Palsy
  • Certain cancers
  • Canker sores
  • Colitis
  • Dermatitis Herpetiformis (itchy skin rashes)
  • Dementia
  • Type 1 Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Fatigue
  • Autoimmune thyroid diseases: Hashimoto’s and Graves
  • Infertility/Miscarriages
  • Inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel disease
  • Lupus
  • Memory problems and mild cognitive impairment, precursors to Alzheimer’s
  • Migraines
  • Mood disorders
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Neuropathy (nerve damage)
  • Osteoporosis
  • Psychiatric and neurological diseases: anxiety, depression, schizophrenia
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sjogrens Syndrome
  • Systemic inflammation
  • Tourette’s Syndrome

Though I have personally endured a lifetime of stomach aches, I was surprised to learn that many suffer the damaging effects of gluten without gastro-intestinal symptoms. I began to look more closely at the health problems listed above that my personal friends and family were encountering; lupus, infertility, rheumatoid arthritis, children with ADHD, and could not help but wonder if a gluten-free diet would help to alleviate the symptoms, if not erase them altogether.  I am very well aware that the medical community’s go-to response doesn’t often include a recommendation to try this, but I don’t see the downside in 100% gluten elimination for a few weeks and seeing how one feels. While relief from symptoms may be almost immediate, gluten can take 3-4 months to leave the system.(16)  Intestinal repair in celiac cases can take anywhere from 3-6 months for children, and may take several years in adults.(17)

Elimination of gluten has changed my life, as well as that of my son

My family’s “ah –ha” moment took place over four years ago, when one of my children was exhibiting a variety of seemingly random, unrelated health issues, including agitation and periodic decreases in attention, listlessness, dark circles under the eyes, digestive issues, skin rashes in parts of his body, and incessant and unmanageable coughing through the winter months. He missed many days of school that year, due to general malaise. This became serious enough that we saw several different doctors, but came up with nothing conclusive, as each was merely addressing the symptom that pertained to his specialty.

When I began to realize that I would somehow have to figure this out myself, I removed dairy from my son’s diet for a week and saw no change. The following week, I added the dairy back in, but then removed gluten. About three days later, he reported that his body “felt calmer.” I was both astounded and saddened that as a young boy, he didn’t feel this calm before. His cough soon went away, as did most of his ailments. Fully recognizing that this would be tough, I promised that I would travel on this journey with him. Lo and behold, after about a week without gluten, I, too, felt fabulous! My headaches, fatigue and fogginess were gone, as was my restless leg syndrome, and my seemingly endless years of stomach aches. I also experienced the sense of calmness to which I believe he was referring. As the gluten remained out of both of our systems for longer periods of time, other longer-term ailments began to disappear.

Our family’s “No Grain, No Pain!” journey has been challenging, yet rewarding

After a few more visits to the doctor and confirmation of celiac, we have made gluten-free living an absolute requirement.  I now believe (and hope!) that I have taken my family off the ominous path of developing debilitating diseases later in life. Despite the importance of our decision, at first, the thought of adopting a “100%, no-cheating ever” gluten-free diet for my son and myself was both overwhelming and downright depressing! By day, I visited grocery stores for what seemed like hours and read labels, and at night I lay awake, ridden with guilt that we would no longer be able to enjoy a New York City slice of pizza, a soft pretzel at a ball game, a slice of birthday cake with friends, or some of the traditional Greek foods with phyllo dough that we cherished in earlier days.

Because celiac is a genetic condition that manifests in numerous ways, we decided that as a family, all of the children and I would be 100% gluten-free. Together, we have never turned back, although there are moments when the amazing smell of baking bread wafts past us and we feel a pang of nostalgia, for the carefree days when eating was not always a deliberate decision. We quickly return to the reality that no dreams of baked goods can make us want to return to the days of not feeling well or of the fear of disease!

Admittedly, we have hit bumps along the road and learned a few things the hard way. For example, oats do not contain gluten, but become contaminated when processed on the same machines as gluten-containing grains. Although potatoes are gluten-free, french fries may be coated in a light flour or may become contaminated when fried in oil that is shared with other breaded products. Also, on several occasions in restaurants, we have ordered meat or fish marinated in wheat-containing soy sauce and have not enjoyed the after-effects!

There are ever-increasing gluten-free options 

We now feel comfortable in the gluten-free world. We are adept at packing our own snacks for trips – both short and long. The children are experts at questioning staff at restaurants and in their school cafeteria, and they can sure read ingredient labels!

And of course, we have sampled numerous brands – some of which tasted like a cardboard box instead of actual food – and we eventually found our way through to the other side. Thankfully, gluten-free options have drastically improved in recent years, and we now have some favorite brands, which are available in most grocery stores as well as Amazon.com.

We enjoy the following brands:

Prepared foods:  For Breads and Pizza ~ Glutino, Udi’s, Schar’s, Cereal ~ Erewhon.

Flours: Pamela’s pancake mix, bread and corn bread mix, Bob’s Red Mill shortbread flour. (We are still hoping that someone will create a gluten-free phyllo dough!)

Pasta: Tinkyada, Trader Joe’s, Bionaturae, DeBoles Quinoa Pasta, Schar. We have also begun to eat quinoa with more regularity, replacing both rice and pasta, due to its rich vitamin and fiber-packed content.

For more information on foods that are gluten-free and those that should be avoided, visit http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/ or http://www.drperlmutter.com/eat/list-of-gluten-free-foods/.

A very important thing to note is just because a food is gluten-free, that does not necessarily make it healthy! Many products are loaded with sugars, bad oils and preservatives. The most nutritious gluten-free foods are, and always have been, fruits and vegetables, beans, seeds and nuts, lean meats/poultry/fish. As always, we try to stick to whole, organic foods.

It just may change your life too!

While some may believe that the avoiding gluten is merely a fad, I can personally attest that it can harm the body in many ways. Although challenging, the gluten-free diet has changed the lives of my family. For those who have experienced any of the symptoms or ailments listed above, gluten elimination for several weeks is worth a try!

 

ENDNOTES:

1)    Interview with Dr. Alessio Fasano. Dec. 19, 2011. http://www.tenderfoodie.com/blog/2011/12/19/interview-w-dr-alessio-fasano-part-1-should-anyone-eat-glute.html

2)    Dvorsky, George.  “Why You Should Probably Stop Eating Wheat” Dec. 14, 2012.  http://news.discovery.com/human/why-you-should-probably-stop-eating-wheat-121214.html

3)    Hyman, Mark, MD.  “Three Hidden Ways Wheat Makes Your Fat” Huffington Post, Feb. 18, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/wheat-gluten_b_1274872.html

4)    Beck, Melinda. “Clues to Gluten Sensitivity” Wall Street Journal, Mar. 15, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704893604576200393522456636

5)    Interview with Dr. Alessio Fasano. Dec. 19, 2011. http://www.tenderfoodie.com/blog/2011/12/19/interview-w-dr-alessio-fasano-part-1-should-anyone-eat-glute.html

6)    Beck, Melinda. “Clues to Gluten Sensitivity” Wall Street Journal, Mar. 15, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704893604576200393522456636

7)    Hyman, Mark, MD. “Gluten:  What You Do Not Know Might Kill You,” Huffington Post, Jan. 2, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/gluten-what-you-dont-know_b_379089.html

8)    Weil, Andrew, MD.  “What is Leaky Gut?” http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA361058/what-is-leaky-gut.html

9)    http://glutendude.com/celiac/celiac-disease-symptoms/

10) Farrell, Richard J, MD and Kelly, Ciaran P, MD.  “Celiac Sprue,” New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 17, 2002.

11) Hyman, Mark, MD. “Gluten: What You Do Not Know Might Kill You,” Huffington Post, Jan. 2, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/gluten-what-you-dont-know_b_379089.html

12) Perlmutter, David, MD. “Gluten Sensitivity and the Impact on the Brain,” Huffington Post, Nov. 21, 2010 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-david-perlmutter-md/gluten-impacts-the-brain_b_785901.html

13) Tonks, Alison. “Recent Developments in Bell’s Palsy,” 2004.US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC526167/

14) Sategna-Guidetti C, Bruno M, Mazza E, Carlino A, Predebon S, Tagliabue M, Brossa C., “Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases and Coeliac Disease,” 1998. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9872614

15) National Digestive Diseases Clearinghouse: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/

16) Jacob, Aglaee,“How Fast Does Gluten Go Through the Intestines,” Aug. 13, 2013.  Livestrong.com http://www.livestrong.com/article/496690-how-fast-does-gluten-go-through-the-intestines/

17) National Digestive Diseases Clearinghouse: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/

Additional Sources:

1. Davis, William, MD. Wheat Belly, Rodale Books, 2011.

2. Perlmutter, David, MD. The Grain Brain.  Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

3. “Getting Out The Gluten,” June, 2009.  Harvard Health Publications.

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