Should you go gluten free? by Elaine Fawcett, CNT, a Certified Nutritional Therapist and health writer
You may have noticed at Lifesource Natural Foods in Salem and other grocery stores a robust section of foods labeled "gluten-free." Why is gluten-free suddenly so popular, and what does it mean?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and wheat-like grains, including spelt, kamut, barley and rye. Oats are guilty primarily by association, as they are processed with wheat (Lifesource carries gluten-free oats). Gluten is very hard for humans (and dogs and cats) to digest. Ancient humans intuitively knew this as they transitioned from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies, and they fermented or soured grains to make them more digestible.
Because it is subsidized by the government and hence extremely cheap, wheat dominates the Western diet, and we simply eat way too much of it, improperly prepared. One cutting-edge researcher, Dr. Kenneth Fine, esimates one in three Americans are genetically predisposed to a gluten intolerance, especially those of northern European descent.
So what does this mean for your health? An undiagnosed gluten intolerance manifests differently for different people, but the damage begins in the gut. There the intestinal villi, the little "fingers" that absorb nutrients, are gradually flattened, allowing undigested gluten and other proteins to escape into the bloodstream, which creates a chronic immune response. Overall health slowly erodes, various allergies and food intolerances develop, susceptibility to cancer increases, degenerative diseases set in, and the chances of developing an autoimmune disease, particularly in the thyroid, run high.
Unfortunately, a gluten intolerance typically goes unnoticed by the medical community. The blood test to check for celiac disease, a gluten intolerance on steroids, is highly unreliable - gut damage has to be very extensive for a blood test to come back positive. The current gold standard of testing is through a company called Entero Lab (www.enterolab.com), which was founded by Fine, one of the leading researchers of gluten intolerance and digestive health (Entero Lab also tests for dairy, egg, soy and yeast intolerance).
Although the Entero tests are fairly affordable, the cheapest test is to remove gluten from your diet completely (go to www.celiac.com to see the various gluten-laced foods) for two to three weeks, then eat a fair amount, like a bowl of pasta, and monitor your reactions for the next 72 hours. Due to the presence of opiates in gluten, which make gluten highly addictive (hence the term "comfort food" to denote our favorite gluten-based goodies), the elimination diet requires considerable dedication and willpower.
The miracle stories of health recoveries that come after removing gluten are abundant and inspiring, especially in children. Many people have had debilitating joint pain ease up, skin problems clear, moods stabilize and brain fog lift. Autism spectrum disorders diminish, children's behavior improves, and autoimmune diseases go into remission. There are even documented cases of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder lifting on a gluten-free diet, as gluten can be a severe neurotoxin for some.
Although numerous gluten-free products and recipe books abound, a gluten-free diet still requires walking "the road less taken." Most, however, find that despite the inconveniences of going gluten-free, they are rewarded many times over with more energy and better health. In fact, Dr. Fine's research shows that even people who aren't gluten intolerant experience improved health when they remove gluten from their diets.