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Problem Protein

The gluten-free diet is more than a health-food fad—it’s a way to treat a growing range of medical conditions

by The Staff on August 17, 2011

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen


Gluten seems to be the latest dietary demon in the crosshairs of the American health gun. For evidence, take a look at all the specialty products available at the supermarket and the market research that’s behind some of that product development.

“Gluten-free foods and beverages have quickly transformed into a mainstream sensation, embraced by consumers both out of necessity and as a personal choice toward achieving a healthier way to live,” says consumer goods research firm Packaged Facts, quoting from its latest report on the gluten-free market niche. But this commercial opportunity is responding to more than a fad. The people who eat gluten-free of necessity include celiacs, who number an estimated one in 133 Americans. Celiacs suffer from an autoimmune disease and cannot tolerate gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye (and is also sometimes found in oats, which are processed commercially in the same facilities as wheat, and can therefore get contaminated).

In people with celiac disease (CD), gluten causes the villi of the small intestine to flatten. For proper nutrition, these fingerlike parts of our bodies need to stand up in the gut and absorb nutrients. CD can manifest itself in a number of symptoms and diseases, starting in digestion and migrating around the rest of the body. Some people have been diagnosed with CD because thyroid problems flagged their doctors.

General gluten sensitivity is another part of this health equation. You don’t have to have CD to be sensitive to gluten, and gluten is coming up as a possible culprit for a long list of symptoms and chronic health problems. The list includes general inflammation, like arthritis, joint pain, stomach irritability, diarrhea, indigestion, bloating, vague abdominal pains, headaches, mood disorders, anxiety, and depression, among other things that aren’t turning up with regular diagnoses.

Some researchers are tracing these problems to the theory that our bodies haven’t evolved to handle the foods that agriculture and technology have developed. Books on the Paleo diet recommend people should avoid gluten, among other things, and stick to foods that were around 10,000 years ago, before our Neolithic ancestors established agriculture as a way to eat.

Other research points to the fact that the grains, and the proteins in the grains first cultivated from wild plants, were very different from the food we eat today. Even over the last 100 years, wheat has changed dramatically, as wheats were selected and hybridized to suit the demands of industrialization, from planting through harvest, milling and baking.

Perhaps these changes are the reason many people are approaching their doctors concerned about gluten. Dr. Jessica Davis of Meliora Family Medicine in Stillwater is one such practitioner. She talks with her patients to decide whether to pursue official celiac testing, which is conducted through a blood test and biopsies. Often, she encourages people to explore how they respond to an elimination diet, which involves removing all sources of gluten for a period of time, and then challenging their bodies with a heavy dose of gluten.

“There’s a lot of people that are going gluten free that don’t have to,” she notes. “Without having celiac or some gluten sensitivity, you do have to be careful. Anytime you adjust your diet that significantly there can be drawbacks and there can be downsides.”

Holistic health counselor Tamara Flanders, of Your Body Awake in Rexford, offers nutritional counseling and facilitates cleanses that involve going gluten free and avoiding other trigger foods to help people suss out dietary problems. “The reason rheumatoid arthritis is helped out by avoiding gluten is because it can cause swelling in your body,” she says. “Anyone with chronic joint and muscular pain should see if they benefit from a gluten-free diet. Other conditions that would benefit from a gluten-free trial would be those with digestive distress, migraines and skin troubles, depression, fatigue, hair loss, and unexplained vitamin and mineral deficiencies. There are many other mystery troubles that individuals have been able to link to gluten sensitivities.” However, she cautioned, removing gluten is not always the answer, since health and wellness is a big, complicated picture.

Some parents are helping their children scrupulously avoid gluten in hopes of changing behaviors associated with the Autism spectrum.

Katie is the mother of a boy who was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, which is on the Autism spectrum. Both she and her son have chronic Lyme disease, too. Two years ago, she found a doctor who specializes in kids with Lyme, who advised her to go gluten-free and casein-free for his diet, which has a shorthand of GFCF. (Casein is found in milk and dairy products.)

“The idea is that something has damaged their intestines,” she says. “With kids with Autism or Lyme, the intestines become too permeable so they let through whole proteins. The gluten protein and casein protein circulate throughout the blood and causes an opiate effect. These proteins mimic opiates and cause a low-level high.” This prevents kids from focusing and keeping up with their peers on developmental markers.

Once her son was on the diet, the effects were not immediately obvious. The first change she noticed was his response to getting a haircut. “He would scream bloody murder,” Katie says. “He was just terrified. The sensation of the short hairs landing on his neck and skin drove him crazy, to the point where I would warn the neighbors. After he was on the diet three weeks, I gave him a haircut, so the sound of the clippers didn’t bother him.”

She said the diet also really helped to clean up his cognitive processing speeds and his concentration. He was able to focus enough to put his toy cars away.

“About eight or nine months in, I was just burned out with the diet,” she says. “I was tired and I took him off of it for five days and let him eat whatever he wanted.” The results were dramatic. The size of his vocabulary shrank and he lost the ability to read a book he had been reading. So she put him back on the diet, and he’s been following it—aside from that lapse—for almost two years. The diet, Katie says, is very hard to follow, and expensive, to boot. She doesn’t follow it herself because of the difficulty and expense, even though she thinks it would help her chronic Lyme.

If you find yourself asking whether skipping gluten could help you, there’s plenty more to read at the library, your favorite bookstore, and online.