The Gluten-Free Expo in Sandy, Utah is one of the country’s biggest events dedicated to wheat-free food. The first ten minutes it opened, four hundred people flooded into the convention center; there were 1200 people by the end of the first hour and 6000 by the end of the day.
What the heck is going on?
The back story
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye (and sometimes in oats). An extreme intolerance to gluten is called celiac disease. When people with celiac eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the villi— little fingerlike protrusions that line the small intestine and allow nutrients from food to be absorbed through the small intestine into the bloodstream.
This is bad news. Without healthy villi, a person becomes malnourished. And though symptoms of celiac disease vary from person to person, the list of conditions caused by celiac is pretty grim. It includes abdominal bloating and pain, chronic diarrhea, unexplained iron-deficiency anemia, fatigue, arthritis, joint pain, depression, and a whole lot of other nasty symptoms.
About 1 in 133 people have full blown celiac, but here’s the problem. Like many health issues—blood pressure and insulin sensitivity and carbohydrate intolerance—reactions to gluten exist on a continuum. Celiac disease may be the diagnosable “end point” but there are plenty of people who have major problems with gluten. Those problems don’t necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for celiac but they are pretty darn serious and pretty darn difficult to live with nonetheless.
Dr. Shari Lieberman, in her superb book, The Gluten Connection, suggests that gluten sensitivity can be a factor in a bakers dozen of conditions from neurological disorders to skin diseases. Anyone who has ever seen the great neurologist David (Grain Brain) Perlmutter will never forget the video of a severely handicapped young man who couldn’t stand without shaking uncontrollably, followed by a video of the same young man, completely able to walk and talk normally, six months after Perlmutter put him on a gluten-free diet.
The symptoms of wheat or gluten intolerance aren’t just physical, by the way.
One component of gluten called gliadin breaks down to a substance called gluteomorphin, an opiod peptide that passes into the brain and disrupts brain function. Davis suggests that gluteomorphin may be the reason why wheat products can be addictive for many people.
Is gluten-free for you?
I did a video interview with Dr. Tom O’Bryan, who is my go-to guy for anything related to gluten, gluten-sensitivity, or gluten-intolerance. An expert in functional medicine—which studies how everything in the body works together— Dr. O’Bryan went around the world interviewing the top academic experts in gluten intolerance. He assembled his findings in a fascinating program called The Gluten Summit, which is probably one of the most popular and successful educational programs ever marketed on the internet. You can check it out here.
If you suffer with all kinds of weird symptoms whose cause you just can’t figure out, you might want to consider that the culprit might be gluten. Gluten-free foods are available everywhere, and certainly are worth a try, but remember that just because a food is “gluten free” does not mean it’s healthy.
As William Davis, MD, says, in his brilliant book, Wheat Belly, it’s better to be gluten free than to eat gluten free. There are thousands of natural, unprocessed, Paleo-centric foods that are already gluten-free—they come that way! Gluten-free processed foods have a lot of crap in them, and they’re filled with a lot of substitute ingredients that may be almost as bad for you as the ingredient they replace.
If you’re at all interested in the subject of gluten-sensitivity—either for yourself or for a family member or loved one—I urge you to check back on Wednesday to watch to my short video interview with Dr. O’Bryan. You can also read Dr. O’Bryan’s guest blog here later this week.