To paraphrase a bumper sticker I recently saw, if you haven’t heard of gluten allergy, you haven’t been paying attention. On a more serious note, I and many other physicians believe gluten allergy is a silent epidemic in this country. If you have not heard of it, you need to. It is very possible that you are one of many people currently allergic to gluten that doesn’t know it, and your body may be paying the price!
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in most grains, but it is the gluten in wheat, barley, and rye that causes the most problems with allergy. Gluten is by its nature hard to digest. To add to the digestion problem, the food industry over the last 50 years has both increased the amount of gluten present in wheat, and also chemically modified it as part of an industrial process to use it as an additive in other foods. The modified version of gluten is even more allergenic than regular gluten.
When gluten is ingested, it is broken down into a number of products, the most common of which is gliadin. There are a number of different forms of gliadin, all of which have the potential to cause the immune system to form antibodies against them if they are absorbed into the blood stream.
Normally, the process of digestion breaks down proteins in the food we eat into individual amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) or at the most, small proteins with two to three amino acids in them. Those are easily absorbed and after some chemical processing are used as fuel for the body and building blocks for muscle.
The problem with the gluten break down products are their size. The largest form of gliadin has 33 amino acids in it, much larger than the 1-3 amino acid size of normally digested protein. If these abnormally large proteins accidentally make their way into the blood stream through small, microscopic openings in the bowel wall, the immune system mistakenly believes they are foreign invaders, such as microbes, and mounts an attack by creating antibodies against them and by activating cells specifically designed by the immune system to attack and destroy foreign invaders.
The results can be fairly severe, even as you may be totally unaware of what’s going on inside you. The first immune responders are the cells which attack the unknown foreign proteins. They release chemicals called cytokines in an effort to ‘kill’ the foreign invader, and to call other immune cells to come and assist in the attack. These chemicals are very powerful and can begin to damage the wall of the bowel, and other tissues as well. Their effect is to cause ‘inflammation’ of the bowel wall.
The damaged wall of the bowel now has even more holes in it which can allow even more gluten breakdown products into the blood stream, and a vicious cycle ensues. This condition is called a ‘leaky gut‘ and is a major contributor to gluten allergy problems.
Once your immune system develops antibodies against gluten, it only takes a tiny amount of wheat in the diet to maintain a constant firestorm of inflammation in the bowel and elsewhere in the body. People who are unfortunate enough to have a gluten allergy need to completely stop the ingestion of all wheat products and other food items that often contain gluten, like soy sauce and beer.
The video above is by the company that I use to test my patients for gluten allergies. It’s scientific advisor, Dr. Aristo Vojdani, PH.D., M.T., is one of the leading authorities on the immunology of gluten.
Gluten and Auto-immune Disease
So what happens if someone has a gluten allergy and doesn’t know it? Other than the direct effects of the allergy such as bowel inflammation, there are numerous auto-immune diseases which have been shown to be directly related to the ingestion of gluten. The most well known of these is celiac disease, a condition of inflammation of the bowel resulting in mild to severe gastrointestinal problems.
Celiac disease, however, is just the tip of the gluten induced auto-immune iceberg. It is estimated that for every one person with celiac disease, there are eight others with conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (the most common cause of low thyroid in this country), Type 1 diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, psoriasis, idiopathic interstitial lung disease, cerebellar ataxia, and neurologic diseases mimicking or actually related to Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and multiple sclerosis. Most of these conditions are not caused only by the ingestion of gluten. All of them have a combination of many different causes or contributing events, such as genetics, environmental toxins, etc., but gluten has been shown to be a major contributor in many of them.
I will be talking about gluten allergy in other posts, but this should be enough to get you started. If you weren’t aware of gluten allergy before, don’t be surprised if you start noticing articles and people talking about it everywhere. It’s big, and it’s a serious problem!